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Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College

Another important study from Alison Head:

Head, Alison J. Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College Seattle, WA: Project Information Literacy, 5 December 2013.(


This paper presents findings about the challenges today’s college freshmen face, and the information-seeking strategies they develop, use, and adapt as they make the transition from high school to college and begin to complete college-level research assignments. Included are data from a comparative analysis of library resources in 30 US high school and 6 college and university libraries; interviews with 35 first – term freshmen from 6 US colleges and universities; and an online survey with 1,941US high school and college student respondents.  Findings indicate a majority of freshmen find it difficult to effectively search academic library portals.  To a lesser extent, they struggle with reading and comprehending scholarly materials once they are able to find them and have trouble figuring out faculty expectations for course research assignments. Taken together, our findings suggest the Google-centric search skills that freshmen bring from high school only get them so far with finding and using trusted sources they need for fulfilling college research assignments. Moreover, many freshmen appeared to be unfamiliar with how academic libraries and the vast array of digital resources they provide can best meet their needs. Included are recommendations for how campus-wide stakeholders — librarians, faculty, and administrators — can work together when instructing freshmen to be better researchers.

The major findings are as follows:

“1) Once freshmen began to conduct research in college for assignments, they soon discovered that their college library was far larger and more complex than their high school library had been. The average college library in our sample had 19 times as many online library databases and 9 times as many books and journals as the average high school library.

2) It was daunting to conduct online searches for academic literature. Nearly three – fourths of the sample (74%) said they struggled with selecting keywords and formulating efficient search queries. Over half (57%) felt stymied by the thicket of irrelevant results their online searches usually returned.

3) Learning to navigate their new and complex digital and print landscape plagued most of the freshmen in our sample (51%).  And once they had their sources in hand, more than two-fifths of the freshmen (43%) said they had trouble making sense of, and tying together, all the information they had found.

4) Most freshmen said their research competencies from high school were inadequate for college work. As they wrapped up their first term, freshmen said they realized they needed to upgrade their research toolkit.

5) Many freshmen were in the process of trading out Google searches that satisfied high school assignments for searching online library databases that their college research papers now required. Yet other students said they still relied on their deeply ingrained habit of using Google searches and Wikipedia, a practice that had been acceptable for research papers in high school.

6) In the short time they had been on campus, a majority of first-term freshmen said they had already developed some adaptive strategies for shoring up their high school research skills. Most often, this meant they were becoming accustomed to reading academic journal articles.  Some had discovered the usefulness of abstracts to save time and help them make selections.

7) Freshmen said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research. They helped students chart a plan for tapping the wealth of research resources available through the library and formulating a thesis for their papers.

8) By the end of their first year in college, many freshmen appeared to have begun using the same kind of information resources that college sophomores, juniors, and seniors were already using, according to the results of our national survey conducted as part of this study.”


Posted on: January 6, 2014, 10:48 am Category: Uncategorized