Closing the College Readiness Gap

"Mind the gap" sign on a Hong Kong MTR train

The following is an excerpt from a post last week in Campus Technology, reporting on the results of a set of recent surveys of university faculty and employers on college and career readiness:

Neither university faculty nor employers believe that American public high schools are preparing students for the expectations they’ll face in college and career. In fact, compared to 2004, the assessment is even more dismal… Part of the challenge, say students themselves, is that their high schools don’t set academic expectations high enough. Fifty-four percent said that they were only “somewhat challenged”; 20 percent said it was “easy to slide by.”

The area which professors found the most students with no preparation at all was in conducting research. Having worked in higher education, I don’t find this surprising. In fact, when I was working at a community college, many of the entering freshmen had not been required to write a single research paper during high school. Those students with research paper experience had typically taken the AP or Honors track in high school (go figure).

This is a big problem because conducting research is an excellent way to build skills in the other areas that professors found lacking in the survey, including critical thinking, writing, and comprehending complex materials.

The solution? In addition to setting higher expectations for ALL students (Common Core does attempt to do this by including research standards in the writing strand), it’s time for the powers that be to start recognizing the importance of librarians in the college preparedness process. The good news is that some progress is being made in that direction with the recent Reed-Cochran Amendment. The bad news is that the college readiness gap will not begin to truly close until we have a more cohesive transition from secondary school to college.

One part of that transition is the new ACRL Information Literacy Framework, which was informed by the AASL Learning Standards. So it would behoove college librarians to become familiar with the AASL standards and to learn about the issues and barriers that their K-12 colleagues are facing in getting the standards implemented. Middle and high school librarians should also familiarize themselves with the new ACRL Framework to become better informed on what information literacy looks likes at the college level. Most importantly, as individual groups, both school and college librarians have unique sets of knowledge that would be beneficial to share with each other. For example, school librarians have the kind of pedagogical training in collaboration that college librarians need, and college librarians can provide school librarians with insight into the kinds of resources and research assignments that incoming freshmen are expected to complete.

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The Well-Designed Research Assignment

Librarians often find themselves in the position to give advice to classroom instructors on designing research assignments. So, what elements go into a well-designed research assignment? The chart below lays them out. The left-hand column lists typical elements found in research assignments, and the right-hand column shows you how those elements can be turned into something more learning-centric:

INSTEAD OF THIS… DO THIS… WHY?
A minimum number of sources (e.g., at least 5 sources) A minimum number of citations in most paragraphs (e.g., 2-3 citations in most paragraphs) While requiring a minimum number of sources makes sense for most research papers, setting a minimum number of citations per paragraph requires students to synthesize information.
Source formats (e.g., articles, books) Description of information needed along with suggested types of sources:

  • Background information (e.g., encyclopedias, books, .org web sites)
  • Evidence to support arguments (e.g., research articles, reports)
  • Multiple perspectives (e.g., academic essays, position statements)
This is a form of scaffolded instruction. Students need to learn that research papers require certain informational elements. By providing purpose with source type, students are able to better understand the structural elements of research papers.
A single due date (e.g., final paper) Multiple due dates (e.g., thesis statement, outline, draft, final paper) Chunking up the research assignment into smaller units helps students learn the research process better. It also reduces procrastination. And the final product will be better.
Information about the library databases and librarians ALSO include a required trip to the reference desk (physical or virtual) at a designated point in the research process (e.g., planning) In my experience, the best way to get students to become repeat library users and better researchers is to require them to use the library. This is a behavioral approach that has the secondary benefit of becoming a form of situated learning.
A “researchable” topic Don’t go there…unless they ask There is no better way to alienate a classroom instructor than to tell him or her what kind of topic to assign. Good instructors will figure that out on their own – after all, they have to grade the papers. And it’s really the classroom instructor’s responsibility to guide students in topic selection.  It may be frustrating for librarians, but a bad topic can also be a good learning tool for students.