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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2008

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Library Research Skills: A Needs Assessment for Graduate Student Workshops

Kristin Hoffmann
Research & Instructional Services Librarian

Fred Antwi-Nsiah
Research & Instructional Services Librarian

Vivian Feng
Research & Instructional Services Librarian

Meagan Stanley
Research & Instructional Services Library Assistant

Allyn & Betty Taylor Library
The University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario, Canada

Copyright 2008, Kristin Hoffmann, Fred Antwi-Nsiah, Vivian Feng, and Meagan Stanley. Used with permission.


Information literacy instruction programs for graduate students can be challenging to develop. One solution is to develop non-course-based, non-mandatory library instruction programs, in order to meet the information literacy needs of as many graduate students as possible. This was the approach taken by the Taylor Library at the University of Western Ontario, as we embarked on the development of a program for students in the areas of engineering, health sciences, medicine & dentistry, and science. As a first step, we conducted a needs assessment study via focus groups and an online survey. The study looked at graduate student perceptions of their library research needs, their preferences for learning about library research, and the appropriateness of a common instruction program for students in these disciplines. We found that graduate students wanted to learn about strategies for finding information, bibliographic management tools such as RefWorks, and tools for keeping current with scholarly literature. Students preferred online instruction, although in-person workshops were also found to be valuable. Students in all four faculties identified common information literacy needs, while expressing a desire for subject-specific instruction.


Graduate students have unique needs with respect to library research, and it can be challenging for librarians to develop instruction programs to meet these needs. Graduate students typically take fewer courses than undergraduates, which means fewer opportunities to integrate instruction into graduate-level courses. One solution is for librarians to develop non-course-based, non-mandatory instruction programs, in an attempt to meet the information literacy needs of as many graduate students as possible. This was the approach taken by the Taylor Library at the University of Western Ontario.

The University of Western Ontario (Western) is one of Canada's largest and oldest universities. Western has over 1,300 full-time faculty members and approximately 24,000 undergraduate students and 4,000 graduate students. Through its 12 Faculties and four affiliated Colleges, Western offers more than 400 different majors, minors, and specializations in a full range of disciplines.

The Allyn and Betty Taylor Library is one of the seven locations that make up Western Libraries. Taylor Library serves the Faculties of Science, Engineering, and Health Sciences, as well as the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. Research and Instructional Services Librarians at Western have had varying levels of success in integrating information literacy instruction into the curriculum for graduate programs. In most cases, library instruction for graduate students has consisted of orientations or tool-based one-shot sessions for students in a particular course. In early 2006, Taylor Library started to plan a comprehensive library research skills instructional program for graduate students.

As the first step in developing the program, we conducted a needs assessment for the target population in July and August 2006. The objectives of the needs assessment were:

Literature Review

Research on library use and information literacy of graduate students has been growing in recent decades. Researchers report varying levels of success in meeting the information literacy needs of the graduate student population. There is a demonstrated need to develop graduate students' library research skills, but no single approach has emerged as the best for doing so.

A survey of physical science graduate students (Brown 1999) revealed high levels of information literacy skills among respondents, although only half of them reported receiving library instruction. This raises the question of how these students acquired these skills, since attendance at library instruction sessions was low. Library instruction for graduate students is often not even offered -- a survey of librarians with responsibilities for physics (Fosmire 2001), found that only 23% of graduate students received discipline-specific library instruction.

Other studies have used pre- and post-test methods to measure the effectiveness of library instruction. Brown and Krumholz (2002) surveyed an upper-year geomicrobiology course, including both senior undergraduate and graduate students, that received library instruction related to their assignments. By the end of the course, the students' self-reported level of information literacy had increased. Bellard (2007) surveyed graduate students in social work before and after an online information literacy workshop. Again, students' self-reported library skill levels increased slightly. Also, a majority of students said that instruction in library skills should be included in the curriculum. A study of upper-year psychology undergraduates (Paglia & Donahue 2003) used multiple methods to assess the usefulness of discipline-specific instruction, and found that such instruction resulted in improved skills and confidence.

A common theme from studies of graduate students is that they are not fully aware of the services and resources offered by their libraries (Williams 2000; Washington-Hoagland & Clougherty 2002; Brown 2005; Kuruppu & Gruber 2006). Another interesting finding comes from a research team at Carnegie Mellon University Libraries (George et al. 2006; Stein et al. 2006) who recently conducted a study of graduate student satisfaction with library collections and services. They found that graduate students do not come to the library as their first source of information, but rather they consult with their advisors or professors. Students also reported feeling overwhelmed by the number of article databases and online resources.

Another theme related to graduate students is that faculty often assume that when students enter graduate school, they know how to conduct library research (Williams 2000; Bellard 2007). For years, librarians have been challenging this assumption. As Bradigan et al. (1987) observed, "students come to graduate study with vastly different levels of preparation and may understandably be unaware of or reluctant to confront the deficiencies in their research training." Librarians see these deficiencies in research skills first-hand at the reference desk and during individual consultations with graduate students.

The increasing number of international students is another reason why graduate students cannot be assumed to possess basic information literacy skills. Canadian universities have similar library systems, and the libraries subscribe to similar information resources, so Canadian students may have had the opportunity to use the specialized resources that they will need as graduate students. For international students, that opportunity may not have been available, and students may come from universities with vastly different library systems (Baron & Strout-Dapaz 2001; Korolev 2001; Liao et al. 2007). Hughes (2005) found that international students' previous exposure to information literacy instruction is not uniform, although it must be acknowledged that this is true for any group of students from different disciplines or institutions.

In addition to recognizing the range of graduate students' proficiency in library research, instruction librarians must also address the fact that the level of information literacy expected of graduate students is much different from that expected of undergraduates (Ackerson 1996; Williams 2000; Smith 2003). Ackerson proposes a model for graduate-level library research that includes various search strategies in order to guide graduate students in carrying out exhaustive literature searches. Her model has six steps: searching subject indexes, identifying review articles, searching for ancestors, searching for descendants, identifying key documents, and current awareness. These steps lead graduate students through a process whereby they learn to contextualize their research within the published literature.

Research at the graduate level therefore requires the sophisticated use of specialized information sources, and involves synthesis of information from various stages of the scholarly communication process, that is, from primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Library instruction for graduate students must address this complexity, since the high expectations with respect to information literacy can be stressful. When developing library instruction programs for graduate students, it is important to keep in mind that students will have varying levels of expertise with library research, that they need to develop specialized skills and abilities, and that they may not be aware of what they need to learn.


The target population for our study consisted of graduate students in the Faculties of Science, Engineering, and Health Sciences, and the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. Both quantitative and qualitative research methods were used for data collection. An online survey was administered in order to reach the largest graduate student population possible. Since surveys are limited in their ability to probe responses, graduate student focus groups were also conducted, in order to gather more in-depth information about their needs. An additional focus group was conducted with faculty members who supervise or teach graduate students, in order to add a further dimension to our understanding of graduate student needs. There was considerable overlap between the questions on the survey and the guided discussion in the focus groups, which allowed for extensive exploration of issues presented in the survey.

The primary tool for determining graduate students' perceived information literacy needs was a list of proposed workshop topics. The survey and focus groups were designed to gather feedback about the perceived usefulness and relevance of the proposed workshops. In the survey, respondents were asked to rate how useful they would find each workshop. In the focus groups, participants were asked to discuss whether they thought anything was missing or unnecessary in the workshop descriptions, and student participants were asked whether they would attend the workshops described.

The first draft of proposed workshop topics was inspired by Ackerson's model for graduate-level literature searching (1996). Based on Ackerson's model and our professional expertise, we incorporated the components of the library research process into the list of workshop topics. We also attempted to make each topic focused, and we specifically wanted to move away from tool-based instruction. The draft list gradually evolved during our ongoing discussion and consultations with other colleagues. The final list of proposed workshop topics is included as Appendix A.

The survey also asked questions related to students' previous experiences with library instruction, their challenges with finding information, and their preferences for workshop delivery. The text for the survey is included as Appendix B. The focus groups were semi-structured. In addition to the discussion about workshop topics described above, we asked about participants' perceptions of the library's role in student learning, how students have found information they needed in the past, and what information-seeking skills faculty members think are most important for their students.

Participants for the survey were recruited through email from subject librarians. Focus group participants were recruited through email, advertisements in the library and on the Taylor Library web site, and posters on department notice boards. Focus group participants were provided with lunch, and a draw for gift certificates was held for survey respondents.

The survey was conducted with SurveyMonkey, which made it easy to collect and tabulate the results. The focus groups were conducted by three of the authors. One person facilitated the discussion, one recorded participants' comments on a flip chart, and one observed the discussion and made additional notes. The focus groups were approximately 90 minutes long. The focus group notes and responses from open-ended survey questions were coded and reviewed for common themes. Other survey questions were analyzed by calculating the percentage of respondents who chose each option.

Results and Discussion


Four focus groups were conducted, three for graduate students and one for faculty members. There were a total of 33 graduate student participants and eight faculty participants. The focus groups were not representative of all four faculties; there were very few student participants from Health Sciences or Medicine & Dentistry, and there were no faculty participants from Medicine & Dentistry. Since the goal of the focus groups was to provide additional depth to the survey questions, the lack of representative samples is not a significant cause for concern.

There were 274 survey responses, for a response rate of approximately 16%. Response rates per faculty were highest for the Faculty of Engineering (21%) and lowest for the Faculty of Health Sciences (11%); the lower response rate for Health Sciences was perhaps due to the fact that many students in that faculty's professional programs were on work placements during the summer.

Survey respondents were representative with respect to the proportion of Master's and PhD respondents in each faculty. Figure 1 compares the percentage of Master's and PhD respondents per faculty with the percentage of Master's and PhD students enrolled in each faculty.

Figure 1. Survey respondents' degree program by faculty. The percentage of respondents in Master's and PhD programs is compared to the percentage of students enrolled in those programs at Western.

Many survey respondents had obtained previous degrees outside Canada; 35% of respondents overall have a Bachelor's degree from another country and 15% of respondents have a Master's degree from another country. Significant differences emerged at the faculty level, where 67% of respondents from the Faculty of Engineering had an international Bachelor's degree, compared with 37% for Science, 12% for Medicine & Dentistry, and only 4% for Health Sciences. Data on the number of international graduate students at Western is not available, but the higher number of international students in the Engineering and Science faculties is consistent with our experience in the Taylor Library. Most international survey respondents were from countries in Asia or the Middle East.

Previous Library Instruction

Survey respondents had not received uniform instruction in library research skills. Overall, 72% of respondents had been taught how to search online article databases at some point in their academic careers, but this percentage decreased for most other skills, down to only 9% who had been taught how to find patents. Admittedly, patent searching is a very specific skill; however, it is relevant to students in scientific and technical disciplines (ALA 2006).

The areas where students had received the most instruction were:

Of these four areas, only the first two had been taught primarily by librarians; the others had been taught primarily by professors. Similarly, those students who had been taught how to keep current with developments in their research field and avoid plagiarism had also been taught primarily by their professors. Students who had been taught how to use citation management software had been taught almost equally by librarians, professors and classmates. These students' experiences of previous instruction are also consistent with comments of many student focus group participants that some of the proposed workshop topics did not seem like areas that would be covered by librarians. At the same time, a number of students said that while they "wouldn't go to the library for this," they were not getting the information from any other source, so they might be inclined to attend a workshop on the topic.

Challenges with Finding Information

Survey respondents identified many challenges with finding the information they need for their work. These challenges were separated by faculty and sorted by the type of challenge expressed. A number of commonalities emerged among students in the four faculties, as well as some interesting differences.

Students in all four faculties identified challenges with choosing keywords and search terms, refining searches or narrowing results, and sorting through result sets to find relevant information. They also identified challenges related to accessing the collection, such as difficulty accessing the full-text of resources, frustration with off-campus access, and frustration because materials they wanted were not in the collection. Less frequently mentioned were challenges with knowing where to look for information and finding materials in the library.

Other challenges mentioned were more discipline-specific: Engineering students more often identified difficulties with finding theses, conference proceedings or technical reports. Students in Science and Medicine & Dentistry identified challenges with finding older materials (e.g., "30 years old" or "pre-1950"). Students in Health Sciences commented on challenges with doing comprehensive searches and finding reliable information. These last two challenges were not mentioned at all by students in Engineering or Science, although the faculty focus group participants in these disciplines all mentioned that their students had trouble with these aspects of library research.

Choices of Workshop Topics

Survey respondents were generally very positive about the usefulness of the ten workshops described. Overall, each workshop was rated "very" or "somewhat" useful by anywhere from 67% to 83% of respondents. Greater disparity became evident when looking at only the "very useful" responses – only 26% of students thought that Scholarly Communication Process would be very useful, compared to 57% for Identifying Key Research Papers. Figure 2 shows the overall responses to workshop usefulness, and Figure 3 breaks down the "very useful" responses by faculty.

In Figure 3, some interesting differences are evident between respondents in the four faculties. Respondents in Engineering were much more interested in the workshops Introduction to Western Libraries, Scholarly Communication Process, and Ethical Use of Information. From the focus groups, it seemed that international students were generally more interested in these sessions, but this trend only held for international students in Engineering and not those in other faculties. Science graduate students in general seemed to be less convinced of the usefulness of the workshops than students in the other faculties. Students in Engineering, Science and Health Sciences all chose Identifying Key Research Papers as the most useful workshop, and for Medicine & Dentistry students this was a close second behind Introduction to RefWorks.

Figure 2. Percentage of respondents overall who said the proposed workshop topic would be "very" or "somewhat useful."

Figure 3. Percentage of respondents in each faculty who said the proposed workshop topic would be "very useful."

Students' indications of which workshops they believed to be useful does not necessarily mean that they would attend those workshops. In this respect, the input from focus group participants was very informative. Several participants were forthcoming with their opinions that while a particular workshop sounded useful (e.g., Ethical Use of Information), realistically they would not find it appealing enough to attend.

Participants in both the faculty and student focus groups also thought that several of the workshops could be combined. In particular, Search Strategies, Selecting Subject Databases, and Identifying Key Research Papers were identified as three topics that would fit well together. Various combinations of Scholarly Communication Process, Writing the Research Paper, and Ethical Use of Information were also suggested.

Faculty members in the focus group felt that all of the workshop topics were important, although they seemed to feel most strongly that their students should develop a repertoire of strategies for searching the literature. One interesting difference from the students' perspectives was that faculty members placed more importance on knowledge of copyright, plagiarism, and intellectual property. Faculty members also thought that it could be useful to indicate pre-requisites for some workshops; for example, students must have taken a Searching Strategies workshop before attending Introduction to RefWorks.

Workshop Delivery

There was a clear preference among graduate students for online instruction. In the survey responses, 64% said they would prefer online tutorials, 47% would like workshops run by a librarian and a faculty member, and 43% would like workshops run by a librarian (respondents could choose more than one option).

In the focus groups, students felt that many of the points in the proposed workshops could be adequately covered in online FAQs or other online documents, although many students said they would like to have a workshop to introduce the topic, as well as online material to refer to afterwards. Students also indicated that time constraints would influence their decision to attend a workshop, and therefore online material would be more appealing.

In contrast to the students' opinions, faculty members expressed a strong desire for students to have hands-on experience with library research skills instruction. They also felt that collaboration between faculty and librarians was an important component of teaching library research skills.

Workshop Time and Announcements

There was no clear indication about the time of day that would be suitable for most students. The majority of survey respondents indicated that their preference for time of day would depend on their schedule each term. Opinions about the length of workshops varied widely. Some students felt that short (as short as half an hour) workshops would be more appealing, but others said they would like a full day workshop. As expected, email was the most preferred method of communication about workshops.


Students were asked to identify incentives and deterrents for attending the workshops. The top responses overall are outlined in Table 1, in order from most to least common reason chosen.

Table 1. Overall survey responses indicating incentives and deterrents for attending workshops. Respondents could choose more than one option.

Clearly, students want to see that workshops are relevant to their work. How this relevance would be apparent was not specifically explored in the survey, but one theme that emerged in the focus groups was subject-specificity. This will be discussed further in the next section.

In both the survey and focus groups, some students commented that they would appreciate having basic and advanced level workshops. This seemed particularly important to students who had previous degrees from Western or other Canadian institutions and who felt comfortable with basic library research. These students wanted assurance that if they attended a workshop they would not be taught information that they already knew. Faculty members also suggested that for topics such as Scholarly Communication Process, it would be appropriate to offer Master's- and PhD-specific workshops.

A further incentive suggested by faculty members was to offer course credit or a certificate for students who attended all workshops in the series.


Many student focus group participants said they would like subject-specific workshops, since they felt that their information needs could only be met by addressing library research skills within the context of their disciplines. Not all participants felt that this was necessary. A few students recognized that some skills, such as understanding how to develop search strategies, are transferable across disciplines. Other participants wanted generic workshops, either because their work was interdisciplinary or because they wanted to learn from their peers in other disciplines.

Overall, 85% of survey respondents indicated that subject-specific workshops were "somewhat" or "very important" for their work. This was lowest in Science, at 78%, and highest in Engineering and Health Sciences, both at 90%.

Faculty focus group participants felt that subject-specificity would be valuable for workshops such as Identifying Key Research Papers and Writing the Research Paper, where it would be important to address different tools or styles depending on the discipline. Faculty also thought that it could be difficult to teach a workshop on searching and selecting databases if the students were in several different disciplines. However, faculty members overall did not place as much emphasis on subject-specific workshops as the students.


Our findings provide evidence that relates to each of the objectives of the needs assessment. With respect to graduate student perceptions of their library research needs, we found that students thought that the most useful workshops were Introduction to RefWorks, Keeping Current with Scholarly Literature, and those that related to searching for information. Students' perceived need for the various workshops about searching skills is also supported by the fact that they identified challenges with finding information in these areas, that is, they expressed difficulties with developing keywords and search strategies, and with knowing where to look for the information they need. Students were generally quite positive about the proposed workshops, and their enthusiasm is similar to that found in previous studies (Washington-Hoagland & Clougherty 2002; Bellard 2007).

Our second objective was to determine graduate student preferences for learning about library research. As expected, students preferred to receive announcements about workshops via email, and they had no clear preferences about days or times to hold in-person workshops. Students overwhelmingly wanted online instruction, as also found by Kuruppu & Gruber (2006), although their desired form of online instruction was not specified. Faculty members who work with graduate students felt that in-person, hands-on instruction would also be beneficial. Both students and faculty suggested offering workshops at varying levels (i.e., basic and advanced), which is also recommended by Brown (1999) as a way to meet students' changing information needs as they go through their program.

Finally, we wanted to determine the appropriateness of a common instruction program for graduate students in the four faculties supported by the Taylor Library. Several of our findings support a common program: students in all four faculties have not received uniform library instruction prior to entering their graduate programs, students in all four faculties identified similar challenges with finding information, and most students identified the same set of workshops as being "very useful." The findings that do not support a common program are the facts that there were some differences between the faculties in terms of challenges with finding information, and that many students indicated a strong preference for subject-specific instruction.

We conclude that a common program is appropriate. To address students' desire for subject-specific instruction, the program should have two streams, one for students in Physical Sciences & Engineering, and one for students in Health & Medical Sciences. These subject divisions are similar to those in the workshops described by Martorana and Meszaros (1997). Our instruction program should also include relevant discipline-specific examples in the workshops, and should be supplemented by discipline-specific instruction from subject librarians.

The results of the needs assessment study are being used to develop a general instruction program for graduate students. The workshops to be offered include: Introduction to Library Research at Western, Basic Searching Skills, Advanced Searching Skills (note that both searching skills workshops will be offered in subject-specific streams), Introduction to RefWorks, and Keeping Current with Scholarly Literature. In response to students' desire for online instruction, each workshop will also be available as an online tutorial. Further assessment of these workshops and online tutorials is being planned in order to determine how well they are meeting graduate student needs.


Future studies of graduate student needs should attempt to identify a representative sample of graduate students. One drawback of our needs assessment study is that the survey and focus group samples were neither random nor representative. Respondents self-selected to answer the survey or participate in the focus groups, which means that our sample may be over-represented by those who think that library instruction is useful.

Our needs assessment relied on student and faculty perceptions, which may be biased or limited by respondents' experiences. It would be useful for future research to focus on comparing graduate students' perceptions of their library research needs with their library research abilities. Further research on the information literacy needs of graduate students should include a more in-depth look at the needs of international students, and the extent to which their needs are different from those of Canadian students.


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Bradigan, P. S., et al. 1987. Graduate student bibliographic instruction at a large university: A workshop approach. RQ 26(3): 335-340.

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Appendix A

Proposed Workshop Topics

1. Introduction to Western Libraries
An overview of services and materials provided by Western Libraries, including a look at the library catalogue, locating materials in the library, requesting items from other institutions (Interlibrary Loan), using the library from off-campus, and "just what do librarians do, anyway?"

2. Scholarly Communication Process
A look at the scholarly communication cycle, with an emphasis on sci-tech information. We'll also explore the implications of the peer review process for academic publication, and discuss issues surrounding open access to information.

3. Search Strategies
Get the experts' advice on how to find information effectively. You'll practice developing search strings, following the ‘information trail' of footnotes and bibliographies, finding review articles, and getting to the full text of the articles.

4. Selecting Subject Databases
How do you know which sources to search? How many sources should you search? This session will include more hands-on practice, with an emphasis on comparing the search strategies and results from various sources.

5. Identifying Key Research Papers
Now that you're a pro at finding journal articles, how do you know which ones are most important in your area? Learn how and when to use citation counts and journal impact factors, and explore qualitative approaches to determining an article's relative importance.

6. Library Research for the Literature Review
It all comes down to this – the backbone of your thesis or dissertation. Review how to develop search strategies, search databases, and identify key research, and learn how to put it all together so you have a comprehensive literature review.

7. Keeping Current with Scholarly Literature
The work you do today can be affected by a result published tomorrow. Learn how to set up search alerts so that you are automatically notified about new papers in your area. Explore the differences between table of contents alert services, saved searches in subject databases, RSS feeds and e-prints.

8. Writing the Research Paper
First comes research (in the lab and the library), then comes writing. Learn about the sections of a research paper, the appropriate tone to use in your writing, and how to fix common mistakes in style and grammar.

9. Ethical Use of Information
As you search for the information you need, you will need to be aware of the ethical and legal uses of information. This session will cover practical aspects of plagiarism and copyright, and how they will affect you as students and researchers.

10. Introduction to RefWorks
RefWorks is web-based bibliographic citation management software that is licensed for Western students. With this tool you can save, search and format references you find in database or catalogue searches. The session will cover setting up a RefWorks account, importing from databases, creating manual references, formatting bibliographies, and more.

Appendix B

Online Survey Text

Survey in Word format

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