Library Notes for Political Science

Teaching resources, news, and links to keep McGill’s Political Scientists informed

Undergrads and information seeking

Posted by Megan on December 5, 2010

Those who are preparing to teach in upcoming semesters might be interested in recent findings from Project Information Literacy (PIL), an ongoing research project based in the University of Washington’s Information School.

The large scale study explores “how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and “everyday life” use and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency in the digital age.”

Obviously, this has enormous implications for those who teach undergraduates and help them with their assignments.

A recent part of the project was to investigate assignment handouts that are given to students. An article by Barbara Fister in Inside Higher Ed sums up some findings:

“What they found in a nutshell is that assignments describe in detail what the finished product should look like – how many pages, how wide the margins – but not so much about how to turn a topic into a research question or how to make good choices among sources. A majority of the prompts recommended the use of the library – with 60 percent recommending that students find resources on the library’s shelves. Another 43 percent suggested students use library databases, though most didn’t recommend which ones would be most productive. Around a quarter of the assignments discussed finding information on the Web.


All of this is particularly interesting in view of what the research project had previously found about students and their research habits. They pore over the assignment, trying to interpret what the instructor wants; virtually all students use the Web for resources, and nearly all use library databases, but not many go to the library shelves. They avoid being overwhelmed by options by using the same databases for most of their research needs, whether or not it’s appropriate for the discipline or not. And for the most part, they don’t turn to librarians for help, except when looking for search terms; librarians turn out to be a kind of babel fish for scholarly discourse. Though in interviews, faculty described the ways the librarians provided support for their students, the vast majority did not mention librarians as a resource in their assignments.”

And for those who are currently planning assignments for upcoming semesters, PIL researchers further offer these provocative statements:

In our study, we found that original, highly structured, problem-based research assignments encourage students to dig deeper. Such assignments might include real-world case studies, multimedia projects or team-based empirical research. They also demand far more of students than the classic term paper.

These highly-structured assignments stretch professors as well, encouraging them to teach research skills.

The results are graduates more capable of conducting research, applying information, and making more thoughtful, sophisticated judgments.

The video below gives a brief, general overview of the PIL research findings thus far.

Fister, Barbara. “Assignments: Being Clear about What Matters.” Library Babel Fish blog, Inside Higher Ed, July 22, 2010,

Eisenberg, Michael and Alison J. Head. “Add “Research” to Education’s Traditional Three Rs.” The Seattle Times, May 2, 2009,


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