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Incoming undergraduate students at Quebec universities are poorly versed in basic research skills, according to a survey conducted by Library and Information Studies Professor Diane Mittermeyer.
The information literacy survey was mailed out to over 5,000 students accepted into Quebec universities, and was comissioned by the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities (CREPUQ). Fourteen universities took part, including McGill. The project is the only one of its kind to encompass a state- or province-wide jurisdiction.
Students were asked 20 multiple-choice questions, grouped in four themes. These were concept identification, research strategy, evaluation of types of documents, search tools and use of results.
"The most striking result is that out of 20 questions, 11 had a success rate of 36 percent or less," said Mittermeyer.
The survey grew out of a meeting of the CREPUQ working group on libraries in 2000. University librarians had suspected that incoming students did not know how to properly conduct information searches. Mittermeyer offered to head a study to confirm or deny these impressions. Over the course of the next two years, Mittermeyer and the eight or nine information literacy librarians narrowed down the survey questions to 20. The registrars' offices of participating universities provided a random sample of 10 percent of incoming students (Université de Montréal provided the addresses for 30 percent). The pool of survey recipients was limited to those residing within Canada for considerations of time and money.
An incentive to respond was given in the form of a draw to win a desktop computer and a PalmPilot, donated by Hewlett-Packard and U de M, respectively. The response rate was about 56 percent, or about 3,000 surveys returned — excellent considering that they were mailed out in July of 2002.
The poor showing is of definite concern to McGill, said Frances Groen, Trenhome director of Libraries.
"We need to do a lot of work for our incoming undergraduate students — they are not equipped to use the McGill University libraries," said Groen.
Groen said the survey results have implications for staffing as well. The libraries will need to have staff on hand who are willing and able to help students adapt to the research library environment.
In order to ensure that students are improving in their research knowledge and skills, Groen said the library will be conducting a survey to measure students' information literacy as they progress through their degree.
Mittermeyer was pleased with the return rate, and also with the number of comments that came back with the surveys — enough to fill 56 single-spaced pages.
"Many said thank you, and many acknowledged that it opened their eyes to how little they knew," she said.
The research weaknesses of incoming students are many. For instance, very few understood the Boolean operator "or," and not many knew to look to scholarly journals as a source of information. Many understood the internet search engines like Google, but were not strong at sorting information out.
"One group would go to the web and take what they find. They were not aware that if they had defined their need better they would find information that was more appropriate," said Mittermeyer.
It is possible — even likely — that many students do not pick up these skills as they progress in their university careers. This means that in the job marketplace, students will be unable to meet the demands of the information economy. It is also likely that some will continue on into graduate studies without these skills. Though it might be tempting to blame the CEGEP and high school systems for failing to teach students these skills, it is not productive, and that is why Mittermeyer would like to see universities rethink the way students are taught research skills.
"To have a policy that stated that every discipline have a course that required information literacy would be a darn good step," said Mittermeyer.
Although university libraries already run workshops on research skills, unless students are forced to use them within the context of their field of study, they are less than effective.
"They must be relevant, and integrated with content and discipline," she said.
Professors and information literacy specialists could team up, she said, to create assignments that would require students to hit the journals and other resources.
Mittermeyer said that one objection to this that she often hears is that students in the sciences don't need to do research —their work is based on formulas, theories and techniques. However, Mittermeyer said that this attitude fails the students, who may very well continue into graduate work or go on into industry, where they will be required to keep up with new developments in their field.
Mittermeyer has a number of areas to follow up on. She would like to follow a group of CEGEP students through their two-year program to measure the growth of their information literacy, and possibly follow up through their university careers. In fact, she has already teamed up with Associate Director (Information Technology Services) Diane Koen of the McGill library system and Laura Winer, senior educational technologist (Office of the Deputy Provost and Chief Information Officer), and the three are in the early stages of planning a study that would survey and measure McGill students' information literacy growth (or lack thereof) throughout their undergraduate careers. Ideally Mittermeyer would like to track them into the job market as well.