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The really hard part about research isn’t the databases

March 3, 2011

This isn’t news to librarians, but I find that students (and occasionally faculty) get caught up in equating research with the research databases.

Take two recent examples.

This week I met with some math students who were looking for scholarly and non-scholarly articles and information to help them solve a particular mathematics problem.  They had been using MathSciNet and Google to help them find appropriate information, with mixed results.  I was able to provide them with a few technical tips on improving their searches (+ and – operators in Google, subject classifications in MathSciNet, etc.), but that wasn’t what they really needed.  What was most useful to them was an opportunity to think through all the different aspects of their problem.  In this case, I merely acted as a facilitator – my three semesters of calculus did not give me the required knowledge to help them come up with synonyms or alternative search terms.  But I could ask questions: What are the various aspects of your problem?  What are some alternative terms that would define these aspects?  What are the various approaches you’ve tried to solve the problem?

When their faculty adviser asked me to meet with them, he thought our discussion might focus more on the technical aspects of the databases.  He sat in on the session, and was vital in helping the students brainstorm their additional search terms.  I think he learned a bit about guiding students through the research process (plus a couple of tips about searching Google), and our collaboration really benefited the students.

In another case, I had a student who needed to write a paper describing some aspect of the effect of the hypothalamus on the pituitary gland.  For her, the massive quantity of information on this topic was overwhelming, and I was able to provide her with some guidance on how to focus her topic.  We looked at a Wikipedia article listed some specific hormones and their specific effects.  We looked at some search results lists and picked out a few topic ideas.  We talked about how she can use the background information she is collecting from textbooks to select a focus.  And only then did we talk about taking that focus back into the databases to find relevant information for her project.

Overall, she came away with a much better strategy for completing her project.  It wasn’t about “click here, then click there”.

At the same time, most of our faculty initiated requests for library instruction sessions start out with a database name.

I’m not saying that this isn’t important – it is – and there are some tricky technical issues involved in navigating our OpenURL system too.  I would make the argument that for many students, it is easier for them to learn a search interface on their own than it is to develop an overall strategy for completing the information gathering portion of their projects.

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One Comment
  1. mugab permalink

    Although not explicitly stated in your post, I get the feeling that you learned a thing or two, as well. Every day is a learning day!

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