Guest contributor: Joseph Palmisano, Senior Editor at Gale, a part of Cengage Learning.

As college instructors and academic librarians, you encounter it most working days: students who use free Web resources—rather than research databases—to complete course assignments. Do you ever wonder if academic research findings support your experiences? Well, let’s find out.


Based upon our survey of academic journals and trade magazines, students often demonstrate common online research behaviors. These include:

  • Relying heavily on Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube, often instead of libraries’ research databases (Anderson 2011)
  • Using Wikipedia because “it meets students’ needs in terms of coverage, currency, convenience and comprehensibility” (Colón-Aguirre and Fleming-May 2012, 392). Yet, few of these students expressed an understanding of Wikipedia’s editorial practices or mistrust of its data accuracy.
  • Selecting YouTube videos that lacked such qualities as “credibility, authority, relevancy, and objectivity” (Dugan and Fulton 2012, 42)
  • Measuring their online search abilities to Google experiences (Dugan and Fulton 2012). When coupled with not knowing helpful search and retrieval commands (i.e., refining searches by applying Boolean logic, using keywords, or specifying a particular domain in the URL) (Cudiner and Harmon 2000; Milman 2011), it leads to frustration and anxiety over using research databases (Colón-Aguirre and Fleming-May 2012).


And among college students, in particular,

  • Lacking confidence in locating and using their libraries’ vast collection of research databases (Colón-Aguirre and Fleming-May 2012)
  • Basing the use of Web and library digital resources upon their instructors’ recommendations, or assignment requirements to include reference lists (Colón-Aguirre and Fleming-May 2012)


Do these findings resemble your experiences? If so, take heart. Our literature survey also suggested strategies to help you promote students’ awareness and use of research databases.

  • Soon after students have been assigned research projects, college instructors should arrange for academic librarians to conduct hands-on workshop sessions on using research databases (Anderson 2011). Direct instruction, relevant practice, and meaningful feedback are the most effective ways that students learn.
  • Academic librarians can place links and widgets to research databases on their library web sites (Anderson 2011). Use these visual cues in moderation, though. Too many icons may distract or overwhelm students, rather than serve as resource reminders.
  • Academic librarians could display students’ testimonials about how research databases have helped them with their research projects (Anderson 2011). Peer modeling not only can motivate students to use research databases, but it reinforces that it’s the norm and expectation in college. In fact, this is a message best conveyed by ninth grade (Barack 2014).
  • College instructors and academic librarians should collaborate to include information literacy skills (Milman 2011) in course objectives, lectures (Dugan and Fulton 2012), and assessment rubrics (Anderson 2011). Students are influenced by instructors’ recommendations and grading requirements, in respect to using acceptable information sources for coursework (Colón-Aguirre and Fleming-May 2012).


Joseph Palmisano serves as a senior editor at the Farmington Hills office of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. He earned a M.Ed. in instructional technology from Wayne State University. Drawing upon his reference publishing experience and dedicated study of the learning process, Joseph’s blog posts explore proven methods that instructors, librarians, and students use to achieve academic objectives.

What are your tips for encouraging students to use research databases when completing their projects? Share them in the comments. 



Anderson, M.A. 2011. Subscription databases in the age of the internet: a problem with easy solutions. Internet@Schools 18 (4): 23.

Barack, L. 2014. Good research habits pay off: Study ties college success to librarian and teacher research training in high school. School Library Journal 60 (9): 14.

Colón-Aguirre, M., and R. Fleming-May. 2012. ‘You just type in what you are looking for’: Undergraduates use of library resources vs. Wikipedia. Journal of Academic Librarianship 38 (6): 391-399.

Cudiner, S., and O. R. Harmon. 2000. Online search strategies. T H E Journal (Technological Horizons in Education) 28 (5): 52.

Dugan, M., and J. Fulton. 2012. Introducing library research databases to agricultural economics students. NACTA Journal 56 (3): 42.

Milman, N.B. 2011. Challenges and tips for conducting research and developing information literacy: using search engines and online databases. Distance Learning 8 (1): 73.