Getting students on the same page with their research skills

Most semesters I teach a few upper level biology seminars.  I’ve talked in the past about the kind of things I teach them, but one particular challenge has been on my mind lately:  getting all of the students on the same page.

Getting everyone to the same starting line can be tricky.  Image courtesy of Flickr user Andi Sidwell
Getting everyone to the same starting line can be tricky. Image courtesy of Flickr user Andi Sidwell

At the moment, information literacy instruction (through me) is not systematically incorporated into the biology curriculum.  The number of biology students has increased drastically in the past few years, so many of the assignments that used to require library research have been scaled back in an attempt to keep grading under control.

As a result, by the time they get to their senior seminar, some students have had experience in finding the primary literature, and some have not.  Some students can easily distinguish between a review article and a primary research article, and some cannot.  Some have experience using databases like Scopus, and some do not.

This creates challenges when designing an instruction session for these students.  Do I start at the very beginning, and never get to some more advanced topics, in order to get everyone up to speed?  Or do I just skim over the basics, hoping that the students will catch enough to enable them to do what they want to do?

My approach to this tends to depend on the desires of the course instructor.  Sometimes they are just looking for the basics.  Other times they are looking for something more.  I often have some of my own ideas, and we tend to meet in the middle.

One approach that I always use for this problem is to simply push the research consultation service that we have, and to encourage students to contact me with big or little questions.

Until we have a more systematic approach to information literacy instruction in this department, we will continue to miss students at the crucial sophomore and junior levels, and we will keep playing catch up in the senior seminars.  We’re working on it.