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Originally published Friday, June 3, 2011 at 1:58 PM

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Guest columnist

College students eager to learn but need help negotiating information overload

Guest columnists Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg push back on the prevailing idea that today's college students are slackers. Rather, these researchers argue that colleges must retool to help young people learn the skills to negotiate the vast amount of information at their disposal.

Special to The Times

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AS another academic year draws to a close, college students are once again getting bad marks.

Seems like everywhere you turn — in a stream of new books, blogs, newspaper stories and broadcasts — the same story is being reported: Today's students don't study much. Many are unrepentant slackers, tethered to Facebook and their smartphones on their way to another party. Even worse: Today's college students lack critical-thinking skills, leaving them unprepared for the workplace.

Reports from campus front lines, especially from professor-authors, present the most comprehensive — and damning — arguments.

For example, the newly released "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," by sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found almost half — 45 percent — of the 2,300 students they studied "demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college."

In "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future," Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, concludes, "the intellectual future of the United States looks dim."

While our own research findings from the University of Washington's Project Information Literacy Study have confirmed today's college students struggle, our ongoing study adds another dimension to what is going on in the academy.

All is not lost! Most of the students we studied across all types of higher-education institutions in the U.S. still attend college to learn, but many are afraid of getting lost in a thicket of information overload they cannot dodge.

Our research tells us information literacy is a critical component of the larger concerns facing higher-education institutions today, along with challenges of multiculturalism, massive budget cuts, helicopter parents, grade inflation, limitations of K-12 education and preparation for college, and adapting to an ever-changing information-technology landscape.

Since 2008, we have been studying the information-literacy skills of students — the ability to recognize when information is needed, then locate, evaluate and put that information to effective use. As information scientists, we believe these skills are essential to critical thinking, lifelong learning and succeeding in life, the work force and in a democratic society.

We surveyed and interviewed more than 10,000 U.S. students at 31 U.S. colleges and universities, including undergraduates enrolled at UW, Harvard, Ohio State University, University of Michigan and community colleges, such as Shoreline Community College. We found no matter where students are enrolled, no matter what information resources they have at their disposal, and no matter how much time they have, the abundance of information technology and the proliferation of digital information resources have made research uniquely paradoxical.

Information is now as infinite as the universe, but finding the answers needed is harder than ever.

Our ongoing research confirms proficiency in information problem solving is urgent, given the dauntingly vast and complex wilderness of information available digitally. As one student in humanities said during one of our focus groups, "What's so frustrating to me about conducting research is the more you know, the more you realize how little you know — it's depressing, frustrating and suffocating."

When we surveyed undergraduates last spring in a large-scale survey, eight in 10 of our 8,353 respondents reported having overwhelming difficulty even starting research assignments and determining the nature and scope of what was expected of them.

Nearly half of the students in our survey sample experienced nagging uncertainty about how to conclude and assess the quality of their research efforts. They struggled with the same frustrating open-endedness whether they were researching something for a college course or in their personal lives.

Almost every student surveyed used a risk-averse and consistent strategy that closes the aperture of information available in order to cope. Many respondents reported relying on the same few tried and true resources — course readings, Google, library databases, instructors and Wikipedia — to control the staggering amount information available.

This strategy, of course, underscores the gap between the plethora of Web sources and rich information campus libraries make available to students and the sources students actually use: a limited toolbox of familiar sources, which infrequently includes consulting a librarian or, in many cases, even going to the campus library at all.

While these findings are truly concerning — we would argue they are not entirely damning.

In fact, we found a gaping chasm between some of the widespread assumptions about today's students and what students themselves hold important about learning.

In our last survey, more than three-fourths of our total sample of students — 78 percent — reported it was important to learn something new and conduct comprehensive research about a topic — along with the tangible rewards of passing a course, finishing an assignment and earning a good grade.

This finding squarely counters the conventional wisdom that characterizes students as worthless slackers.

Problems do not begin or end with students. Many — not all — educators are failing to teach students how to navigate a vast wilderness of information — to discern what they can trust, edit out what is unnecessary, redundant or unreliable, and focus on what they really need.

As one engineering student explained, "None of the old-timers — the old professors — can really give us much advice on sorting through and evaluating resources ... we're kind of one of the first generations to have too much information, as opposed to too little."

We argue evaluation, interpretation and synthesis are the key competencies of the 21st century. These information-literacy skills allow us to find what we need, filter out what we do not and chart a course in an ever-expanding frontier of information. Information literacy is the essential skill set that cuts across all disciplines and professions.

It is time for many educators to stop lamenting about "these kids today" and retool and prioritize the learning of skills for solving information problems if students are to learn and master critical thinking at all. Or, as one student in social sciences we interviewed told us, "College is about knowing how to look at a problem in multiple ways and how to think about it analytically — now, that's something I'll use in my life."

Alison J. Head, left, and Michael B. Eisenberg are the co-principal investigators and co-directors of Project Information Literacy, which is based in the University of Washington Information School.
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