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Learning curve: How graduates solve information problems once they join the workplace

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Young worker at computer (iStock)

As digital natives, today’s college graduates may be whizzes at social media and communications technologies. But when it comes to gathering information through more traditional methods — making phone calls, sifting through annual reports, combing databases — some employers say that their young employees fall short. The tendency to pluck the quickest nugget from Wikipedia or present the first Google entry may not serve recent college hires well in the workplace. Yet the National Association of Colleges and Employers notes that “obtaining and processing information” now ranks among the top five qualities recruiters look for in job candidates.

A 2012 report from Project Information Literacy, “Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace,” sought to better understand the needs of professional employers and the research skills and habits young people are displaying on the job. The report — sponsored by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and done in collaboration with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society — is based on interviews with 23 employers and 33 recent college graduates. Employers surveyed included a diverse set of institutions, from Microsoft and KPMG to the FBI and Marriott International.

The study’s findings include:

  • College hires tend to give the quickest answer possible when asked to find information. They do so by using Web search engines and scanning the first few pages of results.
  • Most employers were surprised that younger employees rarely use annual reports or phone calls to find answers to pressing questions.
  • When recent graduates cannot find information online, many turn to a trusted co-worker for help with a quick answer. In other situations, they develop a trial-and-error method to solve information problems.
  • Many employers sought recent college graduates who could make use of both online searches and traditional methods in information gathering, and present a synthesis of all information collected.
  • Conversations with college graduates suggest that they perceive speed as a primary virtue in terms of completing professional tasks and requests from managers. They “wanted to prove to employers they were hyper-responsive and capable of solving information problems in an instant — a response they perceived employers wanted from them, based on their interviews and how dazzled some employers were with their computer proficiencies when they first joined the workplace.”

“The findings suggest a dramatic shift is occurring in the workplace related to how information is found and used,” the researcher notes. “We found the traditional research competencies — the use of non-digitized information sources — may be disappearing with each passing year as a new batch of college hires joins the workplace.” The report proposes solutions for confronting this information-gathering gap: (1) partner recent college graduates with more seasoned employees to exchange information-obtaining techniques; (2) implement programs in the undergraduate experience that require students to solve problems by using sources beyond Google.

Tags: higher education, youth, technology

    Writer: | Last updated: January 7, 2013

    Citation: Head, Alison J. "Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace," Project Information Literacy, October 2012.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related Education Week article titled "Can the Digital Generation Do Anything Right?"

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled "Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace."

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?