Why Discovery Tools Are a Bad Idea for Beginning Researchers

The other day, I came across a pre-print article for C&RL that looked at the search effectiveness of different discovery tools, including EBSCO Discovery Service, Summon and Google Scholar. Even though EBSCO came out on top, the authors noted that students were generally incapable of evaluating sources and they relied heavily on default settings. That doesn’t surprise me.

I’m all for one-stop shopping in research. I do it myself. Google Scholar with library links is much less cumbersome than individually searching the dozen or so databases that cover ed tech and library literature. But I’m an information expert, a master of search strategies, and highly capable of analyzing my results. I also know when to go into an individual database for further research. And that’s the problem with discovery tools – they require a higher level of skills than novice researchers possess.

There are four roadblocks that make discovery tools a bad idea for beginning researchers:

  1. Poor search strategies. We all know how bad students are at developing strong search strategies. It takes practice, and they are accustomed to the ease of Google searching. Until discovery tools perfect semantic searching (and they haven’t), strong search strategies are key to finding the most appropriate information. Beginning researchers are still developing those skills.
  2. Information overload. I’ve talked about this before. Too many results lead to cognitive overload. This is particularly problematic for novice researchers (they’re overwhelmed). It’s one reason why students tend to select sources from the first page of results.
  3. Reflective judgment. I posted about this last week. There are seven stages of reflective judgment. Beginning researchers are typically in stage 3 when they enter college. This impacts both critical thinking and information literacy. The C&RL study found that students tended to place their trust in the authority of the search tools because of uncertainty in evaluating sources. That should be expected of a student who is still in stage 3 of reflective judgment.
  4. Reading comprehension. I don’t think this is talked about enough. Reading is the basis of all learning, and reading comprehension impacts the entire research and writing process. According to a 2006 study by the American Institutes of Research, only 38% of 4-year college students are graduating with proficient levels of literacy (23% for 2-year college students). Proficient literacy is defined as “reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences.” Proficient literacy is essential for information literacy. Read the full report here.

So what’s the best one-stop shopping alternative to discovery tools? For beginning researchers, I prefer Credo Reference or any of the Gale databases (e.g. Student Resources in Context, Opposing Viewpoints). And I’m betting that most librarians out there already know this. In my own experience, these are also the databases that students tend to go back to once they discover them. Why? Because they are well-designed and just-right for the developmental level of beginning researchers. They are also topic-driven, so much more relevant.

With so many databases out there, knowing where to start is a challenge. Discovery tools are the attempt at remedying this. But they’re a bad idea for beginning researchers for all the reasons above. I think it’s a much better idea to encourage faculty to scaffold (limited) database suggestions into the design of their research assignments.


The Problem with TMI (Too Much Information)

Librarians have a love affair with information. Nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to helping students, how much is too much?

Too much information (TMI) causes cognitive overload. Sweller’s cognitive load theory looks at how we process and remember information, and how that impacts learning. As it turns out, our working memories are incredibly limited in capacity. We can only hold about 3-5 chunks of information in there at any one time. The amount we can hold, process and remember is further impacted by how the information is presented. Too much information shuts us down.

This has obvious implications for teaching and for designing tutorials. But, today I am going to focus on the implications that cognitive load has on designing pathfinders. When I say pathfinders, I am referring to any type of resource guide for helping students do research (e.g. LibGuides).

Pathfinders are supposed to reduce information overload, but often they do just the opposite. There are a number of design flaws that contribute to the problem:

  • Too many choices. I think it’s the natural inclination of all librarians to create pathfinders that include the full breadth of resources available. This can be too overwhelming for students – especially novice researchers. The solution? Pare it down. Find out what students actually need. Keep in mind that less experienced students are more susceptible to information overload.
  • Wacky fonts. BIG FONT. little font. Bold font. Colored fonts. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. When you over font-ify (is that a word?) your pathfinder, I guarantee you are subjecting students to cognitive overload. It can be very difficult to read – let alone process – information that comes in an array of fonts. For example, recently I was trying to find out the hours of a local library, and found myself overlooking the information I needed because it was presented in bold fonts. Too much bold is hard to read!
  • Lack of focus. On the surface, it may seem that every pathfinder has a purpose. But, from an instructional design standpoint an argument can be made that general purpose pathfinders are at risk of causing information overload. These are the pathfinders that are made to generally cover a subject or discipline, but at the same time try to cover all the possible assignments that fall under that subject area. Take ‘English’ as an example. ‘English’ is a subject area that covers a large array of courses. And to cover all the possible assignments that ‘English’ courses encompass means including a huge number of databases – certainly too many choices for the novice researcher to process. Instead, consider creating separate pathfinders for the different types of assignments (e.g. argumentative, literary criticism, exploratory essays). Better yet, target the pathfinders to actual [common] assignments and courses. When you do that, the pathfinders become more focused with fewer choices and can be utilized more effectively within the LMS.
  • Overuse (or underuse) of widgets. Database widgets can ease cognitive load by reducing the number of steps needed to access the database. However, too many database widgets on one page is akin to wacky fonts.  My rule of thumb? One widget per page, and preferably for a database that can serve as an excellent starting point (e.g. Credo Reference).

Probably the most important thing I have learned from my IDT studies is that to really understand information literacy, you need to understand information processing. Doing so can make you a better librarian, teacher and instructional designer.