Faculty, librarians and student research skills: are we on parallel paths?

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the themes I’ve been writing a lot lately is that department faculty and librarians aren’t talking to each other as much as they should, especially in areas that they are both concerned about.  One of the biggest areas we need to be talking more about concerns student’s library research skills (or information literacy skills).  Librarians aren’t doing a lot of publishing in disciplinary college teaching journals, and we aren’t going to a lot of disciplinary conferences.

So when I saw two articles in the August/September issue of the Journal of College Science Teaching written by department faculty that included heavy doses of information about teaching library research skills, I began to be convinced that departmental faculty and librarians are on parallel paths with this issue.  It is wonderful that we are both exploring these issues, but the fact that our paths don’t intersect may lead to frustration on both sides.

Davies-Vollum, Katherine Sian, & Greengrove, Cheryl (2010). Developing a “Gateway” Course to Prepare Nontraditional Students for Success in Upper-Division Science Courses Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (1), 28-33

Kitazono, Ana A (2010). A Journal-Club-Based Class that Promotes Active and Coorperative Learning of Biology Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (1), 20-27

Both of these articles describe courses in the sciences in which information literacy skills make up an important part of the course content.  In both cases, the faculty consulted a librarian for assistance in teaching students about database searching, and the authors of both articles found this assistance to be helpful. But in both cases, the authors don’t cite a single article about information literacy from the library literature.  This is hardly surprising – these articles would be almost impossible to find in the typical databases used by scientists.

In a completely un-scientific perusal of articles from library journals concerning information literacy in the sciences (i.e. those that were on my computer or filed in my desk), I find that librarians aren’t citing this disciplinary literature either.

So we are both trying to figure out how to equip students with the skills they need to effectively search, locate and understand the scientific literature.  We are both writing articles about classes and exercises that can help students develop these skills, but we don’t seem to be talking to each other about these issues, at least in the formal literature about college-level science teaching.

I have had a lot of interesting conversations with faculty about how to develop these skills.  How can we move this discussion from informal hallway conversations into the formal literature?

I think this is up to the librarians.  I don’t think we can expect the faculty to start reading the library literature.  We need to keep our eyes on the disciplinary literature, take the opportunity to publish in them when appropriate, and present at disciplinary conferences.  And maybe get out of the library occasionally.

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The never ending literature search

I’ve mentioned it before: I like searching for information.  I like it so much, that sometimes I just keep going beyond the point where a rational person would stop and say “I have what I need.”

There is a lot of advice about conducting a literature search.  In fact, it is my job to give a lot of advice about how to conduct a literature search.  Much of this advice focuses on the literature search as a cycle, where you often need to return to earlier steps, like this image from the Workshop on the Information Search Process for Research (From the University of Calgary):

Information Search ProfcessBut there is rarely any advice about that last step, “Search Closure.”  How do I know when I’m done searching?

Perhaps many librarians have this problem, but it’s been hitting home recently as I try to manage several publication projects.  I’m rarely convinced that I found everything I need.

This can manifest itself in two ways.

First, the literature on the topic can be really extensive.  Have I actually found the most relevant papers?  Do I have anything to add to an already large body of literature?  At some point, I need to trust my own skills and say that I have found a sufficient amount of information for my needs.  I need to (perhaps repeatedly) tell myself that I probably don’t need to track down every single paper on the topic.

Second, I may not find much of anything.  Am I using the correct search terms?  Should I try other databases/search engines?  Is it really possible that I’m doing something that hasn’t been done before?  This is where I start asking colleagues for advice.  What keywords would you use?  Have you heard of anything like this before?  And at some point, I need to trust my own skills and examine the possibility that there just might not be anything published on my topic.

Of course, the never ending literature search is just one more excuse to put off the harder stuff: writing the actual paper.  (Perhaps writing this blog post about the never ending literature search is another excuse to put off writing the actual paper!)

Designing the survey seems like the easy part

Right now I am neck deep in information literacy assessment survey results.

The instruction librarians and I spent a lot of time devising our instructional goals and objectives and then developing the assessment tool (for a one-shot info. lit. session in a first-year writing course).  There were a lot of meetings, and it was a lot of collaborative work.

Since the analysis of the results falls largely on me, however, right now the survey design seems like the easy part.

The assessment tool we designed has a lot of short answer questions, which require a lot of thought in order to effectively ‘grade’.  We strongly feel that these questions provide a more accurate picture of student understanding, but they can be tricky to analyze.

For example, we asked the students how they can tell the difference between a scholarly and a popular source.  I need to figure out how to mark this answer from one of our students:

it will say peer reviewed

Completely correct?  Somewhat correct? Not correct?

So I will spend the next few days (weeks?) trying to figure out how to condense all of this information into a nice neat package.

We’ll see how it goes.

Assessing Information Literacy Skills in First Year Students

A new open access journal, Communications in Information Literacy, recently published an article about assessing library instruction for first year students.  The paper caught my eye because I’m working on some similar things here at Geneseo.
ResearchBlogging.org
The study sought to determine if students’ information literacy skills and confidence with research improved more with a greater number of librarian-led information literacy sessions.  The author used a pre-test and a post-test to examine students’ attitudes and stated behaviors.  She used likert-style questions to assess students’ previous use of information sources and their confidence with various information related tasks.  One group of students received the typical one-shot information literacy session in a first year writing and critical thinking class.  Another group received two or three information literacy sessions over the course of the semester.

The author is very clear about outlining the challenges we all face in trying to assess information literacy instruction.  Most notably, it is almost impossible to control for the wide variety of variables that have an impact on student information literacy skills:

  • Prior information literacy instruction in high school or other venues
  • Prior practice doing scholarly research
  • Student intelligence and creativity
  • Opportunity to practice skills learned in an information literacy session (and differences in the assignment requirements)
  • Differences in scholarship between various disciplines

Some information related to the factors listed above is relatively easy to obtain (although perhaps not so easy to quantify).  Course faculty can be a source of information about assignment requirements, and will set the standards for more or less practice information literacy and research skills.

On the other hand, getting information about prior instruction and practice normally relies on students’ self reporting, which is not always accurate.

In addition to the likert-style attitudinal questions, the author analyzed student bibliographies.  She looked at the different types of sources used, and whether they were available through the library or through other sources.

The latter question is challenging.  Typically, a student doesn’t need to use a library database to access the full text of articles if they are on the campus network.  As a result, they could easily have used one of many search engines and not even realized they were using library resources.  On the other hand, use of library databases that resulted in articles requested through Interlibrary Loan would not count as library sources.  We emphasize ILL at my institution, however, so perhaps it isn’t used as much at other institutions.

All of this begs the question – are the information literacy sessions we teach an effective way of teaching students research skills?

The author of this paper concludes that there is some positive benefit to the increased number of information literacy sessions, although the data seem a bit more mixed to me.

I wish that the author had actually tested students research skills.  While it may be much more difficult to evaluate, student confidence does not necessarily correlate with student skills.

Julie K. Gilbert (2009). Using Assessment Data to Investigate Library Instruction for First Year Students Communications in Information Literacy, 3 (2), 181-192

A Different Approach to Plagiarism Prevention

First, we don’t call it “Plagiarism Prevention.”  In the approach I developed with a collaborating faculty member from biology, we teach students about “Citation Best Practices.”

Most students never have instruction on what plagiarism is or how to avoid it.  Library instruction about citation often focuses on creating the citation, not how to incorporate in-text citations into your document.

Wikipedian Protester
Wikipedian Protester. From the web comic xkcd.

The faculty member I work with decided that she would be willing to give up a bit of content time to discuss these issues with the students.  One of our major goals was that we didn’t want this instruction to be punitive – we didn’t want to focus on how bad plagiarism is.  Like many other plagiarism prevention strategies, we wanted to be positive and proactive.

We decided to focus on teaching students how to do citations properly – something they had probably not been taught before.

I spent some class time teaching students how to construct a proper citation, and how to tell what type of item they are citing (for example, how to tell the difference between an article or article abstract found through a Google search and a web page).

Then I discuss best practices for doing in-text citations.

First, I remind students that the articles they are using for their papers had authors – real, live people who did the experiments and wrote the papers.  When they cite their sources in their paper, they can acknowledge this in the language they use.

Biologists Smith and Jones (2005) discovered that something really exciting happened.

I provide some examples of how they may use their sources in different ways when writing their paper, and provide some sample language for incorporating the citations:

  • Using a source as background information
  • Using a source as an example
  • Criticizing or analyzing a source
  • Comparing two or more sources

At the end of a brief lecture discussing some of these issues, I provide students with sample paragraphs with citations. (See a sample power point lecture and sample paragraphs.)  Each paragraph uses some citations well, and others poorly.  We ask students to determine what is done well and how each sample could be improved.

In our class discussion about the examples we talk about:

  • How often do you need to insert a citation?
  • Citing sources at the beginning or ending of sentences.
  • Use (or not) of quotations in scientific papers.
  • What is implied if no citation is included?
  • What is considered common knowledge?

Does this cover all aspects of preventing plagiarism?  No.  We don’t touch on a lot of details, and we don’t go into the implications of what happens if you do plagiarize.  We don’t touch on cross-cultural issues of plagiarism, and we don’t go into detail about how to paraphrase or take notes so you don’t accidentally copy.

But by providing this type of instruction, we can help students write better papers, give them some strategies for avoiding accidental plagiarism, and make the connection between the term papers they are writing and the scientific literature.

Assessment without review, analysis and change is a waste of everyone’s time

Today I’ve been thinking about assessment:

  • I created a short survey to assess student learning after a one-shot library instruction session.
  • I compiled student bibliographies from Fall 2009 courses I’ve worked with, in the hopes of analyzing what these students actually did.
  • I’ve been thinking about how to effectively assess the information skills students (should have!) acquired during a Spring 2010 course I met with on 5 different occasions.
  • I made some final edits to a very brief survey of user satisfaction at the reference and circulation desks (modeled after Miller, 2008).
Scantron sheet
Hopefully we don't try to assess our students to point of exhaustion! Image courtesy of Flickr user MforMarcus.

I’m in the process of collecting a lot of data about how I well do my job.

What’s the next step?

If I just collect this data and report on it without making any changes, I have probably wasted everyone’s time.  It is unlikely that the assessments will indicate that I am doing everything perfectly.  The goal of assessing service, student learning, user satisfaction, etc. is to make these things better.

What kinds of changes can you make:

  • Change your focus – In some classes I realized that students had a very good understanding of one concept I was trying to teach, but a poor concept of another.  I was able to change the focus of my instruction to focus more on
  • Change your goals – In some cases your assessment might reveal that your original goals are out of line with what students need.  This happened at my library in the one-shot we taught for the First-Year writing class.  We were able to re-align our goals with student needs.  We’ll see if this helped our students when we do an assessment at the end of this semester.
  • Go back to something that was working better before you made a change – The user satisfaction survey I’m working on right now is being done just prior to some big changes in the reference/circulation/service desks at my library.  We plan to re-do the survey in the Fall and again in Spring 2011.  Perhaps we’ll find that the changes result in a decrease in user satisfaction, although I sure hope not.  It is theoretically possible that we will need to roll back some of the changes we made.

So, anyone have a quick and easy way to analyze student bibliographies?

Library Day in the Life

Round 4 of the Library Day in the Life project is today.  Here is what I spent my time doing:

8:15am – Arrive at work.  Check email, resolve some scheduling issues regarding March CHEM 216 (Organic Chemistry) information literacy classes.  Thank my non-sciencey colleagues profusely for helping me teach seven 2 hour sessions in one week.

9-10am – Head down to a “satellite” library to look at Department of Agriculture documents with the Government Documents librarian.  We discuss what to keep and what to ditch and what to catalog.  Brief discussion of unused library space and the use of USGS documents and the scanning of NYS Museum docs.  Run into a biology faculty member.  Remind myself to stop by and see him when I am next in the Integrated Science Center.

10am – Tea.  Because life is better with tea.

10:10-11:45am – Work on a lesson plan for an upper level math class I will teach later this afternoon.  Teaching students about how to determine the intended audience of a particular article, resources to help spark research topic ideas, and basic search strategies.

11:45am – Tea and lunch and phone calls.  Talk with director of the Teaching and Learning Center about having a brown bag luncheon about open access.  He likes the idea, now I just have to find folks to come and get the thing organized.

12:15pm – Spend 15 minutes shopping online trying to find a dress for a wedding in May.  Give up.

12:30pm – Fix an IM chat widget for our new libguides implementation.  At least, I think it’s fixed. [Discover later tonight that it wasn’t fixed. Hmmm.]

12:45 – 2pm Organize and plan for a series of information literacy sessions in three biology classes with one professor.  Three different sessions are later this week.  Create survey about the primary literature to send to students to see if they can pick out a primary research article when they see one.  See poll

2pm – Discussion with associate director about library support for scholarly activity and why librarians need to stop going to library conferences.  He wishes there was library representation at this conference.

2:15pm – Tea

2:30 – Review lesson plan for this afternoon’s math information literacy session.  I know the less about the math and computer science literature than the natural sciences, so preparing for this session takes longer than normal.

3pm – Work on a blog post for the Milne Library News Blog.

3:15pm – Work on a blog post for this blog.

3:30pm – Download the latest podcasts and update my iPhone so I have something to listen to on my way home.

3:50pm – Head to the classroom for my information literacy class to set up tabs on computer.

4pm – Teach a session on understanding audience, finding a topic and finding literature for an upper level Math seminar class.

5:15pm – Go home.

7:00pm – Receive a thank you email from the Math professor regarding our class earlier in the day.  Do a little happy dance that it went well.