Information Literacy in Upper Level Undergraduate Biology

One of our library classrooms
One of our library classrooms

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be teaching information literacy sessions in three different senior-level undergraduate Biology seminar classes.  Although the topics differ, the content that I discuss is fairly similar.

Finding (and understanding) a topic

I don’t discuss this in every class, but in a class where students have (mostly) free range to select a topic, I try to give them some resources that will help them narrow the field.

I point them to relevant science news sites and blogs. is one of my favorites because it leads the students directly back to the primary literature.  I discuss the merits of browsing a journal’s table of contents, and provide them with links to appropriate journals for their field.  This is all normally done with an in class exercise that gets them to look at some of these resources.  Hopefully they may come away with a topic idea.

Do students appreciate this guidance?  I’m not sure.

Review of primary vs. review articles

Most of the faculty I speak with say that their Senior-level students already know the difference between a review article and a primary research article.  I find that some students can tell them apart, but the majority can’t identify a review article when they see it.  Some students have had information literacy sessions in sophomore and junior level classes where I discuss this in detail (throwing in science news and blogs too) but I don’t see all of our Biology majors, so it is kind of hit-or-miss.

As a result, I normally spend the first 10 minutes of a 50 minute session reviewing the difference between these article types.

I ask students to examine two different articles and for each I ask them:

  • How is the article organized?
  • Whose research and experiments are the authors writing about?  Their own? Or the research of others?

This isn’t rocket science, and at the senior level, these questions are fairly easy to answer for these students.  They just may not have been asked to look at these before.

After we identify the review and primary research articles, we talk about how each of them can be useful.

  • Can you use either for this particular assignment?
  • If you can’t use a review article for this assignment, how can it still be useful to you?

Finding appropriate articles

This section is normally the main reason why the faculty member contacted me in the first place.  I normally focus on a few basic principles:

  • Choosing an appropriate resource for the topic you are searching
  • Selecting appropriate language and terms to use for your search
  • Understanding the nature of citations and how tracking them forward or backward in time can help you find additional information.

Students sometimes have topics already chosen, sometimes they don’t.  The session will involve some hands on time searching an appropriate resource (often Scopus).

And of course, we talk about how to get their hands on the actual full text of an article.

What I don’t spend time on

It may be controversial, but I don’t spend time teaching Boolean logic, unless I have more than one session with the students (and even then I don’t call it by name).

I don’t get into specifics about citing sources unless we have more than one session, although I will recommend the use of Zotero or another citation manager.

I haven’t really talked much about open access, open science or other emerging forces in scientific communication.  I do want to find time to work open access into the conversation in the future – perhaps in the bit about how to get the full text.

Is any of this similar or different than what other librarians talk about in upper level biology classes?


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