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Grazing, Looping, and Skimming: Understanding Students’ Digital Habits

By Deidre Costello - Posted Jan 1, 2015
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On EBSCO’s User Research team, our interest in students’ digital habits extends beyond how they interact with just EBSCO’s products. The behaviors that students learn online (in and outof school) influence their expectations for the resources they use in the course of their research, and we believe a holistic understanding of those habits is as essential for companies such as EBSCO as it is for libraries supporting Digital Natives.

As a librarian, I recognize that some of those habits can be hard to hear. When I present our user research findings about students, other librarians often come up to me afterward and ask: “Aren’t you terrified?” And I understand their reaction. It can feel unnerving to learn that students rely so heavily on Google and Wikipedia and may arrive at college unprepared to fully use the resources libraries spend so much time, effort, and money on.

But the truth is, I’m more encouraged by students than I am scared by our findings. I’m encouraged because I hear that students love learning and feel motivated when they do research, and I believe the more we learn about their needs, the more opportunities we will discover to support them.

What follows is an overview of some our of user research team’s studies—how we conducted the studies, what these studies revealed to us about today’s students across the entire K–16 (and likely beyond) spectrum, and what it all means, both for them and for us in our profession.

Our Projects: Talking to the Selfie Generation

When we knew we wanted to study student behavior, we started with a large-scale literature review to better understand the questions that educators, psychologists and human-computer interaction specialists have already asked and answered about student habits.

While the review was extremely informative, we were learning that college students’ research skills are often formalized in high school, and we knew the review wasn’t enough. To learn more, we took a cue from Google and OCLC and conducted a video diary study to capture high schoolers’ habits more in-depth. This project was successful because today’s high school students are members of the selfie generation—much more comfortable being honest to a video camera than speaking to a researcher who is closer to their mother’s age than their own.

Student Contextual Inquiry: Our most recent project was a contextual inquiry study—a method based in ethnography that involves not only talking to users about their habits but actually seeing them in action. We chose this methodology because contextual inquiry provides much richer, more comprehensive data than other self-reporting methods, and this study, in which we sat down with high school, college, and graduate students, was no exception.

Through assessing and analyzing our findings, we have been able to characterize the whole range of student-researcher into a number of interesting categories.

Grazers: Exploring Broadly, Reading Shallowly

We refer to elementary school students as “grazers” because that’s how they interact with information online. Their interest in learning leads them to cover a lot of territory, but their still-developing reading and motor skills make it difficult for them to engage deeply with the information they find.

Because they’re at a stage when reading can still be a struggle, text-based interactions are challenging for these students. You could say that they’re “learning to read, not reading to learn.” Navigating via images isn’t a perfect solution, though—elementary school students think so concretely that they can be quick to reject anything that doesn’t match their expectations.

Elementary school students learn by trying, failing, and trying again—their natural curiosity buoys them when things go wrong and gives them the motivation to persist. When they succeed, they feel confident and successful, which is when skill mastery happens. In short, for this audience, it is important to positively reward them for exploring. That reinforcement helps them gain a sense of confidence that will form the foundation of future skills.

Loopers: Unsure of How to Proceed

Middle school students bring their most salient characteristics to their search process: the desire for autonomy and their frustration when it doesn’t come as easily to them as they want it to.

Middle school students are considered “loopers” because of the back-and-forth behavior they demonstrate when searching. They have seen research strategies modeled for them, and while they want to strike out on their own, they’re not sure what success looks like when they’re doing it themselves. Call it the “I can do it myself … Is this right?” syndrome. They exhibit what’s called looping, or needle-and-threading: moving from the search box to the results page, feeling unsure, and moving back to the search box—clicking on a result, feeling uncertain about whether or not it’s right for them, and going back to their results.

When librarians partner with teachers and have a presence in the classroom, they have an opportunity to provide the reassurance that can help loopers break out of that cycle and move forward to develop the sense of authority that’s essential for their mastery of research skills.

Part of this uncertainty comes from the trouble middle schoolers have formulating keywords based on their topics. They consistently use natural language search strings, and often copy and paste an entire question—or even paragraph—into the search box. Browsing is not a terrific alternative—they have trouble conceptualizing hierarchies more than two to three levels deep.

Their relationship to technology is part of how middle schoolers define themselves; they often follow their name and age with a list of their favorite devices. This general comfort with technology, when combined with their natural enjoyment of learning, means that despite their still-developing research skills, middle schoolers are excited to persist and master
new territory.

In short, middle school students still need encouragement. Specific reassurance in the context of searching is especially important to help them move forward confidently while still feeling like they’re in charge.

Skimmers: Confident, but Not Experts

High school students are extremely comfortable with technology and very confident users of familiar online resources. However, they are not expert searchers. We call them “skimmers,” because they are taking the skimming and scanning techniques they learn in their SAT prep classes and applying them to the way they read the sources they find in the course of their research.

For these students, research generates anxiety. The pleasure in exploring and the desire for mastery exhibited by younger students is still there in high school—students report that they enjoy being challenged. But this enjoyment is starting to come into conflict with anxiety about the research process. Now their information-seeking skills are being used to create a product on which they’re going to be judged, and fears about the different stages of this process—from the searching to the citing—mean that ultimately, research becomes an anxiety-inducing process.

Some of that uncertainty revolves around students’ inability to formulate a search strategy. The big picture is there—search, find, write—but what success looks like at each stage is still cloudy. This ambiguity starts with the topic. High school students tend to choose very broad topics, expecting that the research will be “easy” because there’s so much information out there. But then they struggle to narrow the topic down to something they can actually write about. We often heard that without a clear picture of what that strategy should look like, students were relying on Google to surface the most useful results rather than planning their process.

9th Grade Boot Camp: one of the most surprising findings of the student contextual inquiry study was that freshman year of college is not students’ most significant research training experience. Rather, it is during freshman year of high school. Students who went through a 9th grade “research boot camp” (their words) reported feeling ready to conduct research at the college level and often became the resources their peers turned to for help.

Students described these boot camps negatively, using language like, “It was forced down my throat” and “I was frog-marched through it,” but ultimately every student who went through it told us that, in hindsight, they were grateful for the experience. Here are some of the aspects they described as helping them build their research skills:

* Teachers—usually English, history, or both—actively partnering with librarians on long-term research projects

* Scavenger hunts and other “fun” activities to help them learn about library resources, not directly related to a graded assignment (allowing for practice before it counts)

* Quizzes and tests on concepts such as primary vs. secondary sources and what’s considered credible

In short, we heard from high school students that when it comes to research, drills to build skills helped them develop research muscle memory that they were then able to flex when they got to college.

L’Efficient: Fitting Research Into the Time Allowed

Many of the habits that college students exhibit are extensions of earlier behaviors, compounded by the fact that these students are now in what feels like an academic and social crucible.

“L’Efficient” is a word that came out of our student research—a term that we coined that is a combination of “lazy” and “efficient.” Every one of our college student participants laughingly described themselves as “lazy”—meaning not slothful, but practical. They will do the work necessary to get a B rather than an A in a course outside their majors, or settle for a convenient ebook that’s not a perfect fit rather than venturing outside in 20-degree weather to get the ideal physical book from the library.

As indicated by their emphasis on efficiency, time is an incredibly valuable resource to this audience. Students are constantly shifting and recalibrating priorities and competing deadlines. Because the anxiety students start to associate with research in high school is compounded when they get to college, research often ends up losing out in those calculations and being squeezed into as small as possible unit of time.

College students find their motivation at different times, in different ways—from peers, mentors, or favorite subjects. We heard from many students conducting research at the college level that while research can feel like a negative experience, they are actually internally motivated to hone those skills—they understand that such skills will hold value for them in the future. We also heard that the more personal the stake they have in the topic, the more motivated they are and the easier the research process feels.

There are colleges and universities using this sense of investment to their advantage to teach research skills. MIT library staff partner with professors to teach course-specific research skills through activities such as scavenger hunts, and the University of San Francisco is considering major-specific training because faculty know that students’ investment in that subject—in and beyond school—will help them absorb advanced research skills relevant
to them.

Despite understanding the value of research, the library is not the first place college students turn when struggling with an assignment. When we asked what those go-to resources were, we heard—in approximate order:

* Roommates

* Hallmates, especially if they have expertise in something the student is working on

* Classmates who usually do the assignment first and can provide guidance

* Teachers they had a personal connection with, who had taught them in a small class, and who students believe have a personal stake in their success

Librarians didn’t often make the list, possibly because students don’t often get the chance to develop that same kind of trusting, personal relationship they have with the people they turn to. We did talk with one student who had a required one-on-one session with the librarian as part of a freshman year research assignment. This experience helped establish that the librarian was there to help her, and she has since met with a subject librarian for every subsequent assignment.

In short, when students learn that the librarian is there to help them succeed, they become much more likely to think of the library as a go-to research resource.


Given what we’ve learned from our studies, I hope you’ll agree that the future of student research looks much brighter than it does terrifying. In many ways, the obstacles students face when they conduct research are the same as they’ve always been—trouble with topics and search strategies, fear of being graded down for citing mistakes, and believing the librarian doesn’t want
to be bothered.

The opportunities to address those pain points and support students as they learn to craft successful research strategies are growing in direct proportion to the opportunities students have to conduct that research online. For me, it’s exciting to hear that students benefit from early research training, that they’re helping each other when they struggle, and that they really benefit from a personal connection to their librarian. So there is reason to be hopeful about the scholarly potential of today’s college student and all the ways there are for us to make a positive impact on their lives.


Deirdre Costello is senior user experience researcher at EBSCO Information Services. Contact her at Deirdre presented these findings at Internet Librarian 2014. Her slides can be found here:

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