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Familiarity Breeds Misconceptions? Information Technology Savvy Millennials Show Surprising Information Literacy Skill Deficits

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Mary Ann Trail, Associate Professor in the Library, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Carolyn Gutierrez, Associate Professor in the Library, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Definition of Information Literacy: The ability to know they need information, choose an appropriate source, find the information, evaluate it and internalize it enough to make it their own.

TRAIL: There is no doubt that Millennials are superb users of technology. When we Baby Boomers can’t set our watches, we know where to go to get help. After all, Millennials have grown up with technology. 94% of youth ages 12-17 who have Internet access say they use the Internet for school research and 78% say they believe the Internet helps them with schoolwork. 71% of online teens say that they used the Internet as the major source for their most recent major school project or report. (Rainie)

College students in particular are heavy users of the Internet. It is part of their daily routine. Technology is integrated into their daily communication habits. Any faculty member can verify the number of students on cell phones as soon as class gets out. One-fifth (20%) of today’s college students began using computers between the ages of 5 and 8. By the time they were 16 to 18 years old all of today’s current college students had begun using computers – and the Internet was a commonplace in the world in which they lived. 72% of them check for e-mail once a day. (Rainie)

But here is the statistic that really hurts. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of college students say they use the Internet more than the library, while only 9% said they use the library more than the Internet for information searching. (Rainie)

The expectations of techno savvy students has to make an impact on what happens in the classroom.

Research shows that Millennials use the Internet, but does research show that Millennials use the Internet better and wiser? I wanted to know what the quality of their usage was. Are Millennials effective searchers and are they able to critically evaluate their Internet results?

There seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence to point to the contrary. Betsy Barefoot wrote in the Jan 2006 Chronicle of Education that “few first year college student’s can easily distinguish fact from fiction in online and print sources, and even fewer have ever been exposed to the scholarly resources that can be found in a college or university library.” (Barefoot)

I found two surveys of faculty expectations of incoming freshmen. The list of expectations from the California faculty is impressive, no wonder they are disappointed. I thought it interesting that 2/3 of the faculty estimate that entering students “cannot adequately analyze information or arguments and cannot synthesize information from multiple sources. Only a minority can evaluate online resources. Students are less willing to deeply engage in difficult thinking tasks.” (Academic)

Understanding University Success also lists what the faculty expect freshman to know although on a national scale. It emphasizes the importance of online research and the particular problems students have of using Internet resources. (Understanding)

Initial findings of another California study included when accessing information, students always go first to the familiar and that may not be the best source. Students have tremendous difficulty generating research questions or choosing focused topics for study and first year students often lack the ability to evaluate information and to apply information although the more years of college students have the better able they are to suggest a variety of resources to address their information needs. (Fitzgerald)

The literature also includes studies that focus on specific Information Literacy skills. Mittermeyer and other authors from the Quebec Universities felt that “these results show that one cannot assume that even the most fundamental and long standing information tools, e.g. the library catalogue and the scholarly journal are known to incoming undergraduates.” (Mittermeyer)

A large-scale study specifically focused on Web use by university undergraduates showed disappointingly that 40% considered the web as trustworthy as books and articles. The authors believe that students substituted their subject judgment for objective evaluation criteria and believe that they critically evaluate web information. (Wang)

At Stockton, we have two examples were our own research supports the findings of research at other institutions. In the first we used pre/post tests to evaluate the effectiveness of a library skills workbook. Students had the most difficulty identifying quality resources in journal and on the Internet.

This past Spring we used the Educational Testing Services new Information Communication Technology Literary Assessment to evaluate our students’ overall information literacy. Again the findings reinforced the literature. Although our students performed at the national average, on Web Searching 32% could not identify the authority of a web page, 47% had trouble identifying whether a page was objective and 25% with currency

What skill sets are Millennials missing? Or as the phrase goes what is it that “the students don’t know what they don’t know!”

It seems to be summed up into the ability to choose the correct source of information, the ability to evaluate information and the ability to internalize it and make it their own. These are all skills identified by the ACRL as characteristic of the information literate person.

GUTIERREZ: Now that we have some data on this new breed of student and their information literacy skills, here are some suggestions for addressing perceived problems:

Don’t assume your students have the same knowledge base as you had as a student or that, because they have grown up using computers, they are adept at academic research.
In “It’s the Information Age, So Where’s the Information?” Jill Jenson points out that most faculty in their formative years had hands-on experience using a library and print resources. When computers and the Internet became widely available, faculty had to learn new technical skills, but could adapt much of their prior experience to guide them in their academic research. Millennial students do not have this frame of reference. Be especially careful when using terminology that may have no meaning for today’s students, such as abstract, biography/bibliography, or peer review. Jenson suggests asking students anonymously to jot down on a piece of paper the definition of a term used in class or to distinguish between terms that might be confusing. This practice helps to identify sources of confusion without embarrassing students in front of their peers. (Jenson 107-113)

Include class discussion on research methods and
hands-on research sessions
During these sessions it is important to emphasize why students are asked to do research and the critical thinking process in the selection and use of information resources effectively. Perhaps some of the blame for students’ weakness in research skills lies with us, the educators. According to Naomi Barron, a linguistics professor at American University, quoted under the heading “Millennials and Me” in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education “The Millennials are products not just of a constant information barrage, but also of an educational system that has lost its ability to impart skills.” (Carlson, A34).

Expect that many students will be in denial about
their level of research skills
Students often believe that technological competence equals information literacy. Initially, many students will be convinced they don’t need help with their research skills Professors from three different disciplines at the University of Oklahoma teemed up to dispel this myth. In their article “Turning Techno-Savvy into Info-Savvy,” authors Brown, Murphy and Nanny describe their use of “authentic pedagogy” based on real world problem-based activities. They point out that students have to find information literacy relevant to their lives and needs before learning can occur. The authors’ stress that “instruction must focus on learning styles and preferences of the target population.” (Brown et al, 386)

Incorporate evaluation of information sources into your teaching. With information bombarding them from all sides, students have little basis on which to judge the value of what they find nor have most of them formed the habit of critical evaluation. Many students equate typing a broad topic into a Web browser with doing research. Teach students why they are researching the topic and why the library’s resources are valuable, that they library databases have been carefully selected for suitability for their research and contain material unlikely to be found in a web search.

Get some insight into their world and frame of reference.
The book by Rebekah Nathan, an anthropology professor, entitled My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student discusses what she learned about college students when she registered as a student and lived the student life in the dorm. She observed students without preconceptions about what a college student should or should not be. Adopting this attitude toward students will help you gain a fresh perspective and some common ground to communicate with them. (Nathan, 2005)

Utilize peer mentors to help train or assist students
in information research skills
Librarians have long been aware of the tendency of students to turn to their peers for help in academic research. Most research is done outside the library and even when students come to the library, they often bypass the reference librarian and ask another student for research advice. Take advantage of this characteristic by training student tutors in the College Writing Center in basic information research skills so that they can advise students.

Consider an old-fashioned intervention –
A research skills workbook.

This recommendation may be bucking current trends, but Professor Trail and I have found in our research study published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship in November of this year, that the act of researching a topic online, writing down what they found, and evaluating and documenting it in APA or MLA format, improves students’ skills. (Trail et al, 2006)

Make the library and integral part of your course.
Collaborate with the librarians.
One of the recommended practices cited in the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) document “Characteristics of Programs of Information Literacy that illustrates Best Practices: A Guideline” is collaboration among disciplinary faculty, librarians and other program staff, such as such as learning centers, teaching centers, and IT units. (ACRL,

At our college, the business faculty and the librarians are collaborating to improve students’ information literacy skills. We have observed that our business students, in comparison with other majors, seemed to be weaker in research skills. This may be because a large proportion of them are transfer students and have not had the benefit of previous instruction at our institution and also because they do not write as many research papers as, for example, history or literature majors. We pre-tested the students at the beginning of the semester using a questionnaire that addressed the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards.

Following a library orientation session, we assigned a research skills workbook tailored to business research. After the workbooks were corrected and discussed in class, we administered a post-test identical to the pre-test. Results showed a small but significant improvement. We will meet with the faculty and analyze the results carefully to see what strategies we can employ to further improve IL skills next semester.

Betsy Barefoot in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the perception of first year college students that campus libraries are “largely irrelevant to their lives.” (Barefoot, B16)

One reason students tend not to consult librarians for research assistance is because they are not perceived as specialists. Change this perception by including the librarians as information advisers to your class.

Involve the librarians in first-year programs as part of the instructional team. The habit of using the library is established in the freshman year. If it doesn’t happen then, it is unlikely to happen in junior or senior year.

Designate a Class Librarian to work with your class on an on-going basis.

Embed links to library databases in class web pages and make sure your students use them.

Schedule at least one lab session in which the students do hands-on research under the guidance of you or the librarian (or preferably both) at the time in the semester when preparation for research should begin.

Ask students to construct a research portfolio and submit it with their paper/project. In this portfolio the student would record, step-by-step, their search process, which databases they used, what they found, what subject and keywords they entered, etc.

Finally, get prepared for greater ethnic and
cultural diversity in the student body.
Statistics published in the American Association of College & University News in Oct. 2006, predict that in next 10 years enrollment is projected to grow 42 % for Hispanics s, 28% for Asian & Pacific Islanders and 30% for American Indian and Alaskan native students. (AAC&U News, This cohort may come with a whole different set of experiences and background!


Academic Literacy: A Statement of Competencies Expected of Students Entering California’s Public Colleges and Universities.  2002.

American Association of Colleges and Universities, Facts & Figures, AAC&U News, October 2006.

Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Characteristics of Programs of Information Literacy that Illustrate Best Practices: A Guideline

Barefoot, Betsy, “Bridging the Chasm: First-Year Students and the Library.” Chronicle of Higher Education 52(20) B16.

Carlson, Scott, “The Net Generation Goes to College: Tech-savvy 'Millennials' have lots of gadgets, like to multitask, and expect to control what, when, and how they learn. Should colleges cater to them?” The Chronicle of Higher Education 52.7 (October 7, 2005):A34-A37. 

Fitzgerald, Mary Ann, “Making the Leap from High School to College.” Knowledge Quest 32.4 (Mar-Apr 2004): 19-24.

Jenson, Jill D, “It’s the Information Age, so where’s the information?  Why our students can’t find it and what we can do to help.” College Teaching 52.3 (Summer 2004): 107-113.

Mittermeyer, Diane, “Incoming first year undergraduate students: How information literate are they?” Education for Information, (December 2005), 23(4) 203-232

Nathan, Rebekah.  My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student.  Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Rainie, Lee, Max Kalchoff, and Dan Hess, (2005) Pew Internet & American Life Project Data Memo [Online].  Available:  Http://  (Accessed November 8, 2006)

Understanding University Success: A Report from Standards for success: A Project of the Association of American University and the Pew Charitable Trusts.  2003,

Wang, Yu-Mei and Marge Artero, “Caught in the Web: university student use of web resources.” Educational Media International 42 (1) 71-82.

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