Studies of Research: “I’d Say It’s Good Progress”

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

I spent some time recently answering some of the questions that came up about my presentation at the ACRL 2019 Conference in Cleveland way back in…wow, April. Now that all of that is done, I want to change the focus a little to other presentations and papers that came from that conference. Specifically, ones that focus on the study of research.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the cool things about the study of research is that it’s already out there, in so many forms and in so many fields (not just library and information science!), even if that’s not what the researchers doing this work would necessarily call it. I saw a lot of examples in the ACRL Conference program and I hope the researchers whose work I plan to talk about for this series don’t mind that I’ll be applying that label to what they do, but in each case I’ll try to make it clear why I’m doing that.

So let’s take a closer look at “I’d Say It’s Good Progress: An Ecological Momentary Assessment of Student Research Habits” by Emily Crist, Sean Leahy, and Alan Carbery.

Recording student research behaviors in real time

Crist, Leahy, and Carbery’s presentation was one that I got a chance to see in person at the conference and I was really fascinated by their methodology. Which is to say, there are lot of studies out there about student research habits. But, as the authors point out, many of those studies rely on students’ reflections after the fact (or on observed behavior that is likely influenced by said observation). But memories aren’t always accurate, which means that the information we glean from these reflections, while useful, can also contain the natural biases of memory.

To address this, the authors attempted to capture student research habits in something closer to real time. Each night, the students would receive a survey asking them whether they had worked on the research project they had been assigned that day. If they had, they would be asked to record which tasks they had worked on from a list of choices. They were also asked to identify cues that prompted them to work on their research and barriers that kept them from it.

You might think that the daily survey would have an effect on students’ behavior such that they might feel more obligated to do their work if they knew they would have to fill out a survey later, but the results show that even with the survey, students had far more days where they didn’t work on their research than days where they did, which would seem to indicate that this wasn’t the case. The use of this methodology has led to some really useful insight.

 

Students: they’re just like us, mostly

The authors’ study had many interesting findings, but the ones that I noted were these: the thing most likely to keep students from research was lack of time due to other academic or work commitments and priorities. The thing most likely to get them to work on their research was an assignment due date.

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about how research is contextual and how the methods and expectations are going to be different depending on the goals and motivations of the research and blah blah blah. But there are some things that all research processes have in common and I think this is one of them. Even I, a grown ass adult on the tenure track for whom job security depended on my ability to produce research, struggled with finding time to do the work when other priorities were calling to me and no matter what productivity hacks I used, there was no motivation more reliable than a looming deadline.

Come to think of it, a daily survey asking me to report on the research I had done that day would have been a major boost to my productivity by building in an illusion of accountability. But like the students, I probably still would have had more days where I wasn’t productive with my research and writing than ones where I was.

The thing is, we don’t tell students this stuff. We tell them to start early, to break their task into manageable chunks, to leave themselves time to polish their work. Which is all good advice but I wonder if students would be more honest about their own struggles with the research process if they knew that we struggled with it too? And not just the productivity aspects, either, but the process itself, from figuring out your topic to deciding which sources to use and in what way to cite them. All of it. What if instead of telling them that research is a lifelong learning process, we actually showed them?

I know not everyone would be up for that. Authority in the classroom can be difficult enough to establish, particularly if you are a member of a minority group (or more than one). But it’s interesting to know that students as novice researchers and I as more of an expert struggle with some of the same things.

 

The study of research

As Crist, Leahy, and Carbery point out in their paper, it’s important for information literacy instructors in particular to understand how students actually do research in part so that we can plan our instruction around their actual needs rather than what we imagine their needs to be. I would argue that studies like this also help us understand why something like the ACRL Standards is useful as a teaching tool but not really a reflection of how research actually works, much less information literacy. The Framework talks a lot about the differences between how novices/developing researchers and expert researchers approach the research process. If we’re going to talk this way, then we need to actually examine the behaviors of these groups and academic research happens to be a context where it’s theoretically easy to identify which is which. That’s why a study of research like this is so valuable to potential conversations about the contextual nature of research.

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