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Course teaches students to be selective researchers

By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries

fire-hydrant-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Lotus Development Corp. founder Mitch Kapor spoke for the majority of uninitiated Web users when he said, “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”

Washington State University Libraries and the Office of Undergraduate Education are bringing back a class this fall that will teach university students to moderate that flow of information – and to be more effective researchers in the process.

A one-credit course first offered in 1995, UNIV 300: Accessing Information for Research helps students better understand the modern information landscape, including scholarly communication and the Internet. They learn important concepts and skills related to information access and evaluation, such as advanced database search techniques and choosing sources that are credible, relevant and accurate.

UNIV 300 will be offered Monday and Wednesday mornings Aug. 25-Oct. 15. Priority registration for fall courses begins today (April 14).

Critical thinking, communication skills

Fire hydrant drinking fountain at MIT Stata Center, Cambridge, Mass. (Photo by Wally Gobetz, courtesy of Flickr)

WSU instruction librarian Holly Luetkenhaus said students need to know and understand how information is created, shared and used in various formats to become critical thinkers and evaluators of that knowledge.

“It crosses their paths daily in the form of websites, news sources, other people, blogs and even Facebook and Twitter,” she said. “There is no shortage of ways and places to find information today.

“Additionally, in surveys and studies, employers are consistently saying they need employees with strong communication skills,” she said. “Learning how to find, use and analyze information is a key component of effectively communicating and being able to solve problems. This class will help students develop these skills for use during their college careers and for life.”

Don’t just Google. Google better

New students adjusting to college life face an added burden when they not only have to produce more rigorous work, but they also lack the ability to track down the right research sources on the Web.

Luetkenhaus cites studies conducted at several Illinois universities, described in an Inside Higher Ed article, that showed students could not find or evaluate online research sources well. In particular, the students relied heavily on Google for their research. Yet even with Google, they didn’t know how to refine their searches for better results.

“Google can actually be a really powerful search tool, if it is used appropriately,” she said. “Many people don’t realize that Google has advanced search options or ways to limit results (like a date range or selecting a specific location) similar to what library databases have. Using these can make searching in Google and databases more effective.”

Google Scholar is one tool that students can use to search for scholarly literature across many disciplines and sources, she said. A word of caution, though: Google Scholar users will often only be able to access partial journal articles or be required to pay to view the entire piece.

WSU Libraries and other academic libraries have no such restrictions for their students who need search help.

“Using a library database makes certain parts of the search process much easier,” she said. “You know what you’re finding is credible. And because the library has access to a vast number of databases, there are a lot more options than relying solely on Google Scholar.”

What makes a good source?

Type the phrase “What makes a good source for a research paper?” in Google. The search engine will return 156 million hits. And herein lies another problem with broad Web searches.

“The trick when using something like a search engine on the Web is being able to evaluate what you’re finding, and that means looking past whether something has an ‘.org’ or ‘.gov’ at the end of the URL,” Luetkenhaus said. “It is so easy for anyone to put anything online and even puff up their credentials to make themselves sound like authorities.”

Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed formula for ensuring that information is reliable and credible or that it comes from an authoritative source, she said. Students can check for references or verify that the author is an expert in the field.

“But what it really comes down to is being willing to put in a little time to investigate the article, website or author and approaching everything you find online with a bit of skepticism, rather than being too willing to accept things at face value,” she said.

Academic librarians can help students take the guesswork out of differentiating a good source from a bad one. Any library instruction will, in fact. The Illinois university system studies Luetkenhaus mentioned showed that students who had attended library orientations or tutorials had stronger research skills than those who hadn’t.

In other words, researching smartly can turn a gusher of online information into a manageable trickle.



Holly Luetkenhaus, WSU Libraries instruction librarian, 509-335-4667,

Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries public relations/communication coordinator, 509-335-6744,

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