All posts by Ellen Nierenberg

I am a research fellow in information literacy at UiT The Arctic University in Norway (Tromsø). I'm affiliated with both the University Library and the Department of Psychology. I'm taking a leave of absence from my permanent job as a university librarian at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences (Hamar).

My one-year anniversary as a PhD-student!

Here are some honest reflections on my one-year anniversary as a PhD-student here at UiT:

  • I’d hoped and expected to have made more progress in my research by now. I’ve heard many other PhD-students say the same. My supervisors aren’t surprised by my “slow” progress – apparently this is normal. It’s scary that 25% of my time here is already over, and I haven’t even finished writing my first article yet.
  • Every step in the process of doing research involves complex decision-making, based on knowledge and experience.
  • The insight that research plans constantly change and evolve, depending on response rates and other factors that we’re not always in control of, makes me realize the value of crossing bridges as you come to them, and not having too many expectations.
  • I’m not as disciplined with my work as I thought I’d be, and as I have been in the past. I need to plan better and set aside more time for reading and writing. The practical parts of the research, and my compulsory duties this semester, take most of my time. This leaves me with the constant feeling of “I should be doing more.”
  • I’m learning so much about doing research, about information literacy, and about how a university library functions (as opposed to a smaller college library)! All of this will be  useful for me in the future.
  • My motivation comes and goes, but that nagging feeling I had during my first months here – “Did I make the wrong decision?” – bothers me less with time.
  • Doing a PhD is a form of self-torture, with emotional ups and downs that sometimes make me feel as if I’m on a roller coaster. So why am I doing it? To learn! (And to convince myself that, even at my age, I still can!)
  • I love teaching. When I’m with students I feel useful, and that I’m doing something worthwhile. It’s more rewarding than (some aspects of) doing research. My research results will hopefully influence how we teach IL.
  • The fact that I’m earning less as a PhD-student than before bothers me more than I thought it would. Although earning a higher salary in the future was not my main motivation for doing this PhD, I really do hope that it pays off someday.
  • My bond with my supervisors is stronger than I’d anticipated. They give me advice when I need it, we have frequent meetings, and we really enjoy each others’ company. They are absolutely amongst the smartest and nicest people on this planet, and I so appreciate their support, wisdom, brilliance, and constant encouragement.

Disappointing response

Unfortunately, I only got 65 survey responses from the 220 students in the introductory psychology class. These students were the main focus of my research, and I was going to follow them over 3 years, measuring both what they know, do and feel about information literacy (IL). IL instruction is integrated throughout the semester for this class, and I was going to compare them with other students who get more traditional “one-shot” instruction in IL .

But now, since only 65 students participated in the survey, my results will be much weaker statistically. And not only that, there will be very few students left by the end of their three years who are willing to answer the last survey. This is incredibly discouraging, and I felt my motivation dwindle, like air escaping from a balloon. Will I get any meaningful results? Will my research have any impact in the field of IL? Will I be able to publish anything?

I’d put lots of effort into presenting the survey and encouraging the students to take it. I offered prizes (gift cards at Amazon) and waffles, but it wasn’t enough. (I guess they don’t like waffles as much as I do!) What a let-down! 🙁

When it was apparent that participation was low, I was prepared for having to change the course of my research totally, which would’ve meant several months of “wasted” time and effort. But in the meeting with my supervisors yesterday we decided to use the data we have. Perhaps my results won’t have as much power, but they’re sure to be informative and interesting anyway!

As we proceed, plans and goals will change constantly depending on the data we can collect, my supervisors say.  So I’ll just go with the flow and continue trying both to collect as much data as possible and to keep my motivation up. That’s the way it is with research in the real world…

Advice from a recent PhD graduate

Lucy A. Taylor, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Oxford, wrote an interesting career-column article in the Nov. 6, 2018 issue of Nature. With the title, “Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD,” this article obviously appealed to me! (Thanks for the tip, Curt Rice!)

Luckily it’s not loo late to implement her suggestions, e.g.:

  • “Invest time in literature reviews.” I did a literate review early on, but didn’t use enough time reading what I’d found. That’s why I missed a recent study where another researcher created a survey very similar to the one I’m making.
  • “’I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it’ is the biggest lie you can tell yourself! Write down everything you do — even if it doesn’t work.” How true! Right now I’m struggling to recount exactly how I performed a factor analysis – I should’ve written a more detailed account of the process as we proceeded.
  • “It’s never too early to start writing your thesis.” In fact I was doing just that when I got the tip about this article, but I probably should’ve written more by now.
  • “Break your thesis down into SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals. You will be more productive if your to-do list reads ‘draft first paragraph of the results’ rather than ‘write chapter 1’.” This is brilliant, and I never would’ve thought of it myself. Hurdles become smaller, making it easier to start on tasks.
  • “The nature of research means that things will not always go according to plan. This does not mean you are a bad student. Keep calm, take a break and then carry on. Experiments that fail can still be written up as part of a successful PhD.” How true that things won’t go as planned. I’m experiencing this right now, in fact. The deadline for collecting survey data from my main informants, a class of 220 students, is in one hour! I’ll be following these students for the next 3 years, so they’re incredibly important to my research, but as of right now, only 65 have answered! 🙁  I was hoping for at least 150! I have a meeting with my supervisors tomorrow, and we’ll decide which changes now need to be made. I have no idea how to proceed from here. (Argh!)

In addition to Taylor’s 20 tips for new PhD students, I have 3 more bits of advice that may also be useful:

  1. Record all of your sessions with your supervisors. When you listen to the recordings later, even if it’s just later on the same day, you’ll realize how much you’ve forgotten, or just didn’t process then and there. This is SO useful, and if you have supervisors like mine, you may find yourself smiling throughout the entire recording.
  2. Strap yourself in, and get ready for the roller-coaster-ride of a lifetime! Ups and downs are the norm. On some days you’ll feel like giving up, but on other days you’ll feel on top of the world. If you hang in there, even on the worst of days, you’ll get through it! (So I’m told?) I’ve talked to people who have “wasted” over a year on experiments that didn’t work out and couldn’t be used, but they still completed their PhD’s.
  3. Realize that being a PhD-student is as difficult psychologically as it is intellectually. Stay positive and try not to worry about things that you have no control over. (That’s what Tove tells me, but not many are as positive as her. 🙂 )

(photo taken today)

So wish me luck with somehow collecting about 90 more survey responses in the next hour! I’ve tightened the straps just in case, and am prepared for the roller-coaster plunge of the year…

Seminar in Svalbard

Just returned from a 3-day seminar in Svalbard, with 58 others in the Department of Psychology (IPS). Since my main supervisor, Tove, is a professor in this department, I also am affiliated with them. I therefore have 2 “homes” – IPS and the university library.

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago far north in the Arctic Ocean, stretching from 77 to 80 degrees north latitude, with more polar bears than people. I felt quite privileged to travel there with IPS. Besides the important aspect of getting to know faculty, staff and other PhD-students, the program also included presentations from the departments’ research groups, an update from the library about new agreements with publishers for open access publishing (thank you, Torstein!), job safety in the Arctic, changes in psychology courses and programs, and other news from the administration.

We also had time for an exciting boat trip to Barentsburg (a Russian coal-mining community), and some delicious meals.

Thank you IPS for the exotic seminar!

With Tove and Torstein on the boat to Barentsburg. 🙂



What I contribute to at UiT, besides my own research

So far I’ve mostly written about my own information literacy (IL) research here at the university, but I’m actually a part of many other groups and activities (see list below). Our meetings and the work we do is educational, rewarding, enriching, challenging and useful. It’s wonderful to be part of such a stimulating learning environment, with such intelligent, articulate and devoted – not to mention NICE – people! 🙂

1) EPIC research group for cognitive psychology. This group is led by my supervisor Tove Dahl. Like other research groups, we talk about our research, discuss problems we’re facing, give feedback to others, work on applications, articles, presentations with each other, etc. Although psychology isn’t my field, I enjoy these meetings, and get a lot of good advice (and sometimes chocolate) from these wise, brilliant researchers.

2) Library “support group” for teaching and learning. We are “teaching librarians” at the Tromsø campus who coordinate IL-teaching at all levels (bachelor, master, phd). The group is responsible for the iKomp MOOC (on IL) and the plagiarism MOOC, both developed by the library at UiT. Led by Helene Andreassen, who is one of the first people from UiT who I met at an international IL conference (and who, together with Torstein, encouraged me to apply for this PhD position!).

3) IL principles and values UiT. A 3-person group, led by Helene Andreassen. My supervisor Torstein Låg, another of those I met long ago at an IL conference, is also a member. We 3 have compared many frameworks and models for IL, and are now making an IL curriculum for UiT. Learning outcomes from this overarching curriculum can be embedded into individual course curricula, assuring that IL is adequately addressed in all university courses.

4) iKomp workgroup. We have responsibility for creating, updating and administrating the iKomp MOOC, a freely available online IL-course taken by many UiT students and others. It’s available in both English and Norwegian. iKomp is obligatory for several studies at UiT, and students must pass an electronic test at the end of the MOOC. The MOOC can be combined also with classroom teaching. The group recently made a version of iKomp for high school students, which will soon be released. Led by Torstein Låg.

5) PSY-0700 is composed of the 4  teachers (plus me) who have an obligatory introductory course for freshman psychology students, called Thinking, learning and writing in higher education. Students learn basic study skills, critical thinking, academic writing, and of course, IL! It’s a “flipped classroom” course, where the students read and view the video lectures online before meeting together for weekly seminars where they do exercises and ask questions. This course prepares students for the rest of their academic studies, and is well-designed and useful. Led by Morten Øvervoll.

6) Creating Knowledge 2020. We’re planning an international IL conference in Tromsø on June 4-5, 2020! (What a way to celebrate my 60th birthday!) We’re finding keynote speakers, calling for papers, evaluating abstracts, finding sponsors, making a budget, planning the program and social events, and all the rest of the million things one does when planning a conference . Led by Helene Andreassen. (Um – Helene, do you ever sleep?)

Are you starting to see why being here at UiT in Tromsø is  intellectually stimulating (and fun) for me? 🙂 Working with brilliant, devoted and enthusiastic people, on a subject which interests and motivates me, is not a bad way to pass my time. 😉

The evolving project

I had a “milestone meeting” with my supervisors last Friday, since I’ve been a PhD student for nearly a year now. We discussed progress and challenges so far, using Tove’s checklist. Here are the major points, with short conclusions in parentheses:

  • competence and resources (we ask others when we need to)
  • the project (problems with data collection and continued evolution of article plans)
  • supervision (good so far, got tips for working more efficiently)
  • duty work (not quite at 25% of my hours yet)
  • practical considerations (all’s well)

We used quite a while discussing a revision of the plan for the articles I’ll be writing. The project is continually evolving, and the articles will likely be quite different than first imagined. For example, instead of one long article describing the development of all the measures that we’ll be using, we’ll divide it up into several shorter, more detailed articles about the individual measures.

I feel more comfortable with this, and felt so inspired that I thought and worked for most of the weekend. Today I wrote ALL DAY, detailing the steps taken in the development of the survey.

Phew! It’s good to get this all down on paper, even if it doesn’t eventually make it into an article.

Here I am with my wonderful supervisors! I have no idea how I got so lucky. 🙂

Flipped students

I have mandatory work as a part of my position as a PhD-student here at UiT. Instead of doing a full-time PhD in three years (the norm in Norway), my PhD-stipend is for four years. This is because 25% of my time goes to duty work. So today I had my first students in the classroom! It felt great to be with students again – I’ve missed teaching!

They were first year psychology students, with a “flipped classroom” course on academic skills (learning, thinking and writing). Instead of having a lecture with a teacher in the classroom, they watch pre-recorded lectures, take a quiz, and do some exercises in order to prepare for a seminar in the classroom.

The 220 students are divided into 8 groups, and I guide one the groups through some exercises/groupwork based on the material they’ve learned. It went well, and the students participated eagerly in the active learning process.

So after 10 months doing research in my office, wondering why I’m getting paid, I finally feel like I’m doing something that’s useful to others!

The survey is out!

I’m now collecting data with a pretest which measures students’ levels of IL and their interest in becoming information literate people, before IL-instruction from the library. Yesterday I introduced this survey to a class with 220 new psychology students, explaining what it measures, why it’s important that they contribute, and telling about the prize that they can win if they participate!

I’ve also sent info and a link to the survey to all teaching librarians here at UiT, and to library directors and/or librarians at all other Norwegian colleges and universities! I’ve made some contacts here and there over the years, so I hope that helps.  And most of all, I hope that students answer the survey, so I have some data to work with. No data, no PhD…

It takes a lot of work and logistics to carry out a survey like this. I must admit, I’m somewhat envious of PhD-students who don’t have to collect their own data! Many just receive a data-set from a researcher who hasn’t had time to analyze some aspect of it. They save potentially a year or more of their research time! Nearly half of the PhD-students in my statistics class had their data served to them in this manner. I think that this is quite common in medicine and psychology.

It’s not just collecting the data that takes time in the beginning stages, it’s also the development of the measuring tools, of course. I started developing the survey in February, and finished now in August. Survey items must be developed based on theory, all items must be piloted, and those results must be analyzed using several statistical analyses, before the final selection of survey items can be made (and later defended).

Besides the survey, I’ll also be using 2 other measurement tools, but these measures have been developed by others, and I’ll only make slight changes before I use them. I’ll write more about these in another blog-post.

On another note – one of my supervisors, Torstein Låg, together with colleague Rannveig Grøm Sæle, has just published a research article called: “Does the Flipped Classroom Improve Student Learning and Satisfaction? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”.   Congratulations Torstein and Rannveig! Good work! 🙂

Decision made

After a productive meeting with my supervisors today, I’ve decided to use my own survey items instead of those in a similar survey. I have, after all, come farther in testing the validity of my items, so I know that they’ll be useful in measuring students’ levels of information literacy.

And as of 5 PM, the first survey is out! Phew… What a day!



It’s over 2 months since my last post. I’ve been working on my research, but I’ve also taken some vacation. Even PhD-students need a little time off!

After lots of hard work formulating survey questions, getting expert opinions and think-aloud responses from students about the questions, doing a pilot survey and analyzing the results with several statistical tests to decide which questions to keep, working out the logistics of survey distribution this fall (the plan was to start collecting data tomorrow!) – I just got a major blow. After all that work, I just found an article by a PhD-student in England who did the exact same thing that I’ve been trying to do! She beat me to it!

I’ve been attempting to make a relatively short, openly available test of information literacy that could assess students’ knowledge and abilities, independent of their study or location. (Other IL-tests out there are mostly either discipline-or geographically-specific, or they’re not free.) I was going to translate my survey into English and publish it as a data-set on an open-access platform that others could freely use, so that it could possibly become a standard for comparing different populations.

But another researcher has just done exactly this. I read her article on Thursday – 3 days ago – and realized that her survey and the articles she’s written about its purpose, development and face-validation, were exactly the articles that I was planning on writing. It’s all been done. I could kick myself for not reading her article before. It was published in February ’19 and has been in my EndNote-library since March. But since I’ve been so busy with course work and piloting my survey, I hadn’t read it until now. Kick, kick…

Nothing against her! Her articles and survey are really good! I just wish that I’d read them a few months ago.

I’ve been told that this sort of thing happens now and then in the world of research – that someone else has done similar research to your own and publishes it before you. But it doesn’t make it any easier.

My supervisors, who are amazingly positive people, are trying to turn this around into something, well, positive. Maybe I can collaborate with her, or use (some of) her survey questions, or translate her survey and validate it with Norwegian students?

And to be more precise, there are some differences between our surveys. Hers is for all adults, not just students, although she does have an add-on for higher education. And I’ve come further than her by piloting my survey and statistically analyzing the results, so I know that my questions are neither too easy nor too hard, and that they contribute to distinguishing between students with different levels of IL. Also, in my research I’ll be comparing the results of the survey (what the students KNOW about IL), with what they actually DO in their course work (how they evaluate and use their sources of information). This comparison is a form of criterion validity. (There are several different ways of validating research: face validity, content validity, criterion validity, and probably more…) So the survey is just one of three measuring tools that I’ll be using, and its development is not the sole purpose of my research. Somewhat consoling…

And just to make navigating my life even more excruciatingly difficult, my job in Hamar is now available (I have a 4-year leave-of-absence to do my PhD, and my temporary replacement is switching to another job), and my house, until yesterday, was empty (between 2 tenants)! The thought of quitting crossed my mind, I must admit, but I’m not going to give up! I’m committed to this. I have great supervisors, and I can do it. (I hope.)

So now the question is: HOW SHOULD I SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?  Should I use her questions or mine? The survey is due to go out this week. This is the biggest data collection period for my entire PhD research. And I don’t know what which survey to use.

To be continued…