Things They Carry
Geffert, Bryn, Christensen, Beth, Reference & User Services Quarterly
Attitudes toward, Opinions about, and Knowledge of Libraries and Research among Incoming College Students
This article uses information gathered from a short quiz and questionnaire administered to 521 incoming students in order to examine their attitudes toward, opinions about, and knowledge of libraries and research. The data analysis uncovered meaningful correlations between students' performance and high school class size, gender, grade point average, and previous experience with library research. No significant correlation was discovered between students' test scores and their levels of self-confidence, comfort in libraries, or self-assessment of library skills. The findings both reinforce and contradict stereotypical assumptions about incoming students and provide information that can be used when modeling programs of bibliographic instruction.
What do incoming college students know bout libraries? What do they believe, and hat prejudices do they carry? How confident are they in their research skills? What experiences do they have, and what bearing do these experiences have on capabilities and confidence levels?
These questions rarely have been posed in the library literature. Although several studies chart the development of library research skills during students' four years of college, there is scant literature examining incoming attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. For bibliographic instruction and reference services to be truly effective, it is essential to know more about the attitudes and skills that incoming students bring with them as they first encounter our libraries.
In an attempt to ascertain student attitudes toward, opinions about, and knowledge of libraries and research, St. Olaf College librarians administered a survey to incoming students during orientation week in September 1996 (see the appendix). The survey included a short knowledge test as well as questions about students' previous experience with libraries, including the amount of time spent in libraries, number of research papers written, and types of reference materials used. It also asked students to rate their competencies and confidence levels with various types of research tools.
In order to examine correlations between competencies (both tested and self-assessed) and various other factors, the questionnaire also asked students about reading habits, television viewing, previous experience with library instruction, and planned majors.
All incoming St. Olaf students participate in a week of orientation before first-semester classes begin.(2) During this orientation week junior counselors from each dormitory are expected to bring first-year students to the library for an hour of orientation. In the fall of 1996, 67 percent of the freshman class, or 521 of 769 students, participated in library tours.
Surveys were administered as the first item of business, before students received walking tours of the libraries, heard talks by librarians, or received any introduction to the online system. This sequence, we hoped, would provide a clear sense of incoming attitudes and knowledge, before students had received any instruction or advice.
The first component of the survey was a short "test" that measured students' basic skills and general knowledge of library materials and functions, i.e., bibliographies, Boolean operators, the scope of subject headings, citation formats, distinctions between primary and secondary sources, and differences between academic journals and popular magazines. In addition to the test, the students were also questioned about their previous library experience, academic background, reading habits, and general attitudes toward libraries. Questions and corresponding tables are listed below. Results of the survey can be found in the appendix.
What student characteristics may (or may not) be relevant to library attitudes and competencies? The variables examined were high school grade point average (GPA), size of graduating class, expected major, number of books read over the summer (see table 1), and hours of television watched per week (see table 2). Correlations between these characteristics and other factors are discussed below.
How many books did you read this summer?
No. of Books % of Readers 6+ 25 5 11 4 9 3 17 2 16 1 12 0 10
On average, how many hours of television did you watch a week during the school year?
Range of Hours % of Viewers 15+ 2 11-15 3 6-10 18 1-5 66 0 11
Experience with Libraries
What exposure have high school students had to libraries? How often do they use them (see table 3)? Did their high schools have libraries? Do they enjoy unstructured browsing (see table 4)? How much and what types of research have they conducted (see tables 5, 6, and 7)? Did they have any bibliographic instruction in high school (see tables 8 and 9)? Did they find it helpful (i.e., what attitudes toward instruction might they bring to college)?
On average, how often did you visit a library during the past year?
Frequency of Visits % of Visitors Never 1 Once a year 1 Every 6-8 months 3 Every 3-4 months 11 Every month 21 Twice a month 29 Weekly 29 Daily 5
How much do you enjoy just wandering/ sitting around libraries, exploring or reading anything that strikes your fancy?
Frequency % of Browsers Not at all 2 Not much 18 Somewhat 53 Very much 27
Did you write any research papers your senior year of high school?
Yes No 88 12
If [you did write research papers your senior year], how many?
No. of Papers % of Writers 4+ 28 3 16 2 27 1 29
How many sources did you cite in the longest paper you wrote?
No. of Citations % of Writers 16+ 11 11-15 20 6-10 47 1-5 21 0 1
Did a librarian ever talk to one of your high school classes about library research skills?
Yes No 79 21
If [a librarian talked to one of your high school classes], how many times?
No. of Times % of Classes 4+ 19 3 11 2 30 1 40
What types of research tools have students used (see figure 1)? For example, how did they search their high school libraries' catalogs? Which reference tools (encyclopedias, thesauri, indexes, bibliographies) have they encountered?
[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
What exposure have students had to the electronic tools, such as gopher, e-mail, news groups, listservs, and the World Wide Web (see figure 1)? We were especially curious about student attitudes toward the Internet, particularly with regard to libraries. Do students believe the Internet is more or less reliable than an academic library (see table 10)? Do they believe the Internet will make libraries obsolete (see table 11)?
Compared with books and articles in an academic library, how reliable in general do you consider material found on the Internet?
Reliability % of Responses More reliable 8 Equally reliable 61 Less reliable 31
Do you believe that eventually the. Internet will largely replace libraries?
Range of possibility % of Responses Definitely 4 Probably 22 50/50 chance 28 Probably not 41 Definitely not 5
Professed Comfort Levels
Regardless of scores on the test and exposure to various tools, how comfortable did students feel using various tools and conducting various tasks (see figure 2)? Were these comfort levels based on levels of experience with libraries, overall skill, proposed major, or gender?
[Figure 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The test results were then analyzed using the Pearson, Likelihood Ratio, and Mantel-Haenszel tests for statistical significance. We were interested in determining what characteristics, attitudes, or experiences corresponded to others and what effect, if any, these may have had on students' performance on the exam. What assumptions, we wondered, might one make about research competencies based upon student opinions, exposure to research and library tools, gender, GPA, self-assessed competencies, and professed comfort levels?
Between Test Scores and Self-Confidence
No statistically significant correlation was found between professed comfort levels in libraries and student scores on the skills test. However, when the cumulative test scores were compared with professed comfort levels in eleven different areas, we found Pearson chi-square to be a strong .29869. Interestingly, more students rated themselves "very" or "somewhat comfortable" using subject headings, subject bibliographies, and interlibrary loan than actually reported using them (see figure 3). In other words, there appears to be little relationship between self-confidence and knowledge of several basic library concepts.
[Figure 3 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
This raised a number of challenging questions. How important are the concepts that were examined in the questionnaire's short test? Can a student make good use of a library without recognizing a bibliography, an academic journal, a primary source, or a citation to a journal article? Have students used these tools effectively without knowing the correct terminology for such types of reference sources?
The results also draw into question the premise that we can base assessments of student research competencies upon students' professed skills. If we take our knowledge test as a reliable indicator of research competencies, the answer must be no. Such a conclusion may call into question portions of an earlier study on bibliographic skills among St. Olaf seniors, which relied heavily on self-assessment.
The lack of correlation between self-assessed skills and self-confidence also raises questions about reference service and bibliographic instruction. Do students feel overly confident and unwilling to approach the reference desk when they may indeed require help? Do they recognize that they have questions? Our limited results seem to support such concerns. Similarly, does overconfidence limit the effect of bibliographic instruction? Do reference librarians probe sufficiently beneath a veneer of self-assurance that may or may not have a foundation in actual skills?
Between Test Scores and Other Factors
Not surprisingly, the students who were more likely to score well on the test:
* professed to enjoy library research (Pearson chi-square .02590)
* wrote research papers in high school (Pearson chi-square .00624)
* had used interlibrary loan (Pearson chi-square .02453) * had used a gopher (Pearson chi-square .01274)
* had a high GPA (Pearson chi-square .00187)
Equally interesting and somewhat perplexing are those areas in which we could find no statistically significant correlations with test results:
* frequency of library use
* enjoyment spending nonresearch time in libraries
* self-assessment of overall research skills
* number (if any) of talks by a high school librarian
* comfort in approaching a college reference librarian
Nor was there any correlation between test scores and experience with the majority of research tools listed on the survey. Students who scored well were no more likely than others to have used a card catalog, a microfiche catalog, Encyclopaedia Britannica, subject bibliographies, paper indexes, electronic indexes, the World Wide Web, news groups, or listservs.
Between GPA and Other Factors
We found clear correlations between high school grade point average and several factors. Those with high GPAs were more likely to:
* believe material on the Internet is less reliable than material in academic libraries (Pearson chi-square .00259--see section on the Internet, below)
* enjoy unstructured time in libraries (Pearson chi-square .00223)
* have cited more sources in high school research papers (Pearson chi-square .02061)
* have used interlibrary loan (Pearson chi-square .03081)
* have used news groups (Pearson chi-square .01382)
* be female (Pearson chi-square .00001--see the section on gender, below)
Nonetheless, students with high GPAs were no more likely to spend time in libraries.
No clear correlations between GPA and confidence levels were uncovered. Students with high GPAs were more likely to think they could identify the thesis of a book or article, but they were no more likely to rate themselves highly in any of the other ten self-assessed competencies.
Between Internet Use and Confidence in the Internet
There was a strong correlation between high scores on the test and a healthy suspicion of material on the Internet. Those who scored well on the test were far less likely to believe that information on the Internet is as consistently reliable as more traditional reference sources found in academic libraries (Pearson chi-square .00259). They were also less likely to believe that the Internet will eventually replace libraries (Pearson chi-square .03234). Such findings, we suspect, reflect greater critical thinking skills among those who are more familiar with basic library concepts. There was also a significant correlation (.04396) between higher student GPAs and skepticism about the quality of information on the Internet.
At the same time, students with higher GPAs were no less likely to believe that the Internet will replace libraries. However, no correlation was found between reported use of the World Wide Web and student beliefs about the reliability of Web material or about whether the Internet will replace libraries. This raises an interesting question. Why do so many students--even those with exposure to the Web--place such trust in so much uncontrolled and nonrefereed material? Librarians in coming years must address these assumptions. We must develop a program to educate students about evaluating the relevance and reliability of material and about the scholarly publication process.
Between High School Size and Other Factors
Students from large high schools come to college with several advantages. They are more likely to have:
* heard a talk on research from a high school librarian (Pearson chi-square .00711)
* used an online catalog to search their high school's library (Pearson chi-square .00000)
* used subject bibliographies (Pearson chi-square .03211)
* searched electronic periodical indexes (Pearson chi-square .00620)
* used interlibrary loan (Pearson chi-square .00792)
None of these observations should surprise us, given that larger schools often have access to more resources.
Between Gender and Other Factors
Many of the test results conformed to conventionally held views of male and female students and their traditional areas of interest and vocation. Female students were more likely than males to:
* enjoy browsing in libraries (83 percent versus 71.2 percent of male students)
* have read five or more books over the summer (43 percent versus 19 percent of male students)
* admit to watching television no more than five hours per week (82.7 percent versus 66.3 percent of male students)
* be less comfortable using electronic indexes (56.6 percent expressed some degree of discomfort versus 44.5 percent of males)
* think there was a fifty-fifty chance the Internet will replace libraries (33.5 percent versus 17.5 percent)
By contrast, male students were more likely than females to:
* feel comfortable using electronic journal indexes (55.3 percent versus 43.4 percent)
* use the World Wide Web (56.6 percent versus 46.7 percent of female students)
* use news groups (20.6 percent versus 8.9 percent of female students)
* have definite opinions about whether the Internet will replace libraries (7.8 percent answered "definitely," 25.3 percent answered "probably," and 42.8 percent answered "probably not." Only 17.5 percent thought there was a fifty-fifty chance.)
* watch television more than six hours per week during high school (33.7 percent versus 17.3 percent of female students)
One of the most dramatic contrasts in gender response, however, was the correlation between confidence levels and performance on the exam. Although women students had significantly higher high school GPAs than their male counterparts, performed better on the short exam, and generally enjoyed being in libraries more, they were less likely to rate their overall library skills and abilities as highly as the male students. This supports general research suggesting that male and female students apply different perceptions to their own abilities. Women students often underestimate themselves, while their male counterparts show a tendency to overrate their own work We must consider gender differences as we attempt to provide equal educational opportunities in both bibliographic instruction and reference service.
There is no easy way to measure research competencies via surveys. Our short skills test tells us a good deal about students' familiarity with certain terminology and concepts--important information to have when thinking about emphases for BI presentations. It tells us almost nothing, however, about a student's ability to gather information, evaluate literature, synthesize competing arguments, and formulate original theses.
Nevertheless, this survey provides significant insight into the beliefs, prejudices, self-confidence levels, and library experience of new students. The students in our sample clearly have not used all the tools commonly available in a library. They read on their own but are not voracious readers. They profess to watch less television than we might have assumed. In general, they are "somewhat" self-confident in their research abilities but not "very" confident. They found high school library instruction "somewhat" but not "very" helpful, explaining in part, perhaps, our sense that new students are "somewhat" if not always "very" open to instruction efforts.
The results of this survey provide some information from which we can work to tailor a sequence of course-integrated bibliographic instruction for these students over the next four years. At St. Olaf College, we intend to measure the same students throughout this process and to adjust our instruction in library literacy and critical thinking in a manner grounded on a realistic view of our students' attitudes and abilities, rather than our previously inconsistent (and often incorrect) beliefs about both.
We gratefully acknowledge the considerable assistance and expertise of Diane Lee in the St. Olaf College Office of Educational and Institutional Research.
References and Notes
[1.] Jill Coupe, "Undergraduate Library Skills: Two Surveys at Johns Hopkins University," Research Strategies 11 (Fall 1993): 133-201; Arlene Greer, Lee Weston, and Mary Alm, "Assessment of Learning Outcomes: A Measure of Progress in Library Literacy," College & Research Libraries 52 (Nov. 1991): 549-57; Virginia Tiefel, "Evaluating a Library User Education Program: A Decade of Experience," College & Research Libraries 50 (Mar. 1989): 249-59; Beth J. Shapiro and Philip M. Marcus, "Library Use, Library Instruction, and User Success," Research Strategies 5 (Spring 1987): 60-69; Mary Ann Trail and Carolyn Gutierrez, "Evaluating a Bibliographic Instruction Program," Research Strategies 9 (Summer 1991): 124-29; Rae Haws, "An Attitudinal Study of Students toward a Required Library Instruction Course," Research Strategies 5 (Fall 1987): 172-79.
[2.] St. Olaf College is an undergraduate liberal arts institution with a total full-time enrollment of approximately 2,800 students. It has a 4-1-4 academic calendar of one fall semester, a one-month interim course, and one spring semester.
[3.] A Pearson score of .05 or lower is considered statistically significant.
[4.] Bryn Geffert and Robert Bruce, "Whither BI? Assessing Research Skills over a Four-Year Undergraduate Career," RQ 36 (Spring 1997): 409-17. This study, however, was undertaken after students had been exposed to four years of sequential, course-integrated bibliographic instruction that taught not only research skills and tools but also the corresponding bibliographic vocabulary. We plan to measure both the skill levels and self-appraisals of this current study's students in the year 2000, to see if their assessments of their abilities are more accurate after four years of library-related experience at the college level.
[5.] It should be noted that 67.1 percent of the students taking this survey were female and 32.9 percent were male. Male students were more likely to express interest in chemistry, economics, physics, or to be undecided in their majors; female students were more likely to specify English, nursing, and psychology as probable majors. Roughly the same number of male and female students listed biology and music as desired majors.
 Virginia Sapiro, Women in American Society: An Introduction to Women's Studies, 3d ed. (Mountain View, Wisc.: Mayfield, 1994), 135.
Week One Library Survey
Section 1: Short Knowledge Test [Correct answers are in bold print.] 1. A bibliography is: (Circle one.) 1 A book about a person's life 2 A book of charts and graphs 3 A list of references or citations 4 A directory of names % correct: 68.9% 2. Please circle the search that would retrieve the most records in a computer database. 1 Autocracy and totalitarianism 2 Autocracy or totalitarianism 3 Autocracy not totalitarianism % correct: 40.5% 3. If I use the term "Norway" when doing a subject search in an online catalog, will the catalog likely provide a fairly complete list of books about Scandinavia in general? 1 Yes 2 No % correct: 67.2% 4. For each of the following citations, indicate whether it refers to a book or journal article: Book Journal Article a. Jorgenson, Lars W. 1946. "Reinterpreting Navajo Rites." Navajo Culture 6:469-78. 1 2 b. Allen, G. M. 1939. Bats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1 2 c. Lornstein, Basil. "The Economic Decline of the Ottoman Empire." In The Ottomans, edited by P.S. Borner. New York: Oxford, 1973. 1 2 3 correct (26.1%); 2 correct (58.3%); 1 correct (13.4%); 0 correct (2.1%) 5. Please circle any of the following material that would be considered primary sources: 1 Science textbook 34.2% correct 2 Diary 47.6% correct 3 Poem 35.5 % correct 4 Novel 52.2% correct 5 Journal article summarizing research 52.2 % correct 6 Painting 38.6% correct 7 Performance review disregarded--ambiguous 6. Please circle each of the following periodical titles that you would consider scholarly or academic journals: 1 U.S. News and World Report 56.8% correct 2 Annals of the Acad. Pol. and Soc. Sc. 91.9% correct 3 Time 79.7% correct 4 Journal of Law and Economics 93.9% correct 5 People 96.2% correct Section 2: Background and Opinions 1. On the average, how often did you use a library during the past year? Daily 5.0% Weekly 29.4% Twice monthly 29.2% Every month 20.5% Every 3-4 months 10.9% Every 6-8 months 3.1% Once a year 1.3% Never 0.6% 2. How much do you enjoy just wandering/sitting around libraries, exploring or reading anything that strikes your fancy? Very much 27.3% Somewhat 52.0% Not much 18.4% Not at all 2.3% 3. Did your high school have a library? Yes 99.4% No 0.6% 4. Did you write any research papers your senior year of high school? Yes 88.3% No 11.7% If yes, how many? 1 (28.2%); 2(26.5%); 3 (15.9%); 4+ (27.7%) 5. How many sources did you cite in the longest paper you wrote? 0 sources 0.8% 1-5 sources 20.7% 6-10 sources 46.9% 11-15 sources 20.5% 16+ sources 11.2% 6. How do you rate your library research skills overall? Excellent 5.0% Good 56.7% Fair 33.5% Poor 4.8% 7. How much do you enjoy library research? Very much 6.7% Somewhat 63.8% Not much 25.8% Not at all 3.7% 8. Did a librarian ever talk to one of your high school classes about library research skills? Yes 79.3% No 20.7% If yes: How many times? 1 (38.2%); 2 (28.6%); 3 (10.8%); 4+ (18.2%) How helpful? Very helpful 14.7% Somewhat helpful 62.9% Not very helpful 19.4% Not at all helpful 2.9% 9. How comfortable would you feel approaching a college reference librarian with questions? Very comfortable 61.5% Somewhat comfortable 32.3% Somewhat uncomfortable 5.6% Very uncomfortable 0.6% 10. What did you use to search your high school library's catalog? (Circle all that apply.) Online (computerized) catalog 77.9% Card catalog 50.9% Microfiche catalog 31.3% None of the above 2.7% 11. Which of the following tools have you used? (Circle all that apply.) Encyclopaedia Britannica 89.4% Sears Subject Headings or Library of Congress Subject Headings 10.8% Subject bibliographies (e.g., book- length lists of material on a specific topic) 42.2% Reader's Guide or other paper periodical index 73.7% InfoTrac, WilsonDisc, ProQuest, or other electronic periodical index 51.1% Interlibrary loan 19.9% Gopher 17.4% World Wide Web 49.9% E-mail 36.2% News groups 12.8% Listservs 3.7% 12. How do you rate your ability to use/do the following: Very comfortable Somewhat comfortable Somewhat uncomfortable Very uncomfortable/haven't tried to use/do a. Find suggestions for additional material through prefaces, footnotes, and endnotes Very comfortable 17.1% Somewhat comfortable 50.2% Somewhat uncomfortable 22.7% Very uncomfortable 10.1% b. Identify the thesis of an article or a book Very comfortable 20.3% Somewhat comfortable 54.5% Somewhat uncomfortable 20.5% Very uncomfortable 4.7% c. Evaluate the literature cited in the author's arguments Very comfortable 13.1% Somewhat comfortable 52.2% Somewhat comfortable 27.9% Very uncomfortable 6.8% d. Use scholarly subject encyclopedias and dictionaries (e.g. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences) Very comfortable 62.6% Somewhat comfortable 33.9% Somewhat uncomfortable 2.5% Very uncomfortable 1.0% e. Use lists of subject headings (e.g. Sears Subject Headings, Library of Congress Subject Headings) Very comfortable 10.5% Somewhat comfortable 36.4% Somewhat uncomfortable 29.7% Very uncomfortable 23.4% f. Find and consult bibliographies Very comfortable 30.2% Somewhat comfortable 47.5% Somewhat uncomfortable 18.5% Very uncomfortable 3.9% g. Search online (computerized) catalogs Very comfortable 35.3% Somewhat comfortable 37.0% Somewhat uncomfortable 16.9% Very uncomfortable 10.9% h. Identify and search print journal indexes Very comfortable 12.2% Somewhat comfortable 37.7% Somewhat uncomfortable 30.3% Very uncomfortable 19.8% i. Search electronic journal indexes Very comfortable 14.0% Somewhat comfortable 33.5% Somewhat uncomfortable 29.8% Very uncomfortable 22.8% j. Request material through interlibrary loan Very comfortable 15.0% Somewhat comfortable 28.9% Somewhat uncomfortable 24.4% Very uncomfortable 31.6% k. Evaluate whether the sources you find (books, articles, manuscripts, etc.) are relevant to the field in which you are doing research Very comfortable 39.7% Somewhat comfortable 47.3% Somewhat uncomfortable 11.2% Very uncomfortable 1.7% 13. Compared with books and articles in an academic library, how reliable in general do you consider material found on the Internet? More reliable 8.4% Equally reliable 60.3% Less reliable 31.3% 14. Do you believe that eventually the Internet will largely replace libraries? Definitely 4.3% Probably 22.1% 50-50 chance 28.3% Probably not 40.1% Definitely not 5.1% Section 3: Personal Information 1. Gender Female 67.1% Male 32.9% 2. High school GPA 3.80-4.00 47.3% 3.60-3.79 23.2% 3.40-3.59 17.2% 3.20-3.39 6.1% 3.00-3.19 4.0% 2.50-2.99 2.2% 2.00-2.49 0.0% 3. Number of students in high school graduating class: Median: 199 Range: 5-900 4. What is your expected major? [Since students could indicate more than one major, raw numbers rather than percentages are shown] Art 25 Biology 105 Chemistry 45 Classics 4 Dance 11 East Asian Langs. 6 Economics 37 English 49 Family Resources 1 French 8 German 10 History 22 Math 13 Music 73 Norwegian 3 Nursing 14 Philosophy 5 Physical Education 0 Physics 17 Political Science 16 Psychology 39 Religion 8 Russian 4 Social Work 7 Sociology/Anthro. 9 Spanish 21 Speech-Theater 23 Other 22 5. How many books did you read this summer? 0 (10.4%); 1 (12.2%); 2 (15.7%); 3 (17.1%); 4 (9.4%); 5 (10.8%); 6+ (24.3%) 6. On the average, how many hours of television did you watch a week during the high school year? Did not watch television at all 10.7% 1-5 hours 66.7% 6-10 hours 17.8% 11-15 hours 3.1% 15+ hours 1.7% Thanks for your time! [O.E.I.R./Fall 1996]
Bryn Geffert is Reference Librarian, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, and Beth Christensen is Music Librarian, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Things They Carry. Contributors: Geffert, Bryn - Author, Christensen, Beth - Author. Journal title: Reference & User Services Quarterly. Volume: 37. Issue: 3 Publication date: Spring 1998. Page number: 279. © 2003 American Library Association. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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