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Effects of Digital Media on Research and Study Habits of Undergraduates

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Digital Natives in Modern Academia

It is an interesting time to look at the research habits of early adults in undergraduate programs. At this point, it can be assumed that many undergraduate students fit into the category of being a digital native, meaning that they have had access to computers and internet since childhood and are very comfortable with this technology. Being digital natives, early adults now turn to digital technology daily for information for their day to day lives as well as their education.

The Challenges of Information Literacy for Undergraduates

With the introduction of computers and internet research databases to the academic world, the idea of information literacy has become a widely researched and studied topic. Information literacy is defined as the ability to find, evaluate, and analyze information critically and effectively. And while most early adult college students would be considered digitally literate, a study from University of Washington's ischool about the study skills of undergrads shows that only 13% of students are considered to be information literate. While most of the students who participated in the study use information technology daily, deciphering the research they conduct is still a challenge.

The challenge that arises, is simply there is just too much information on any given topic. According to the study, many students claim, that the more they research a topic, the more they feel like they do not know it, and have a harder time making conclusions. However, some scholars do not acknowledge this theory and would rather damn this generation of students as slackers more concerned with Facebook and social networking than academic work, as written in The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein, who concludes, "the intellectual future of the United States looks dim."

While it is true that Facebook, texting, and social networking in general have become new distractions and do at times impede learning, instead of condemning them, it is important to adapt to them. Students still have the same fundamental goals for a college education. It was found in the UW ischool's study about the study habits of undergraduates, that 78% of students thought it was important to learn something new through academic inquiry and research about a topic, as well as to receive good evaluations and grades from their faculty.[1] These findings simply do not support the scapegoating that some professors and scholars use to explain poor academic performance.

Luckily most information scholars see this view point as an oversimplification. University of Washington ischool researchers argue that many professors- not all- but a lot, are not giving their students the appropriate amount of help navigating this vast sea of information because they themselves do not know how to manage it either.

So How Exactly do Undergraduates Study and Conduct Research?

Project Information Literacy has found that most undergraduate students, when preparing research for an academic paper use a very small amount of trusted sources. They often turn to Wikipedia first, then to Google, course texts, and suggested readings from their faculty. Very rarely do students meet with a librarian to help them conduct research or find source material, and often many students do not even go to the library at all.

While students are studying, unless studying for an exam where memorization is important, students tend to go for breadth of information, as opposed to depth. Preferring skimming multiple sources from various disciplines and mediums to gain an understanding of their topic or inquiry. Often while studying in this way they are also checking social networking sites and texting to keep in almost constant contact with their friends.


Here is a video created by Project Information Literacy about how time and information is managed during "crunch time" at colleges and universities; meaning the last couple weeks before the end of the quarter or semester. However, these findings also speak to a bigger change in learning and producing academic work; multitasking. Multitasking has become a widely accepted way to conduct everyday business.

We are constantly on our phones, checking email, and looking at our social networking sites. These constant distractions are fragmenting our thinking and making it difficult to focus on tasks for long periods of time. It is also impeding our ability, at times, to create focused work. However, a solution for this seems unlikely. It is important rather to adapt education modes to fit with a multitasking culture.

New Approaches to improve Critical Thinking Skills

The most important thing that can happen to improve information literacy is education reform. Barack Obama made October 2009 National Information Literacy Awareness Month. Schools of all levels need to shift their focus from primarily teaching traditional writing, reading, math, and science skills and at an early age help learners sift through and look critically at the incredible amount of information available, so they may use it creatively, intelligently, and to the best of their advantage.


College students eager to learn but need help negotiating information overload

UW Study: College Students Limit Technology Use During Crunch Time

Information Literacy: A Neglected Core Competency

Russ Poldrack: May I Have your Attention? The Brain, Multitasking, and Information Overload

Project Information Literacy

How college students use the web to conduct everyday life research