Engineering Graduate Student Information Literacy Study


In this study, engineering librarians Leena Lalwani, Jamie Niehof, and Paul Grochowski sought to learn from graduate students in the College of Engineering (CoE) how these students could benefit from more instruction on U-M Library resources.

In its “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) defines information literacy (IL) as “…a set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” Although all Ph.D. students, postdoctoral research fellows, and any Master’s or undergraduate students on NSF and/or NIH grants learn about “participating ethically in communities of learning” in the Responsible Conduct of Research and Scholarship (RCRS) program, the students receive less instruction on the other aspects of IL as defined above.

While we have long considered the value of IL skills to graduate students to be apparent, we believe that we were not meeting our students’ need for IL instruction. We presented informal IL sessions at department orientations and more formal IL sessions in selected classes and department seminars, but we recognized that these efforts were reaching only a fraction of the CoE graduate student population.

Saunders et al. wrote in 2016 about assessing information literacy skills in graduate students: “Faculty members and even librarians often seem to assume that graduate students enter programs already having attained the information literacy skills necessary for the research and analysis required of their programs…” They conclude through their study, “The results of this study belie the assumption that graduate students have honed their information literacy skills through their prior education…” [L. Saunders, J. Severyn, S. Freundlich, V. Piroli, and J. Shaw-Munderback, “Assessing Graduate Level Information Literacy Instruction With Critical Incident Questionnaires,” Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 42, no. 6, pp. 655–663, 2016.]

From our experience working with CoE students, we agreed with these findings.

Recently, we have set for ourselves a goal of developing an intentional and comprehensive program of IL instruction for CoE graduate students. Before developing this program, however, we considered it a necessary first step to learn from the students themselves what kinds of instruction they would find useful.


In November 2017, we surveyed engineering graduate students so that we might learn from them how we could better support their academic careers. The survey asked students about their experience with literature reviews, databases used, citation managers, data management, finding funding for research, and knowledge of publishing and copyright. We chose these topics because each represents an area of expertise within the U-M Library.

The Qualtrics survey was sent by email announcement to graduate students. It was left open for a two-week period. No incentives were offered for completing the survey.

Engineering graduate student enrollment for fall semester 2017 was 3,637, comprising approximately 27% of the U-M graduate student population. Our survey response was 392 students, for a response rate of 10.7%. Divided by degree program, 14.5% of the engineering PhD students responded and 7.6% of the engineering master’s students responded. Responses were received from students of each CoE department and program, with response rates corresponding to department size.


Results of the survey seemed to support what we believed. For instance, one of our first questions was, “How effective are you at doing a literature review?” Only 25% of respondents rated themselves as either “extremely effective” or “very effective.” We consider the literature review to be a fundamental skill necessary for success in graduate school. It appears that the respondents agree, for when we followed up by asking if respondents were interested in learning to do a literature review search, 85% replied “Yes” or “Maybe.”

As we continued to review the survey results, we found ourselves wanting more information from students on why they responded as they did. As one example, we asked respondents if they needed to find funding for their research. A solid majority, 71%, indicated “No.” Yet, a majority, 66%, of these same respondents indicated “Yes” to the follow up question of whether they would be interested in learning how to find funding.

Chart of responses to question: Need to find funding for your research? and Want training in finding funding?

To gain an opportunity to have a conversation with some of our survey respondents, we met with two focus groups at the conclusion of the survey.

In December 2017, we met with 18 of the respondents who had indicated on the survey that they would be interested in attending a focus group. We met with two groups of nine students each. Each focus group lasted one hour, and conversation in each group provided more depth to the survey results.

For brevity in this post, we’d like to note just three of the focus group outcomes here. First, most participants told us that they were keen to learn about the advantages of using subject-specific databases, such as Compendex or INSPEC, for their literature searches, but they had never had formal training on using them. Another outcome of the focus groups was that we learned about the importance of timing for library instruction. Much of our IL instruction is presented to students in their first semesters of graduate school. Focus group attendees talked to us about how IL instruction would have greater impact on them in their second semesters, once they had some context for what was expected of them in graduate school. Finally, we had an opportunity to ask students to explain the seeming contradiction seen above: They do not need to find funding, yet they are interested in training on how to find funding. (Answer: students are preparing for their future careers as researchers when they anticipate that they will need to find funding.)

Following the survey and focus groups, our colleague Leena met with College of Engineering Administration to share our findings. CoE administration is eager to work with us as we develop an instruction program for engineering graduate students.

Before conducting this survey, we had only our personal experience to guide us in developing a broader IL instruction program for CoE graduate students. We sensed that students would be receptive to more and better instruction, but we had no data to back up our intuition. Having conducted a survey and two focus groups, we learned from the students about their needs for IL instruction, thereby better preparing us to move forward with a program of instruction beginning in fall 2018.

For a presentation of complete survey results, please see: Results will also be presented at the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference in June 2018.

If you have questions about this study, please contact Paul Grochowski, Leena Lalwani, or Jamie Niehof.

(Submitted by Paul Grochowski, Leena Lalwani, and Jamie Niehof.)