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Studying the studiers

28 November 2011

The ways in which today’s students seek and use information are profoundly different from methods used just ten years ago. Ele Cooper talks to a lecturer who’s determined to research this – and adapt accordingly. 

Students working together on a bench

“We’ve gone through a fundamental change in the way we access information over the last ten years,” says Dr Bill Sillar, senior lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology. “We used to give students a reading list, then they’d go to the library, physically delve through all the material and write an essay. Now that they have direct links to online articles, Google, Wikipedia and social networking sites, the way they study is radically different.”

The rate of change has been (and is continuing to be) so fast that the exact methods students are using for finding, absorbing and processing information have become a great unknown. Sillar says, “Nowadays, we’re delivering online readings, forums on Moodle, object-based learning and PowerPoint presentations as well as lectures and books in the library, but we’ve never actually asked students how they use those resources, how they learn.”

So he decided to do something about it. Using funding obtained by virtue of being a Provost Teaching Award winner, Sillar invited UNC (University of North Carolina) Charlotte’s Donna Lanclos to spend a week in London examining UCL students’ work habits.

An anthropologist by training, Lanclos is a full-time researcher of information-seeking behaviour. Despite her particular line of work often being referred to as ‘library ethnography’, Lanclos’s remit extends beyond the library walls, encompassing the full range of 21st-century learning spaces from the bar to the bedroom.

Sillar’s hope was that, by combining Lanclos’s short-term UCL study with additional research she’s doing in the States, they might begin to understand the ways in which students access and engage with the limitless information available to them – and to consider how similar or different students’ behaviour is to that of academics.

During her week at UCL, Lanclos conducted eight structured interviews with students and asked them to create photo diaries depicting where and how they used certain study-related items. Lanclos then complemented these images with ones she’d taken.

Students working in the Students' Union

“I wanted to know what it looks like when students are working with their laptops, their lecture notes and their phones, so I took pictures of people working in spaces around the university – collaborating at screens, sitting in little cubbies with stuff piled around them, gathering at the Science Library pods,” explains Lanclos.

But it wasn’t just students Lanclos was interested in: conversations with the Institute of Archaeology’s librarians helped the researcher to understand the politics and history behind the design of certain areas. Sillar himself also proved an invaluable source, having been involved with the Institute ever since he began as an undergraduate there in 1982.

Unsurprisingly, interviewees can sometimes be reluctant to discuss subjects such as how much time they actually spend in the library. For that reason, says Lanclos, impartiality is vital: “It’s not my job to make a value judgement, it’s my job to figure out what the behaviour looks like. If they’re Googling it we can discuss why they’re Googling it and whether this is what their teachers, from a pedagogical perspective, would want them to do. Then we get to start talking about prescriptions for change. However, it’s also very dangerous to assume that students are doing nothing of value simply because the thing that they’re doing doesn’t resemble the thing that you thought they should be doing.”

Though Lanclos has not yet had time to analyse her findings in detail, she is quick to emphasise that there are more structural similarities between the ways in which academics and students work than one might initially think – for example, most people nowadays would turn to Google and Wikipedia to find out about unknown subjects before going on to read more specialised literature.

“There is a point at which that changes, and a professional academic might go further and deeper into the material than a student would,” she says, “but that’s something that a student can develop with time. I would hate for any member of staff to say that there are fundamental differences between what students are doing and what they’re doing.”

So how much of an impact will this research have on the ways in which Sillar and his colleagues teach? “If every student says that they prefer learning from eBooks, for example, we won’t necessarily change the entire course to fit around that,” Sillar says. “However, we will make decisions informed by that fact – and if eBooks are something they’re interested in, this may well influence the way we provide material in the future.”

Similarly, while the Institute of Archaeology is unlikely to completely reconfigure its library based on the findings of this study (budgetary considerations alone would render this impossible), Lanclos’s conversations with the librarians will undoubtedly inform future decisions about the layout of the space.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all, ideal learning environment – “We have to let go of that notion of the ‘perfect’ way of doing things,” says Lanclos – but Sillar is hopeful that this project could have a real impact.

“We have a great opportunity to do further work on this, and to develop a dialogue comparing what’s happening at UNC Charlotte with the ways in which we do things at UCL. We’ve got to work with change, and we are,” he says. “My hope is that this is just the start.”

Page last modified on 28 nov 11 15:08

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