Discovery Systems: We Still Need to Train Searchers to Become Researchers

Craig Brians (L) and Bruce Pencek (R)

Craig Brians, Professor of Political Science, and Bruce Pencek, Library Trainer, both from Virginia Tech, presented a fascinating report on their experiences with using Serials Solutions’ Summon discovery service.  Two years ago, Bruce had predicted that there would be some problems with Summon, and he was right.  This presentation was a report on Craig’s experiences with it.  He told his 400 students to use Summon. (Even in a 300 student class, he assigns research projects.) Despite extensive training, many students did not find things in an optimal fashion.

“Introduction to US Government” is a basic freshman-level class with about 300 students from many other departments outside political science. “Political Communication” is an advanced upper level class with about 100 students. None of the students had a previous exposure to Summon. Their level of research work was unknown.

Students were assigned an article to find and read. A full citation was provided, and they were instructed to locate the article using Summon, read it, and summarize the key ideas. Then from the known article, they were to find 4 related articles. In great (one might say “almost excruciating”!) detail, Bruce taught the students how to find key ideas, how to search on “subject terms” in Summon, and how to log in to the Library’s website from off campus. (Summon is prominently displayed on the library’s homepage.)  They were shown how to copy and paste the article title into the Summon search box. The article should have been the first one displayed. Then they were told to use the article keywords to find related articles.  Nearly half a class period was spent on this exercise.

Many students had trouble reading the assigned article. The most common question they asked was if they could Google Summon. Another common question was whether they had to pay for the article (even though they were told never to pay for anything). There were also challenges with off-campus sign-on and broken resolver links.  Even though the students were dismissive of the lesson when they were shown in class, they had trouble finding related articles, what to put into the Summon search box, how the article was related, and how to read a scholarly article.

Why do students struggle with Summon? You would have thought it would have been very easy, especially given the information that was provided to them. Searching today is different from 15 years ago. Searchers are physically away from the library, and there are no cues from the co-location of various resources in stacks. Subject headings from various sources are marginalized.

Summon appears to simplify literature research for students; however, discovery systems conceal the variety and messiness of conducting research. And when you are moved away from the messiness, you tend to forget how to be a researcher. Being frustrated is an important part of the research process so you find your way through the roadblocks.

Discovery tools move novice researchers farther away from the characteristics of the underlying resources, and students do not differentiate sources; for example, the content distinctions between blogs and scholarly articles. In years past, news and editorial content were often confused with one another. Summon’s left side format distinctions may assume too much knowledge by the searcher.

The conclusions of this experience are that all tools used by the current generation of students require specialized instruction. Without this pedagogical effort, even smart students struggle to use tools that may seem intuitive to many of us. Discovery systems breakdown disciplinary silos, but also burn down disciplinary scaffolding.

Tools do not substitute for instruction. Bruce and Craig recommend that studnts receive guided instruction and more hands-on practice, which requires class time for reserch instruction and assistance by librarians. The more complex the research tool gets, the more instruction is needed. To help teach Summon, they developed new learning methods utilizing clicker questions and a screen shot tutorial.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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