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TL v63n2: But She Got All A's in High School
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But She Got All A's in High School...


Betsy Park, Assistant to the Dean, University of Memphis

Bess Robinson, Head of Research and Instructional Services, University of Memphis

Glenda Jones, Librarian, Overton High School, Memphis, TN

Originally presented at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Chattanooga, TN) in April 2013.



Betsy Park, University of Memphis

One day at the Reference Desk I received a phone call from Glenda Jones, the librarian at Overton High School in Memphis. Her original question involved getting her teachers to use the Tennessee Electronic Library, but quickly evolved into a discussion of high school students transitioning to college. Glenda mentioned that she had recently talked with students who had made all A’s in high school, but struggled with college coursework. I contacted Bess Robinson, Head of our Research and Instructional Services department, and we decided to investigate.

What is the value of a university education? It is not inexpensive. As of 2011, undergraduate tuition, room, and board averaged $13,600 at public institutions; $36,300 at private not-for-profit institutions; and $23,500 at private for-profit institutions (Snyder & Dillow, 2012, Chapter 3). According to an article in our student newspaper, the Tennessee Board of Regents has raised tuition every year since 1984, and tuition at the University of Memphis increased 18% from 2010 to 2012 (Whitten, 2012). In 2013 after another 7% increase, students taking 15 hours will pay $8,234 for tuition and mandatory fees alone, and then there is room and board. This college education takes several years. According to data collected in 2004, approximately 58% of first-time students require at least six years to graduate (Aud et al., 2012, p. 108). The nine public colleges in Tennessee have a four-year graduation rate of 19.7% and six-year rate of 45.5% (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010).  At the University of Memphis, 12.5% of our students graduate within four years, while 40.4% graduate within six years. Thus, a typical student at my public university can expect to pay on average $33,000 to $49,500 for a bachelor’s degree. Students and their parents must ask themselves if the price is right.

What is the return? In lifetime earnings, it probably is worth it, because a college education pays. It is estimated that two-thirds of the future jobs in the United States will require some sort of post-secondary education; and that by 2018, there will be three million fewer college graduates than the labor market demands. To counteract this, President Obama has set a goal of eight million more college graduates by 2020 (Klepfer & Hull, 2012). According to the U.S. Department of Education, educational attainment is consistently associated with higher median earnings. Young adults with a bachelor’s degree earn more than those with less education, regardless of sex, race, or ethnicity (Snyder & Dillow, 2012, Indicator 49). The following graphic illustrates the financial advantages of a degree.



Figure 1.  Education Pays. This graph shows that weekly earnings rise with education levels, and unemployment is higher for the less educated. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

As Figure 1 illustrates, there appears to be a strong positive relationship between education and earnings. It follows that in order to achieve these higher earnings, students must be successful in college. How well are high school students prepared for success in college?  According to a survey of college instructors and employers, almost two-fifths of high school graduates are not adequately prepared during their high school years for either entry-level jobs or college-level courses (Peter D. Hart Research Associates & Achieve Group Inc., 2005). More than one third (36 percent) of first-year college students report taking some remedial coursework, a percentage that is higher among students at public two-year institutions and for African Americans and Hispanics (Aud et al., 2011). Steve Newman, a professor at Northern Kentucky University says “There’s a dreadful misalignment between college expectations and what they teach in high school” (quoted in College preparedness lacking, June 18, 2012).

Whose responsibility is it to see that high school students are prepared for higher education? It is most certainly a shared responsibility. What has the University of Memphis done to help these students? Most of our students at the University of Memphis are from Tennessee and fully 70% of freshmen are from the Memphis-Shelby County area. When contacted by teachers or librarians, University of Memphis librarians will present instruction sessions for area elementary and high school students. During the past year we have offered 34 sessions for 632 students from 13 area high schools, including two private schools; 11 sessions were Dual Enrollment  classes (four area high schools) and nine sessions for students from International Baccalaureate programs (three area high schools).

High school students have some library privileges at the Univeristy of Memphis. Anyone may use the University Libraries. However, to check out a book a community user applies for and obtains a Special Privilege Card. High school students must have their parents and their high school librarian sign the application form. With this card, students may check out five books for 14 days and they may renew these books twice. We currently have 843 high school students in the system, of which 214 are active. The active high school users have checked out 380 books; while 1264 items have been checked out by all high school patrons (including the students with expired records). We have six guest computers which may be used by high school students with a Special Privileges card. However, any student under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian to use a public computer (on the advice of the University attorney).

As a result of our conversations with Glenda, Bess and I helped judge the annual high school Think Show (an initiative of the now former Superintendent of Schools). At this event, seniors present their research—some as posters, others as research papers. The students we saw were very articulate and excited about their research and the experience. However, it was very clear that they used only Google and grabbed the first few results. Wikipedia prevailed, as did newspaper articles, opinion pieces, and the like. When asked, students said that the research took longer than they had thought. A question about whether they had consulted with their librarian, Mrs. Jones, left them confused.  Maybe, as college faculty, we should try to understand more how these student-researchers think and how they react to the college experience.

Perspectives from Freshmen and Their Instructors at the University of Memphis 

Bess Robinson, Unversity of Memphis

Curious as to the perspectives that students taking freshman English (ENGL 1020) and their instructors could add to this discussion, we created and administered a brief online survey for each group to take immediately after their class had come to the library for an instruction session. Responses are verbatim.

Our first question to the freshmen was, “What surprised you the most about the research expectations at the college level as compared to what was expected in high school?” The majority of students replied that they were surprised by college-level research (30%; 63 responses). “Other,” the next largest category, comprised a number of single unusual responses (18%).  Sixteen percent found no real difference—or low; 14% were surprised at the variety and numbers of resources available at college.

Figure 2.  Graph courtesy of Barbara R. Thomas.

Their comments revealed that students found college-level research expectations to be “. . . difficult and quite annoying”; “a lot more in depth with the research and a lot more research is needed to be done”; and “It’s a much more on your own type researching.” Of the resources available, they wrote that “. . . we have more connections to more legitimate sources . . . .” and “There are a lot more tools on campus to use . . . .” Some, however, felt well-prepared:  “Nothing quite surprised me, i took AP English in High School” and  “. . . how low they [the research expectations] were. but i fear this is purely based on my private school education . . . .”

The second survey question asked freshmen, “What would you suggest that your high school teachers and librarians could do differently to prepare you for college-level research?” The top three suggestions were to introduce credible databases and resources (18%); “get us to write like we would in college” (15%); and provide more guided research time (11%).


What would you suggest that high school teachers and librarians could do to prepare you differently for college-level research?

Figure 3. Graph courtesy of Barbara R. Thomas

More specifically, students suggested, “Instead of just giving us links of publications, websites, and etc. that they should teach us how to use them;” “Show us how to use online resources, like databases, to help up find the information we need;” and “Begin integration of scholarly sources in high school. Say no to Google!” They want to learn to write like they would in college: “Please be more critical and harsh about students papers to help them reach a higher writing level” and teach us “How to grow papers . . .” Students wanted more guided research time: “Show more of the different . . . research that can be done other than just leaving it all to the student to do on their own . . .” and “More practice, more time actually doing research and not just covering the theoretical aspect.”

The instructors accompanying these freshmen classes were asked for their insights, as well: “What would you like your students to know about research when they walk in to your classroom?” Of the teachers who responded, two mentioned the related topics of time management and doing research in increments: “I realize time management problems are unique to research,” one wrote, “but I think a lot of students allow themselves to be stymied by the very idea of research and by a fear of how much time it will take. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” She and another teacher suggested that if students understood or envisioned the research process “as a series of small steps,” or “baby-steps,” “and not 8-10 page papers that happen overnight, it “might relieve some of the research anxiety that seems inherent in college freshmen.”

One teacher wanted students to be better able to evaluate resources, as analytical abilities help students discern the meaning of a text and the credibility of a source.

There was reflection on students’ knowledge of plagiarism and how to avoid it through citing correctly and understand that incorrectly cited or quoted sources are considered plagiarism.

One teacher wished that students arrived with a broader understanding of the variety of types of research. “When students walk into the college classroom, it would be good if they understood that research takes many forms and is driven by the purpose/project. An argument essay would require research quite different from a field research project, such as an interview.” These are different types of research, but both are authentic. “Some research requires up-to-the minute sources found on a wiki; other research relies on historic documents found in the stacks. It's not 'one size fits all.' It's all, however, valid research.”

In a related statement, one teacher appealed for “the focus of writing teachers teaching the research paper to be more on appropriate acquisition of information and less on prescriptive formatting” rules, such as MLA. While all work involving sources requires a "Works Cited" or "References" page, the rules for writing these citations change regularly and most writers don’t bother to learn them. They rely instead on external sources, such as Hacker online or university library Web sites for direction. 

Many of these comments by both students and professors echo the research of Meg Raven (2012) at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada.  Seventy percent of the first-year students surveyed at this institution felt they were “very” or “somewhat prepared”  to do college-level research as compared to the 87% of their faculty who rated them “not very prepared.”  Seventy-five percent of the students said they had “excellent” or” good” Internet searching skills while 84% of the faculty rated these skills as “average” or “poor.” When these students were asked if they had been taught about citation and plagiarism in high school, 64% said they had; however, the majority of the professors (81%) thought students had rarely or never been taught about citation and plagiarism.  Clearly there is a disconnection.

Making the Research Connection from High School to College

Overton High School (Glenda Jones)

The idea of this collaboration between Overton and the University of Memphis came as a result of a conversation with two former high school students, who returned to Overton High School disappointed because although they had gotten all A’s in high school, they failed freshman English in college. In an attempt to prevent this academic disaster from happening again, I contacted the academic librarian at the University of Memphis and posed two questions:

  • What should high school students be expected to know about research at the college level?
  • How can high school librarians and teachers help them accomplish it?

When I asked high school students and teachers "How can academic [college] librarians work with high school English teachers to enhance student research?" I received the following answers:

  • Teach a class on research.
  • I don’t really see how college librarians could enhance student research any better than high school librarians.
  • Educate students about college expectations.
  • Plan together with college English teachers.
  • Share pre-requisite skills and resources for students to effectively utilize college level resources.
  • Allow students to visit college libraries to conduct research.

Since one issue facing academic librarians seems to be plagiarism among college students, my question is “How can we rescue research from this unethical behavior and ensure students who receive A’s in high school maintain A’s in college?”

While this may seem like a simple task, the reality is it can be very difficult for various reasons. First, research is what librarians love. Also, we are driven by solving the unknown. However, teachers are driven by test scores. For example, the top priority for teachers in Memphis City Schools is to ensure students pass End of Course exams, which has very little to do with research papers. Research is a part of the high school curriculum but test scores are definitely teachers' number one priority. If students do not pass exams, they risk not being graduated from high school. Likewise, teachers risk losing their jobs because of low student test scores. The other reason research skills are not the number one priority for teachers is because of the teacher pupil ratio. For instance, the average teacher in Memphis City Schools teaches approximately 210 students per day which would equate to reading and grading 210 research papers. This task is in addition to other responsibilities of producing average to above-average test scores.

The Tennessee Library Association conference was an out-of-the-box experience for me because it allowed me to gain a new perspective on why students cheat when producing research papers. So, my question is--how can we improve research in high school and university settings and prepare students to meet our expectations? My assertion is that this can only happen if academic and school librarians seek to create opportunities to learn from each other. Examples of these opportunities include: academic librarians serving as guest speakers in high school classrooms to discuss expectations at the college level, high school English classes being invited to academic libraries to participate in research training sessions, and identify user-friendly databases used at the college level so we can mirror them at the high school level. These are just a few suggestions for improving research between both groups. After participating in various sessions and studying the survey results, there is consensus that students know they should not plagiarize, but the discrepancy is whether or not students have been taught to meet our research expectations.

It is my desire that the information from the “But She Got All A’s” session will be the beginning of a partnership which will benefit high school and college students in a new way. By embracing this endeavor, perhaps at the next TLA conference, we will have a follow-up session called “She Got an A in High School and Here’s How She Was Able to Maintain the A in College. “


Aud, S., Hussar, G., Blandco, K., Frolochh, L., Kemp, J., & Tahan, K. (2011). The condition of education 2011. (NCES 2011-033). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Aud, S., Hussar, W., Johnson, F., Kena, G., Roth, E., Manning, E., . . . Zhang, J. (2012). The condition of education 2012. ( NCES 2012-045). Washington, DC.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Chronicle of Higher Education. (2010). Graduation rates by state and college completion. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from§or=public_four.

College preparedness lacking, forcing students into developmental coursework, prompting some to drop out. (June 18, 2012). Retrieved, May 28, 2013, from

Klepfer, K., & Hull, J. (2012). High school rigor and good advice: Setting up students to succeed.  Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Association, Center for Public Education.

Peter D. Hart Research Associates, & Achieve Group Inc. (2005). Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work? Washington, D.C.: Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

Raven, M. (2012). Bridging the gap: Understanding the differing research expectations of first-year students and professors. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 7(3), 4-31.

Snyder, T. D., & Dillow, S. A. (2012). Digest of education statistics 2011. (NCES 2012-001). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Whitten, C. (2012, November 20). UM tuition up 18 percent from two years ago. The Daily Helmsman. Retrieved June 24, 2013, from


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