How College Students do Research in Digital Age?

We keep hearing about students’ research is limited to Google these days and that they fail to look past the first page of results. Are these assumptions about research behaviors of college students accurate?


In this article, we will study the actual research behaviors of students today. We will also discuss how the undergraduate and graduate students can be encouraged to be good researchers, and research skills and practices they should adopt:


Real Ways in which College Students Research Today


In 2012, Asher and Duke confirmed that while most students start researching in Google, they turn to library databases when they seek reliable or scholarly sources. A 2013 study by Project Information Literacy found that 96% students looked at course readings for relevant information, 92% trusted Google and as many as 88% used scholarly research databases. Another 2013 study by George and Foster found that library databases were searched about as often as Google or Google Scholar.


Most Professors think that while students do come up with acceptable papers, they face more trouble when it comes to critical thinking, writing the paper, presenting the arguments and synthesizing concepts. Some also think that being able to search up information easily and quickly might be reinforcing unreflective research habits in students.


Students do not exhibit sophisticated searching skills anymore but perceive themselves to have superior research skills. Asher and Duke think that students rely too heavily on simple keyword search and do not have a good understanding of indexing or organizing information. Some students may even choose a new topic rather than broaden their search, narrow it, or re-structure it otherwise. They also found that if students do not find certain information, they do not consider it as a result of an inadequate search. They just assume that information is not there. Rarely, students realized that lack of relevant search results might be a result of an ineffective search strategy or their use of incorrect search terms.


Most undergraduates are confused about how to use online library resources. They are also not sure whether they will be acceptable of not. Most professors tell students not to use online resources. Library e-journals and e-books are online. This confuses students whether these sources will be accepted or not. They confuse between library databases and the open web. Undergraduates also find library resources difficult to navigate and are uncertain about what they can find there.


Almost all students relied on ‘tried-and-tested’ resources such as course readings, library databases, Google and Wikipedia to find information. Typically, students turned to resources they have already worked with in the past – even if they were not appropriate for the task at hand. In a 2014 study, Lawrence and Costello observed that students used Wikipedia not merely as a tool to access information but also to find more scholarly resources using the citation stated at the bottom of the articles. They also observed that students rarely looked past the first or second page of search results.


Students rarely requested services. They wanted instant access to full-text sources. Technical problems seemed to be their biggest challenge for them in accessing their preferred resource. Similarly, college students in digital age tend to turn to Facebook to look for help in their research work rather than librarians. In a 2013 study, Connaway stated that ‘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 on Facebook was not online then some participants would text the person in question to request that they login.’


Changing Nature of Research Challenges in Last 5-6 Years

A 2010 report by Project Information Literacy revealed that college students do not know how to research correctly. A survey conducted on 8,353 students across 25 colleges concluded:

  • 84% respondents found it difficult to getting started on research work,
  • 66% college students found it difficult to define a topic,
  • 62% found it difficult to narrow the topic down, and
  • 61% respondents found it hardest to sort through results.

In 2010, students preferred ‘risk-averse’ research, which means that they preferred to seek information available to them through college campuses only. They did not use web 2.0 for research and turned to faculty advisors rather than research librarians for guidance. The ‘exploratory’ nature of the university-level research was taking a hit.

Things are changing now. The deluge of digital services, particularly smartphones, is serving as a huge distraction for students. A study published in the Journal of Media Education in January 2016 pointed out that about 12% students text, email, check the time and do non-classroom related activities in class more than 30 times a day! The study found that most students spend a fifth of their class time doing things that have nothing to do with their school work. About 34% students confessed that they used a digital device for non-learning reasons in class more than 10 times.

A 2015 EBSCO survey found that many college students were not comfortable with many research-related terms and concepts, which they referred to as ‘Library-ese’.  

It also found:

  • 32% students conduct research between 7 pm and 12 midnight.
  • 43% college students approached their Faculty or Professor to seek advice or support regarding their research work, and only 19% approach College Librarian to request for help.
  • 60% students rate their research skills as ‘Intermediate’ while 33% considered themselves ‘Novice.’
  • 71% students chose to use Basic Search facilities because they generate a wider range of information.
  • If an assignment is due in three weeks, 78% students will start researching it in the first 7 to 10 days of receiving it.

About 68% students start their research process by reading up about a topic on Google and Wikipedia. Once they have an overview of things, they identify and narrow down their topic. While 64% students turned to Library Sources for Research, 39% found that their school’s library website was more challenging than Google. Unfamiliar terms served as barriers for students who could not utilize the resources available to them fully – as they did not understand them.

Good Research Practices all College Students Should Know


47% college students think that it takes only 1-2 hours to find citable sources for their research paper. However, the instructors don’t seem to agree. They think that it was too little time to spend on research work.

To motivate students to do more research, it might be a good idea to integrate their future career goals into their research papers. If students start writing and presenting papers as if they are going to present their idea to a prospective employer company, they might be encouraged to research the topic or idea more thoroughly and understand the broader value of the course better.

Here are a few research practices that all college students should pick up:

  • Do not rush in choosing a topic. Think through various issues well and keep your mind open to alternative ideas and flashes of insight. You might also want to decide a timeframe in which you will finalize the topic – so that you can override indecision and choose the topic within time.
  • Be practical about your topic choice, depth of your research work, the length of your paper, and sources available to you. Finding appropriate material for your research can be frustrating at times, but it gives immense satisfaction too. Do check if you have sufficient resources accessible online and available at your local library before you submit your final choice of topic to your faculty. Establish a time limit for each step of research work and try to stick to it.


Three things that go into determining a good research topic:

  • What is already known about my topic?
  • What needs to be understood?
  • How can I contribute in clarifying the topic a bit more?


  • Enjoy Researching as Mystery Solving Exercise: Researchers are investigators. Once you have chosen a topic of your interest, probe into related ideas and use critical thinking ability to synthesize various concepts that might complex and sometimes, conflicting too.
  • Trusted Sources you can use: You can use your class lectures or notes, interviews, newspapers or magazines, published books or dissertations, articles published in scholarly journals and reputed newspaper or government websites. You may also pick up info from university or educational websites, encyclopedia sites and books published by major publishers. Remember that Wikipedia, personal blogs, and sources that do not cite author names or quotations are not to be trusted.
  • Ask Senior Researchers for Guidance: Talk to other research scholars, faculty members and professors to find out which behaviors and attitudes proved effective or ineffective for them in their research work. Planning, researching, drafting papers and revising them – all can affect the quality of your research paper. So, pay attention to each step and be thorough with it. Some of the few things that can aid proper research are:
  • Be open to learning as you go
  • Learn to summarize other’s points
  • Compose an original thesis
  • Decide what ideas you agree and what you disagree with
  • Finding appropriate and trusted sources
  • Have a good reading comprehension
  • Acquire paraphrasing and quoting skills
  • Learn to work with library databases

Once you graduate from college, you will be expected to be able to collect information for various assignments, and verify its authenticity too. Take academic research serious as it can affect your future success as a professional.


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