The legitimate effort in research papers: Student commitment versus faculty expectations

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  • The Legitimate Effort in Research Papers:Student Commitment versusFaculty Expectationsby Barbara Valentine

    Interviews with studentswriting research papers reveala disparity between their and

    faculty expectations of theplace of academic work in the

    educational process.Understanding the conflicts

    and tacit agreements that comeout of this disparity may help

    librarians to become moreactive participants in the

    research process.

    Barbara Valentine is Reference and SystemsLibrarian, Linfield College, 900 SE Baker,

    McMinnville, Oregon 97128,

    The college library is often por-trayed in brochures and other in-stitutional literature as the centerof academic and intellectual activity oncampus. Deborah J. Grimes research in-dicates that the library as the heart of theuniversity plays a more symbolic thanactual role in describing the value of ac-ademic libraries to constituents on collegecampuses.1

    The ambiguity of the librarys place inthe academic life of students may call intoquestion the primary aim of institutions ofhigher education in general. Academic in-stitutions presumably set program goalsto enhance the educational experiences ofstudents. Instructors, accordingly, preparecourses with the students education inmind, librarians plan library services tofacilitate the learning process, and othercollege staff provide administrative andsupport services. Ideally, all constituentsof the organization function in concert forthe students educational benefit.

    Librarians hold a unique position inthe academic institution, often strad-dling the line between educator and ad-ministrator. Some hold faculty statusand rank, others fall organizationallyinto the administrator camp. While afew librarians teach credit courses, alarger number are actively involved inteaching students research concepts andskills through library instructionclasses. And, all librarians are con-cerned in some way with facilitatingresearch to all campus constituents.

    Grimes research suggests that it is theusers success in achieving educationalgoals as a result of a librarys services,access, and tradition that defines the cen-trality of libraries in academic institutionstoday.2 And yet, how much is known

    about that success in institutional terms?In the past decade, rapid changes in tech-nology have forced librarians to rethinkhow students use library services. Libraryliterature provides a plethora of student-centered studies that tell how studentssearch databases,3 ask questions,4 respondto bibliographic instruction,5 feel aboutlibrarians and services,6 and use the Inter-net for research.7 What seems to be miss-ing is the context for all these activities.What gets students into the library in thefirst place? How do they actually com-plete a research paper from start to finish?What are their major motivations alongthe way? How much of a factor is thelibrary and its staff in the achievement ofa students academic goals?

    The current study attempts to capture amore holistic picture of student researchthan these other investigations by concen-trating on the context within which stu-dents carry on academic activities. By fo-cusing on how students complete aresearch projectfrom assignment in theclassroom to submitting it to the profes-sorone, in essence, traverses campuswith students and along the way gains abetter understanding of how they view therole of academic work, professors, librar-ians, and others in their undergraduatelives. Such a perspective is valuable forlibrarians who need to identify when,where, and how to reach students mosteffectively in this changing technologicalenvironment.

    This study was designed around thesuccesses of a 1989 pilot project, in whichthe researcher asked library student assis-tants about their research paper-writingexperiences.8 Focus group interviews,supplemented by individual interviews,

    The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Volume 27, Number 2, pages 107115 March 2001 107

  • were a useful method for gathering per-ceptions of the research process thatmight then be developed into theorygrounded in real experiences.9 One ofthe problems with analyzing the data fromthat study, however, was that the studentsinterviewed described different assign-ments of varying lengths from differentclasses. With no uniformity, it was diffi-cult to make comparisons across cases.Therefore, in 1993 a subsequent studywas designed to enable examination ofstudents who shared the same classroom,assignment, and professor in both collegeand university settings. This study wasrepeated with different participants in1998.

    The research paper as a basic criterionwas selected for three reasons. First, re-search papers usually force students topursue learning opportunities in otherparts of the academic institution, such asthe library. This allows one to see how thewhole institution fits into the process.Second, research papers often require stu-dents to work more independently thanclass activities do. Students have an op-portunity to explore a topic that, thoughrelated to the course, does not mirror itscontent. This kind of assignment usuallyencourages, at least theoretically, a cer-tain amount of creativity, resourcefulness,and critical thought. Finally, because theresearch assignment by its nature is usu-ally less structured, even more ambigu-ous, than other assignments, the expecta-tions may be less clear and grading moresubjective. Analyzing a research project,then, creates a unique opportunity to an-alyze students relationship to academicwork outside the structure of the class-room. In so doing, one can see moreclearly how they balance their need foracademic success with other desires forpersonal growth.

    PROCEDURESThe choice of academic institutions tostudy was based purely on logistics. Theresearcher selected small local collegesand a state university in the Pacific North-west that would be easy to visit severaltimes and that could provide a space forinterviews. She identified appropriateclasses at those institutions by lookingthrough course catalogs and schedules forwriting intensive classes that might re-quire term papers. She then made furtherinquiries by phone until she found four tofive course professors willing to partici-pate in the study.

    At the beginning of the term the re-

    searcher introduced herself and the pro-cedures of the study to the selectedclasses and distributed a questionnairethat served both to recruit participantsand gather class statistics. At the end ofthe term, when papers were complete,the researcher rounded up volunteersand managed to interview at least onethird of the students in each class, eitherin a focus group or individually, abouthow they accomplished the task of com-pleting a substantial research paper dur-ing the course of a particular assign-ment. Professors from each class alsoanswered questions about expectationsand what, in their view, students deliv-ered.

    By using Carol Kuhlthaus Informa-tion Search Process10 as a framework forthe interview questions, the researcherprobed students for their thoughts, feel-ings, and actions about the research pro-cess at the beginning, middle, and endingstages. She avoided asking any directquestions about the library, allowing re-sponses to come from the context of thestudents own experiences. Students alsoanswered questions about whom theyconsulted along the way and, if the issuewas not raised naturally elsewhere,whether or not there had been library in-struction.

    The 1993 study included 28 students,seven each from two college and twouniversity classes, and the four classprofessors. The group included 13 fe-males and 16 males that were mostlyupper division history majors. The re-searcher analyzed the data from thisstudy by using grounded theory tech-niques as outlined by Anselm Strauss.11These findings formed the basis of aMasters thesis in Sociology.12

    In 1998, the researcher decided tolook at the results of this study again,focusing more specifically on its rele-vance for the library field. But by thenthe Internet had so permeated libraryservices that it made sense to repeat thestudy with new participants to see whatdifferences in student research behav-iors might emerge. Thirty-one students(21 female, 10 male) from three collegeand two university classes participatedin this round of interviews, along withthe 5 class professors. They majored ina variety of humanities and social sci-ences areas. Transcriptions of inter-views were coded with the aid of qual-itative software called Atlas.ti.

    Initial findings of thisresearch, derived from coding

    the data into meaningfulcategories, revealed a patternof behaviors suggesting that

    students grappling with aresearch assignment are

    motivated largely by gradesand, therefore, focus muchtime and energy trying to

    figure out what the professorwants.

    Initial findings of this research,13 de-rived from coding the data into meaning-ful categories, revealed a pattern of be-haviors suggesting that students grapplingwith a research assignment are motivatedlargely by grades and therefore focusmuch time and energy trying to figure outwhat the professor wants. When theycome to the library, they look for whatthey perceive to be the most time-effec-tive and cost-effective methods of findinginformation. This translates into usingfirst what is most familiar (previouslybrowsed indexes and Internet search en-gines, such as Yahoo) and easiest to ob-tain (printing online full-text documentsbefore considering citation only resourc-es). They move into new territory reluc-tantly, chaotically, and many times only ifthey feel the professor requires it. Thoughthey may have many questions along theway, many students are largely reluctantto ask librarians and even professors formuch help, turning instead to peers, rela-tives, or their own resources.

    These strategies often mean that stu-dents do not find the best or most relevantinformation for their topics, a fact not loston librarians, who try in vain at times toencourage them to use appropriate data-bases and pursue useful citations, or pro-fessors, who lament the lack of goodsources in the final product. But in theend, most students felt they received ac-ceptable grades for the effort they hadexpended, though what constituted ac-ceptable varied by student.

    Probing the data further, the researcherdiscovers a disparity between what edu-cators expect students to accomplish andwhat students expect from themselves.The disparity exists at the macro level,institutionally, because students definethe value of the academic experience dif-

    108 The Journal of Academic Librarianship

  • ferently than professors, librarians, andadministrators. It manifests itself moreprominently at the micro level, the assign-ment, where, despite faculty expectations,the students make their own choices abouthow much effort they put into the assign-ment, based on its value to them bothacademically and personally.

    This article expands on these findings,focusing more deeply on the issues thatseparate students and educators in theirdefinitions of the academic experience, togain further insight into what is importantto and motivates students. It will demon-strate that as they balance academic suc-cess with their desires for personalgrowth, students make choices along theway that sometimes subvert the intellec-tual goals professors and librarians mayintend for them, but which satisfy theirown generalized goals for the undergrad-uate experience. This disparity is miti-gated to a degree by an agreement be-tween professor and student, either tacitor overt, about what constitutes a legiti-mate effort for a given assignment. Thisdisjuncture manifests itself in the way re-search is carried out and has importantimplications for library services.

    STUDENT PERSPECTIVESIn this study, students understanding ofthe purpose and expectations of the par-ticular research assignment usually variedwith what many of the course professorsexpressed. Students were very pragmaticin their approach to academic work. Theyevaluated the importance of the assign-ment given other responsibilities in col-lege life and then concentrated on findingout what the professor wanted (WPW).

    Students were very pragmaticin their approach to academic


    Commitment to an AssignmentUndergraduates looked at both the ac-

    ademic and personal value of each assign-ment, to see how to fit it into the range ofactivities that awaited them in a term.When the paper was assigned, many, eventhose intimidated by research papers, ex-pressed initial excitement about pursuinga new avenue of knowledge. But moststudents also had multiple extra-curricularcommitments and/or activities that com-peted for their time as the term wore on.Some were active in clubs, sports, and

    fraternal organizations. Others workedseveral hours a week. Illness and otherpersonal and family problems plaguedmany as well. In addition, they all hadother classes to tend. One student ex-pressed her exhaustion this way: I hadntslept in 72 hours by the time I gave mypresentation [in this class] because I hadso many other things due for otherclasses (Sophomore, Art).

    Students seemed to base a commitmentto an assignment on the need for a goodgrade and its value as a good personal oracademic learning experience. For manythe grade was the major motivation.Sophomores, especially, noted the need towork hard to build their grade point aver-age (GPA) overall so, as a result, eachclass counted. In some courses, the paperconstituted the major grade. One sopho-more in Politics noted: . . . the weightthat this paper has on your shoulders ismassive. But for some students, the as-signment grade in this class was less crit-ical than the need to excel in another,especially if the subject covered was notin their major area of study. The credit forthe course and the weight of the assign-ment in the course also contributed tostudents assessment of the effort to begiven to the project.

    Still, motivation to devote more effortto an assignment might also be deter-mined by personal factors. Some foundthe topics personally inspiring. Seniorsespecially appreciated an assignment that,they perceived, prepared them for gradu-ate school or employment. In one class,all students interviewed noted with satis-faction the applicability of their grant pro-posal assignments to future employment.But such practical coursework was theexception. One student from the classmused: You begin to wonder whatyouve learned [after taking a course], butthis is one class that I can walk away withand say, This is what Ive learned, this iswhat Ive gained. . . its different fromother classes (Senior, Social Work).

    Seniors had also learned where andwhen to place their effort for greatest ef-fect. One student suggested: I think be-ing a senior and almost done and alreadyaccepted to graduate school, I just reallydont care anymore. . . I think I spendmore time trying to find out how I can doless (Senior, Social Work). Another sim-ilarly notes: When I was a freshman, Iput in so much time . . . I stud...


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