watch listen learn: understanding the undergraduate research process through an ethnographic lens

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OverviewRationale for this research

Literature review & methodology

Professional challenges

Recommendations and future research

Reflections on ethnography


RationalePrimary research requirement: MSc Education & Training Leadership

To capture the student voice - very little prior knowledge of the undergraduate research process

To advance a prior study on first year undergraduate research behaviour (Dunne & Sheridan, 2012)

Library as lab - a natural habitat for observing research behaviour

To identify existing skills gaps in curriculum and support services


User Experience

web metricsusability testingsurveysfocus groups

learning analytics



The Ethnographerparticipates, overtly or covertly, in people's daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, and/or asking questions through informal and formal interviews, collecting documents and artefacts - in fact, gathering whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the emerging focus of inquiry

(Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007)

Library AnxietyFear of the library as a place, often described by its impressive sizeNot knowing where to find information, nor how it's organisedLack of self-confidence concerning how to conduct a searchFear of library staff resulting in an inability to ask for helpFeeling like they're the only one not to understand how the library worksFeeling of paralysis when starting an information search

Source: Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie, A. Jiao, Q. and Bostick, S. 2004 . Library Anxiety: Theory, Research, and Applications

The Participants5 final year undergraduate students:3 Communications + 2 Intercultural Studies3 Generation X + 2 Millennial

Recruited through lecture call; follow on emails & flyers

Incentivised participation through offer of dedicated consultation & on the fly advice

6 week ethnographic study


Methodology Study approved by DCU Research Ethics Committee:students received outline of research, plain language statement & informed consent

Data collection:2 X 1 hour observation sessionsMaintain a student diary 1 X retrospective interview

Data triangulation: validated by cross referencing observation data & diary data

Data analysis: colour coding & assignment of broad themes



Emergent ThemesTime and space for researchResearch behaviourUncertainty about the research processHarnessing social media Support networksOrganising research


Time & SpaceFinished analysing five articles. Went home and examined work on bus

Time & SpaceWent for a run thought about my dissertation and how I would approach it. Began breaking it down into its constituent parts


Millennial Student Behavioural Map


Generation X Student Behavioural Map


Research behavioursWhat I have been doing up till this point is taking notes as I read. I mark the page numbers and either quote or summarize the passages. I intend to use what I write as an index of the main ideas. While taking these notes Ive been mindful of writing in an academic fashion, as I believe I may be able to cut and paste some of what Ive written directly into my dissertation

(diary entry - millennial student)

Research Behaviour


Extract from my field notes (millennial student)

12.37 Opens article, takes notes in spiral bound notebookOpens tab containing Word documentFlicks to another tab

12.39 Opens a different tab containing another article, this time from Reads some text from itPicks up phone to respond to Facebook message Returns to Word and types text

12.41 Repeats this.Checks word count and records in notebookOpens up text book, scans indexLooks up body of textContinues to flick between index and text.


12.42 Places book back on desk and opens GoogleOpens library catalogue and enters searchMoves to Advanced catalogue searchScans results and opens book record

12.44 Opens tab containing Google Book searchScans table of contents

12.45 Opens tab with different journal articleScans first pageReturns to Word docFlips to Google results tabReturns to Word doc and types for a minute

12.47 Returns to articleReturns to Word doc and types for another minuteScrolls through Word doc (finger on screen) this lasts for about a minute

Uncertainty about the Research Process

Lecturers AdviceThe research process is non linear each step can influence subsequent and previous steps

Students RealityToday Im starting my methodology chapter, Ive no idea how to do it. I have to get it done today


Source EvaluationMillennial StudentWhile waiting on articles to load, I begin to examine other ones I already have open. There is a slight problem in that Ive found articles covering [blank] and [blank] and [blank] but none covering all three.

Generation X StudentSo its looking at the value of things, its looking at the whole thing. Its not looking at the title and going that title doesnt match what I need. And I think a lot of people do that, they look at it and go I dont know, this isnt what Im looking for


Crowdsourcing research advicethere was one girl who went on [Facebook ] & said: Im doing this all wrong and eight or nine hours later said Im doing it this way anyway. Even though there was people who said you are doing it wrong... so you have this kind of rationalisation, they all picked each other up...I wanted to go on and say just take your finger out, you still have three days, just do it, you can still salvage it. But all there was was no, its gonna be ok cos everyone here has said so

[Generation X student]


Support Networksits easier to ask classmates because theyre my peers, were in the same boat. We often share assignments with one another if were stuck. A gang of us work together in the same group study room. That way then we can study independently but collaborate if we need advice

(Generation X student)

Organising ResearchStill in the coffee shop, checking two references on my phone but I cant find them. Im sure I have written them down somewhere but I have too many little notes. Im so disorganised this semester. I dont know whats going on with me

(Generation X student)

Key Learning MomentsIncreased student diversity brings new challenges for intercultural communication: cultural library anxiety means some students avoid seeking the help they require

Issues of trust and the co-production of knowledge: as co creators of data, this was collaborative ethnography

Ethnographic approach uncovers information difficult to elicit by other means and complements traditional feedback mechanisms such as The National Survey of Student Engagement

Students strongly desire extra supports to teach them research skills


Sharing findings with students & staff (academic; student support; teaching enhancement)

Longitudinal study - different disciplines

A study of faculty understanding of UG research process

A life logging study?

Actions & Future Research

Professional Challenges

Knowing when to wear the most appropriate hat: student | participant| observer|librarian

Capturing genuine research behaviour & mitigating against participants telling me what I wanted to hear

Ensuring participants didnt feel like objects of external scrutiny but rather partners & co producers of data

References Asher, A., and Miller, S. 2011. So You Want to Do Anthropology in Your Library? or A Practical Guide to Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries. [Online] Available from:, S. 2016. How Do They Research? An Ethnographic Study of Final Year Undergraduate Research Behaviour in an Irish University. New Review of Academic Librarianship. [Online] Available from:, S. and Sheridan, V. 2012. The bigger picture: undergraduate voices reflecting on academic transition in an Irish university. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 49(3), pp. 237-247. [Online] Available from: Foster, N. and Gibbons, S. 2007. Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester. [Online] Available from:, M. and Atkinson, P. 2007. Ethnography: principles in practice. London: Routledge.Healey, M. and Jenkins, A. 2009. Developing undergraduate research and inquiry. [Online] Available from:, D. 2015. Ethnographic Techniques and New Visions for Libraries, in Library Analytics and Metrics: Using Data to Drive Decisions and Services. Ed. Ben Showers. London: Facet Publishing, pp. 96-107.Priestner, A. and Borg, M. 2016. User Experience in Libraries: Applying Ethnography and User Centred Design. London: Routledge.