What does “risk-aversion” have to do with information seeking behavior and library software development?

 In her lecture “Searching for Context: Modeling the Information-Seeking Process of College Students in the Digital Age” (Available here: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/events/luncheon/2012/01/head), Alison Head draws conclusions from 5 studies that she and others had conducted for the Berkman Center for Intranet and Society. The lecture presents an interesting model of how students conceptualize their research process. The model shows students weighing the cost of going down different research paths. The model shows students assessing their paths in 4 contexts (but she said there may be more): the Big Picture Context, Information Gathering Context, Language Context, and Situational Context.
The model  suggests that students beginning research are asking themselves these types of questions as they calculate the risks of the possible answers:

  • Big picture – Do I have the right overview before starting? Do I understand this topic enough to be able to form a research question?
  • Information Gathering – Do I have enough supporting material? Am I using enough primary sources?
  • Language – Do I understand the language and terms of this topic well enough?
  • Situational – What do I need to do to get an A? Is this what the professor wants?

The model, which focuses on questions of “what is enough?” and “what are the risks of one decision over another?” has interesting implications to how libraries serve students in their research. As someone involved in the building library software to help students in their research, I find fascinating possibilities of creating solutions that help address risk-assessment of following different paths in the different contexts researchers find themselves in.

Student technology use during crunch time

Project Information Literacy (PIL) is a long-term national research study based out of the University of Washington’s Information School.  The overarching goal of the study is to better understand how college students engage in information-seeking and research behaviors in the digital age.

Earlier this month PIL released their findings from a short-term technology study they completed during the spring of 2011.  For the study they interviewed 560 undergraduate students at 11 different libraries on 10 different campuses during “crunch time” to determine how students use technology during stressful times of the year.  “Crunch time” is defined as the two weeks preceding final exams.  For the interviews, they asked students what tasks they had been engaged in during the last hour and what devices, resources, and library services they had used to help them complete those tasks.  The purpose was to discover how students managed technology and how they defined their “individualized information space,” the array of applications and programs students had open on their devices that aided them in task-completion.

The researchers found that students largely engaged in a kind of restrained multi-tasking.  They would switch tasks frequently, but would have only a few devices or applications running simultaneously.   85% of students interviewed were classified by the researchers as “light” technology users.  In other words, they were using two or fewer devices and engaged in two or fewer primary activities. The students seemed to take a very focused approach to technology, conscientiously winnowing down the devices they used to match their information needs.

Only a small percentage of the students interviewed were using the library for its scholarly resources – such as print or e-books, online databases, or reference services.  Many students indicated that, more than anything, it was the communal scholarly atmosphere that drew them to the library during the final weeks of the semester.  The library offered these students a unique environment in which they could escape into their work, while still sharing in the collective experience of the finals crunch.

students studying in library

This study provides some surprising insights into how these digital natives manage technology during times of stress.  Rather than hopping distractedly from device to device, or website to website, they purposefully limited their technology use to support their current task.  Even though a large majority of students had “time-wasting” sites like Facebook or gossip sites up on their devices, they often used these to incentivize learning.  These sites provided a way for students to hit the mental refresh button.  They would use the “Facebook break” as a way of rewarding themselves for a job well done or refocusing their attention on studying.  Although the most common task students were engaged in was communication (via email, texting, Facebook, etc.), these students were not engaged only in communication.  It was seamlessly interspersed with their other activities.  They often used social networking sites or other means of communication as part of their coursework to schedule meetings or discuss issues with their instructors and peers.

In this study, students managed their learning spaces, both physical and digital, in a very similar manner.  They allowed themselves a taste of the outside world, while choosing technologies and spaces that would ultimately focus their attention back on scholarly pursuits.  This is something that resource and website developers ought to be mindful of when designing materials for college students.  They do not want to be inundated with information (at least not during times of high stress).  Rather, they want focused materials that have a clear connection to the task at hand.  On the other hand, the results of the PIL study also indicate that students want their resources to be integrated.  The students interviewed had little issue using the same technology for personal communication one moment and research the next.  Although it is best to use this kind of integration with caution (i.e. ask yourself if it appropriate for your resource to be linked to Facebook), the multi-purposing of technologies is clearly something that current college undergraduates are comfortable with.

For more information, see the full report, Balancing Act: How College Students Manage Technology While in the Library during Crunch Time, or watch this brief video highlighting the major findings.