How college students *really* do research – findings from recent studies

We hear a lot about how college students “only search in Google these days” or “never look past the first page of results.”   How true are such commonly held assumptions?  Are they supported by recent examinations of student research behaviors?  For answers, I looked at seven studies published within the last three years.  Here is what I learned:

Students do use library databases – though they often start in Google

Project Information Literacy found that 88% of students use scholarly research databases, compared to 92% using Google.  Surprisingly, course readings top the list at 96%.  (Head 2013, 477). George and Foster also found library databases were searched about as often as Google/Google Scholar – with databases used slightly more often.  (2013, 93).  Asher and Duke confirm that students, though they often start in Google, end up in library databases “when seeking reliable or scholarly sources.” (2012, 72).

Discovery is not the problem – it’s knowing how to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize

The sources students use in their papers are generally found to be acceptable by their professors, who point out that students have more trouble with writing, critical thinking, argument, and synthesis (Dimmock 2013, 12). Asher and Duke go so far as to question the value of making search easier for students:

“Making search easier for students can therefore be a double-edged sword: while it enables students to get to information faster and easier, it can also reinforce unreflective research habits that contribute little to the overall synthesis of a research paper or academic argument.”  (2012, 76)

“If I can’t find it, it must not be there” – Students perceive their search skills to be better than they really are

Students do not exhibit sophisticated searching skills, and often do not have a good understanding of how information is indexed or organized (Asher and Duke 2012, 73). They rely too heavily on simple keyword search and are likely to start a new search (or even chose a new topic) rather than broaden, narrow, or re-structure an existing search.  And students rarely consider a poor result set to be the outcome of a poor search – instead, they assume that the information just isn’t there (Asher and Duke 2012, 77).

“Only rarely did students conclude that a lack of search results might, in fact, reflect incorrect search terms or an ineffective search strategy.”  (Asher and Duke 2012, 77)

“What is it?”  Students have difficulty finding, using, and understanding library online resources

Students often do not understand where the library ends and the open web begins. They are told by their professors “not to use online resources,” yet library e-journals, e-books, and databases are “online” – this results in uncertainty as to whether or not library sources are acceptable.   They also have difficulty navigating to library resources or knowing what they can find at the library (George and Foster 2013, 95; Asher and Duke 2012, 74, 82).  It seems the library is still a confusing, complicated place for undergraduates!

“Without specific library instruction, students are left with major misconceptions of what they can find at the library or online.”  (George and Foster 2013, 95)

Students use the resources they know best – even if completely wrong for their topic

Project Information Literacy found that “almost all” the students they surveyed “relied on  the same few ‘tried and true’ resources, such as course readings, Google, library databases, and Wikipedia, to control the vast amount of information” (Head 2013, 475).  Asher and Duke note that “when choosing a database, students typically returned repeatedly to a resource that had worked in the past, even if it was not the best or most appropriate for the task” (2012, 74).

Wikipedia is more than an encyclopedia, it’s an access point

Lawrence and Costello observed students using the citations at the bottom of Wikipedia pages as a jumping off point to other, more scholarly resources (2014, 11). I observed this behavior as well in an ongoing study with students at my institution.

“Good enough” –  not looking past the first page of results

Students are unlikely to look past the first page or two of search results (Asher and Duke 2012, 80; Lawrence and Costello 2014, 12).

“I want it now” – ease and speed of access more important than quality or relevance

Students want full-text sources immediately, and are unlikely to use requesting services.  Technical difficulties are also a “major barrier” to using resources.  (Asher and Duke 2012, 78, 82)

“When I want something, I want it now.” – quote from a student (Asher and Duke 2012, 81)

Need help?  Ask Facebook, not librarians

Students rarely ask librarians for help, turning instead to instructors, peers, or family (Miller and Murillo 2012; Head 2013; Lawrence and Costello 2014, 11).  One study noticed the use of Facebook to ask for help from friends (Connaway et al. 2013).

“Students were more eager to go to peers and to family for help than to seek librarians. ” (Miller and Murillo 2012, 58)

“Participants in the emerging educational stage often wanted to talk to to a fellow student about an assignment using Facebook. If the person they were hoping to connect with in Facebook was not online then some participants would text the person in question to request that they login.” (Connaway et al. 2013, 4)


Asher, A. & Duke, L. (2012). Searching for answers: Student research behavior at Illinois Wesleyan University. In L. Duke & A. Asher, (Eds.), College libraries and student culture (71-85). Chicago: American Library Association.

Connaway, L. S., White, D., Lanclos, D. & Le Cornu, A. (2012). Visitors and residents: what motivates engagement with the digital information environment? Information Research, 18(1) paper 556. Retrieved from

Dimmock, N. (2013). Hallmarks of a good paper.  In N.F. Foster (Ed.), Studying students: A second look (7-17). Chicago: ACRL.

George, S. & Foster, N.F. (2013). Understanding how undergraduates work.  In N.F. Foster (Ed.), Studying students: A second look (83-101). Chicago: ACRL.

Head, A. (2013). Project information literacy: What can be learned about the information-seeking behavior of today’s college students? ACRL 2013 Proceedings. Retrieved from

Lawrence, K., Costello, D. (2014). Five surprises about college student information literacy. Strategic Libraries, Issue 10. Retrieved from

Miller, S. & Murillo, N. (2012). Why don’t students ask librarians for help? Undergraduate help-seeking behavior in three academic libraries. In L. Duke & A. Asher, (Eds.), College libraries and student culture (71-85). Chicago: American Library Association.

8 thoughts on “How college students *really* do research – findings from recent studies

  1. Do you think that the behaviour – ‘good enough’ might be related to the pressures of assessment in their course load and to the plethora of information? I know I would be resorting to this approach as an undergraduate if I’d spent a good part of a week searching for information and was overwhelmed with ‘stuff’ that wasn’t quite what I had hoped for.
    The fact that students have difficulty expressing themselves academically is also at the heart of the matter. You can tweak almost anything to support an argument at UG level if you can write well. These findings aren’t shocking, but leave much to work on from the point of view of library instruction.

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