About this Research

Across multiple projects we use qualitative methods to examine the scholarly habits and explore the diversity of the undergraduate experience in the urban, public, commuter colleges that make up the CUNY system. Our research provides critical, complementary data to the many studies that have largely focused on students at residential campuses. The results of our studies are of broad utility to many in the academic and library communities; in particular we use them to inform improvements to library services and resources, and contribute to student success at CUNY and beyond.

We use ethnographic techniques such as interviews, photo surveys, and mapping diaries to learn more about the lived experiences of CUNY faculty and students. Guiding questions include:

  • What are faculty expectations for student scholarly work and assignments?
  • How do students study, research, and complete their assignments?
  • What technologies do students use for their academic work, and how and where do they use them?
  • How do students use the library for their coursework (and, if they don’t, why not)? Where else do students do their coursework?

Research sites:
2009-2010: New York City College of Technology (City Tech) and Brooklyn College
2010-2011: Bronx Community College, City College of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), Hunter College
2015-2016: City Tech, Brooklyn College, and BMCC with Jean Amaral
2017-2018: City Tech, Brooklyn College, and BMCC
2018-2019: Brooklyn College

Principal Investigators:
Maura A. Smale
Chief Librarian, Professor
The Graduate Center, CUNY

Mariana Regalado
Professor, Associate Librarian for Information Services
Brooklyn College, CUNY


While in no way an exhaustive list, these sources provide some background and context for this project:

Brown-Sica, M. S. (2012). Library spaces for urban, diverse commuter students: A participatory action research project. College & Research Libraries, 73(3), 217–31. http://crl.acrl.org/content/73/3/217.abstract

Cooley, C. J., Malaby, T., & Stack, D. (2011). How are students actually using IT? An ethnographic study. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. https://library.educause.edu/resources/2011/11/how-are-students-actually-using-it-an-ethnographic-study

Delcore, H.D., Mullooly, J., & Scroggins, M. (2009). The Library Study at Fresno State. Institute of Public Anthropology, California State University, Fresno. http://www.csufresno.edu/anthropology/ipa/thelibrarystudy.html

Delcore, H. D., Teniente-Matson, C., & Mullooly, J. (2014). The continuum of student IT use in campus spaces: A qualitative study. EDUCAUSE Review, July/August. http://er.educause.edu/articles/2014/8/the-continuum-of-student-it-use-in-campus-spaces-a-qualitative-study

Duke, L. M., & A. D. Asher. (2011). College libraries and student culture: What we now know. Chicago: ALA Editions.

ERIAL Project. (2010). Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries. http://www.erialproject.org/

Fister, B. (1992). The research process of undergraduate students. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 18, 163-169. http://homepages.gac.edu/~fister/JAL1992.html

Foster, N. F. (2013). Studying students: A second look. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. http://hdl.handle.net/1802/28781

Foster, N. F., & Gibbons, S. (2007). Studying students: The undergraduate research project at the University of Rochester. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. http://hdl.handle.net/1802/7520

Gourlay, L., Lanclos, D. M., & Oliver, M. (2015). Sociomaterial texts, spaces and devices: Questioning ‘digital dualism’ in library and study practices. Higher Education Quarterly, 69(3), 263–78.

Khoo, M., Rozaklis, L., & Hall, C. (2012). A Survey of the Use of Ethnographic Methods in the Study of Libraries and Library Users. Library & Information Science Research, 34(2), doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2011.07.010.

Khoo, M., Rozaklis, L., Hall, C., & Kusunoki, D. (2016). “A really nice spot”: Evaluating place, space, and technology in academic libraries. College & Research Libraries, 77(1), 51-70. http://crl.acrl.org/content/77/1/51.abstract

Kuh, G. D., & Gonyea, R. M.. (2003). The Role of the Academic Library in Promoting Student Engagement in Learning. College & Research Libraries, 64(4), 256–282. http://crl.acrl.org/content/64/4/256.abstract

Lanclos, D. (2010-on). The Anthropologist in the Stacks. http://www.donnalanclos.com/

Nathan, R. (2005). My freshman year: What a professor learned by becoming a student. New York: Penguin.

Plum, T. (1994). Academic Libraries and the Rituals of Knowledge. RQ, 33(4), 496.

Suarez, D. (2007). What students do when they study in the library: Using ethnographic methods to observe student behavior. Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, 8. http://southernlibrarianship.icaap.org/content/v08n03/suarez_d01.html

Valentine, B. (2001). The legitimate effort in research papers: Student commitment versus faculty expectations. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 27, 107-115.

Williamson, K. (2006). Research in constructivist frameworks using ethnographic techniques. Library Trends, 55, 83-101.

Results & Findings

Our edited volume Academic Libraries for Commuter Students: Research-Based Strategies (2018) is available from ALA Editions, or available to download as an open access book.

Our book on how CUNY students use technology in their academic work, Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier in Higher Education (2017), is available from Palgrave Macmillan, or see the preview in Google Books.

We’ve also created a website to share the visual data from our 2009-2011 research: Finding Places, Making Spaces.

Since beginning our research we’ve presented our findings at numerous conferences and other venues. Selected slides and other presentation materials are below.

We’ve published several articles on aspects of our study, as well as two project reports:

Online Learning with In-Person Technology: Student & Faculty Experiences in Hybrid/Online Courses at CUNY (May 2018), a report on research with Prof. Jean Amaral in 2015-2016

Mapping student days: Collaborative ethnography and the student experience. (2017) Collaborative Librarianship, the results of a study at 8 institutions, co-written with Andrew Asher, Jean Amaral, Juliann Couture, Donna Lanclos, Sara Lowe, and Barbara Fister.

“I am more productive in the library because it’s quiet:” Commuter students in the college library. (2015) College & Research Libraries

Serving the commuter college student in urban academic libraries. (July 2015) Urban Library Journal

“I’m just really comfortable:” Learning at home, learning in libraries. (May 2015) In the Library with the Lead Pipe

Commuter students using technology. (2014) EDUCAUSE Review Online

The Scholarly Habits of Undergraduates at CUNY: Preliminary Report (January 2011) presents an initial analysis of the data gathered during our 2009-2010 fieldwork.

Conference Presentations and Other Talks

“Technology is great, but it’s really time-consuming:” Understanding students’ digital academic lives. Keynote presentation, CUNY IT Conference, Deecmber 6, 2019.

Understanding the whole student: CUNY undergraduates’ lived experiences. Keynote at Teach @ CUNY Day, May 8, 2017. Video | Slides | Notes

A Day in the Life: Practical Strategies for Understanding Student Space-Use Practices, presented at the Library Assessment Conference, November 1, 2016. Co-presented with Andrew Asher, Jean Amaral, Juliann Couture, Sara Lowe, Donna Lanclos, and Barbara Fister. Slides | Paper

The Topography of Learning: Using Cognitive Mapping to Evolve and Innovate in the Academic Library, presented at the Association of College & Research Libraries Conference, March 29, 2015. Co-presented with Donna Lanclos, Andrew Asher, Lesley Gourlay. Slides (Prezi) | Storify

“Anytime I’m on the train, I would just type it up:” Commuter Students Using Technology, keynote at the York College Symposium on Teaching and Learning with Technology, October 31, 2014. Slides | Notes (both PDF)

“I like being under those rules here:” Students Using the College Library, presented at Reinventing Libraries, Reinventing Assessment, Baruch College, June 6, 2014. Slides with notes (PDF)

How CUNY Students Create and Negotiate Learning Spaces, presented at the CUNY CUE Conference, LaGuardia Community College, May 2, 2014. Slides | Notes (both PDF)

Tech Stories: CUNY Students Using Technology, presented at the Teaching & Technology Conference, Baruch College, March 28, 2014. Slides | Notes (both PDF)

“It’s an internet phone, but I don’t have internet:” Students Using Technology, presented at the CUNY IT Conference, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, December 5, 2013. Slides (Prezi) | Notes (PDF)

Embedded and Engaged in Higher Education: Researching Student Entanglements with Technology. Roundtable presented at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings, Chicago, November 22, 2013. Co-presented with Andrew Asher, Lesley Gourlay, Lori Jahnke, and Donna Lanclos. Slides (Prezi) | Post-roundtable writeup by D. Lanclos | Storify

“The Campus Doesn’t Have a Refrigerator” Student Study Habits and the Library, presented at the Hunter College Library Faculty Teaching & Research Forum, December 14, 2011. Slides (PDF)

“I could study anywhere, as long as I could sit I’ll study:” Student Spaces and Pathways at the City University of New York, presented at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings, Montreal, November 16-20, 2011. Paper | Slides (both PDF)

“Sometimes I type papers on my cell phone:” Mobile Digital Technologies and CUNY Students, presented at MobilityShifts: An International Future of Learning Summit, The New School, NY, October 10-16, 2011. Slides | Notes (both PDF)

Feeling Like a Third Wheel? Leveraging Faculty-Student-Librarian Relationships for Student Success. Poster presented at the ACRL 2011 National Conference, Philadelphia, March 30-April 2, 2011. Co-presented with Andrew Asher and Susan Miller of the ERIAL Project. Poster (PDF) | Handout (PDF)

On Beyond Surveys! Using Ethnographic Methods to Inform Design in Academic Libraries. Poster presented at the ACRL/NY Symposium at Baruch College, December 10, 2010.

(Click image to enlarge)

Undergraduate Scholarly Habits Ethnography Project, Grace Ellen McCrann Memorial Lecture, LACUNY Spring Membership Meeting, CUNY Graduate Center, June 11, 2010.

Preliminary results from City Tech were presented at the City Tech 7th Annual Poster Session of Faculty and Student Research on November 19, 2009.

City Tech Faculty Poster Session

Project Design

Data collection during our 2018-2019 research cycle included:

Coming soon

Data collection during our 2017-2018 research cycle included:

Find information on and the protocol for this sub-study, Undergraduate Reading Attitudes and Practices, on Maura’s website.

Methods of data collection during our 2015-2016 research cycle included:

1. Student SMS Mapping Diaries: Twenty students at each college were asked to chart their movements during one academic day by replying via their cellphones to text message prompts sent every 75 minutes. The research team geocoded the data to create a map of each participant’s day, then the student was interviewed and asked to narrate the events of the day while examining the map with the researcher.

Protocol included as the appendix of A Day in the Life: Practical Strategies for Understanding Student Space-Use Practices, in the proceedings of the 2016 Library Assessment Conference

2. Student In-Person Technology Surveys: Between 10-15 students at each college participated in a brief interview about their technology ownership, access, and use for their academic work. Researchers set up a table in high-traffic areas on campus and recruited students as they walked by the table.

Download our protocol

3. Student Online Questionnaire: Students in hybrid and online courses were asked to complete an online questionnaire on their technology access and use, focusing on the technologies they use to participate in these courses.

Download our protocol

4. Faculty Online Questionnaire: Faculty teaching hybrid and online courses were recruited to complete a questionnaire about their and their students’ experiences with technology in their hybrid and online courses.

Download our protocol

Methods of data collection during our 2009-2011 research cycle included:

1. Faculty Interviews: 10-14 faculty members at each college were interviewed in-person for 30 minutes each. The interviews explored faculty expectations for and experiences with their students’ work on research-based assignments.

Download our protocol

2. Mapping Diaries: Ten students at each college were asked to record and sketch their activities, including location and time, over the course of a typical school day. When the diaries were complete, each student was interviewed individually to explain and comment on the maps and sketches.

Download our protocol

3. Photo Surveys: Ten students at each college were given a disposable camera/asked to use their own camera or phone and a list of 20 objects and locations related to student scholarly habits to photograph. After the photos were developed or downloaded, each student was interviewed individually for 30 minutes and asked to explain the content of the pictures and offer comments.

Download our protocol

4. Research Process Interview: Ten students at each college were interviewed individually for 45 minutes. Each student was asked to describe in detail how they completed a research assignment from start to finish. Students were encouraged to draw or sketch the process while describing it.

Download our protocol