Undergraduate Students’ Research and Information Skills Continue to Change in their Second Year

Kimberly Miller


A Review of:
Hulseberg, A., & Twait, M. (2016). Sophomores speaking: An exploratory study of student research practices. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 23(2), 130-150. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2014.981907


Objective – To understand sophomore undergraduate students’ research practices.

Design – Mixed methods online survey and participant interviews.

Setting – A small liberal arts college in the Midwestern United States of America.

Subjects – The sample consisted of 660 second-year students; 139 students responded to the survey (21% response rate). In-depth interviews were conducted with 13 of the 139 survey respondents.

Methods – A 13-item survey was emailed to sophomore students during October 2012. To analyze the results, the authors and a library student intern developed a coding scheme to apply to open-ended survey questions.

Survey respondents could also volunteer for in-depth interviews. A total of 50 survey respondents volunteered, and 14 were invited for in-depth interviews between December 2012 and January 2013. The interview protocol included open-ended questions about students’ research experiences. Students were also asked to identify and discuss one recent research project. Interviews were audio and video recorded; data from one interview was lost due to technology failure, resulting in data analysis of 13 interviews. Interview transcripts were coded by an anthropology doctoral student, the study authors, and a library student assistant.

Main Results – The survey found that students completed fewer research projects and used fewer library resources as sophomores than they did as first-year students. For example, only 4.9% (n=7) of students reported completing zero research assignments in their first year, compared with 34.5% (n=48) in their second year. When asked if there were library resources or skills they wanted to know about sooner in their academic career, students’ top reply was “Nothing” (34.5%, n=48), followed by “Navigating the physical space” (15.8%, n=22), “Librarians/staff & reference desk” (11.5%, n=16), and “Effective searching & evaluating sources” (10.8%, n=15). Male and female students’ responses differed, with male students less likely overall to express interest in library resources. While 42.4% (n=59) of students replied that they would consult with a librarian for help with their research projects, this option ranked third after professors (83.5%, n=116) and peers (70.5%, n=98). Again, responses varied by gender, with female students (49.5%, n=49) more likely than male students (26.3%, n=10) to contact a librarian about a research project.

Most interview participants replied that searching online, including library resources, was their research starting point. Students most often selected research topics, based on their interest, from a professor-approved list. Students identified “relevant content, familiarity . . . , and credibility” (p. 138) as important source evaluation characteristics. The majority of students also used library information sources in their research, including databases, research guides, and the catalogue. Students most often mentioned struggling with “finding sources/identifying keywords” (n=6) and “finding known items” (n=6). Unlike survey respondents, interview participants unanimously reported consulting with a librarian. Most students (n=11) received library instruction as first-year students, and some suggested that this instruction helped them feel comfortable asking for help. Finally, most students felt that their research habits improved from their first year to their second year, specifically with regards to “their research technique, improved confidence . . . and an expanded source horizon” (p. 143).

Conclusion – The authors recommend continuing strong information literacy support to first-year students, as well as working with faculty members and other campus partners to promote reference services to sophomores. When compared to previous research, the current study reports a higher percentage of students seeking librarian assistance; however, because some students also reported confusion about when and how to ask for help, further analysis could explore how reference librarians capitalize on peer and faculty “referral networks” (p. 145). Finding that students face significant challenges early in the research process was consistent with previous research, and future study might reveal more about this specific phenomenon in sophomores. Interviews should also be extended to include students who are non-library users. Finally, the authors suggest that the findings provide no evidence of a “sophomore information literacy slump” (p. 146).


sophomores; information literacy; research skills

Full Text:


DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18438/B8V041

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