Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Gaining a deeper understanding of students and their needs: the SAGE Undergraduate Scholars at the University of Sussex

Suzanne Tatham, University of Sussex
Eva Brittin-Snell (BA International Relations)
Lenart Celar (BSc Psychology with Neuroscience)
Lucy Hensher (BA Geography)

Suzanne, Eva, Lenart and Lucy gave us an overview of the novel approach SAGE and the Library are working to get a better understanding of how students develop their research skills and where and how they research.  The idea was to offer three scholarships for students who would help provide insight on the student journey during their time at university. 

They were looking for student who would:

  • write regular posts
  • engage closely with library and SAGE
  • work up to 2hours per week on library events and promotional activity
  • have enthusiasm and commitment to the project
  • drive the project, so it would be fully student led

In exchange for this, the students would get:

  • The opportunity to develop communication, networking and presentation skills
  • The chance to work with an international academic publisher
  • The change to use social media tools in a professional environment

Getting the project up and running

Timing was difficult as need to get them from the start, and it would take time to get them up and running.  They used Freshers’ Week to advertise these positions, inviting students to submit a blog-style post, a CV and a statement as to why they would be good for the role. 

It has taken 2 terms to get the project up and running, and the library has been working with Sage at all stages, including interview panel. They developed a non-prescriptive schedule to ensure things would happen, but ensuring it was student-led.

Creating a new blog

They worked with sage to look at various topics for the blog, some of which have already been covered, others which are up and coming.  Examples included:

  • How did you prepare for university, including pre-arrival reading?
  • How did you find your first term?
  • When did you first look for something that wasn’t on your reading list?
  • What were your first impressions of the library?
  • How you feel about ebooks?

The students then discussed three projects they have worked on to date.

Survey on pre-arrival reading

They wrote and ran a survey to compile different experiences of undergraduates.  They got 160 respondents, the majority of whom were <20 years of age from across a wide range of study.  Findings included:

  • 60% of students were give a pre-arrival list, 79% of those used it
  • The majority bought all or the most relevant books
  • Some only bought the core books or those that weren’t in the library
  • Those who didn’t receive a pre-arrival reading list were asked how they found books.  In the main they didn’t, but those who did went to the library, or asked peers.
  • When asked what else would be useful, responses included a relevant list (too many books that aren’t then used in the course) and reminders of essay writing techniques.
  • When asked what other types of preparation they used, answers included newspapers, tv shows etc.

The SAGE scholars found it easy to find students for survey, using personal connections and social media.

Focus group to explore research done, resources and devices used

The Scholars ran two focus groups and the library stayed away, so people could feel they could speak openly.  Both groups gave good insight and opinions.  Findings include:

  • Most students have smartphones and use them for music and Facebook
  • Some have Kindles and use them for reading course books
  • Laptop users had a wide range of activities, including reading, leisure activities and taking notes in lectures.
  • Laptop users often preferred using campus computers, due to bigger screens and faster internets.
  • When asked where they looked for data, they used Wikipedia et al for quick definitions, but used more “trusted” sources for marked assignments.
  • Use lecture notes and recordings, and read more widely via library search, the VLE or Google Scholar
  • Students could tell reliability of source if tutor recommended/peer reviewed. 
  • Most students decided what to read depending on if they could get away with not reading it.
  • Students were more likely to read short pieces.
  • They mainly preferred paper books but if needed they used ebooks to complete assignments at last minute.
  • Student read lots of news aticles/shared information online
  • Short articles can be read on a phone, but some materials will only be read on a laptop .
  • There is a need for a mix of ebooks and paper copies.

The SAGE scholars found the focus groups easy to set up and communicate, and participants could speak honestly, so will use this method again.

Conference attendance

The SAGE Scholars attended APS in Brighton and met people who valued their opinions.  They sat on a panel with students from Greenwich University and were asked questions on how gather information, their opinion of ebooks and how can publishers make books more appealing for students to buy.  Key discussions included:

  • The common reason for ebook use was price and availability .  The library is investing more in ebooks to provide wider availability, which is important for students who are competing for copies.
  • The students felt that printed books remain a key part of reading, with the majority still preferring to read in paper, but they acknowleged that ebooks are more efficient. 
  • It was felt that ebooks are useful for quick reads and referring back, while printed books serve a different purpose as a text book.
  • Online journals were seen as a good resource, as they bring something new, are more up to date and are much quicker to read than a book. 

What has been learned so far about information and learning behaviours?

The SAGE Scholars are first years, so their behaviours are likely to change.  But so far they have got an interesting picture of student activity.  Learning points to date include:
  • There’s a lot of work to do around pre-arrival reading – many students are not getting list and those that do contain non relevant titles.
  • The focus group showed that students use wide range of resources to access material, but when comes to academic work, is a narrow focus and is tutor recommended. Books and articles not on reading lists are not likely to be read, but this might change over the next few years.
  • Print is still a popular choice, but there is an increase in use of ebooks.  This is more so graduates, but starting to increase for undergrads.
  • Students use Google and Wikipedia but are aware of what tutors want to see on bibliography, and don’t venture too far from lecture notes. 

Future plans for the SAGE Scholars

  • They want to raise the profile of their blog internally and externally
  • The students will present to SAGE in their second year
  • The project will evaluate changes in perceptions and behaviour
  • SAGE will do a day of shadowing, to see how students go about their day and study
  • Develop networks to increase engagement with peers across social science
  • More student-led activities eg “shut up and write”

Find out more about the project at

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