Good library assignments, part final

So we left off with the idea that research is scary and difficult, that it’s much easier to follow a familiar path than to try something new. I think the last two truisms really get at the place where all three of those factors that students need to be research-brave converge: affect, skills and practicalities.

Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.

Part of this, I think, is because many students don’t come to college with the idea that research is something is a learning process – in their experience, it’s been more like a stringing together quotes process. But to really get the learning process idea, I think, you have to think about knowledge as something that is constructed, not discovered and you also have to think you have the capacity to construct it yourself. That’s a pretty advanced way of thinking about knowledge — it’s where we want them to get as they become information literate.

A lot of courses have objectives that fall into the “learn about X” category — if you think that “learning” means “find out the truth from an authority,” then it can be hard to see a research paper as a part of that. But even with smaller concepts – a lot of what we require for academic research writing can seem to be more of a hoop you jump through within the boundaries of a class, not something you’ll carry forward out of the academic environment.

Here’s an example. I do a guest bit in a class for beginner engineers every year (and every year I panic about it because I am not an engineer and every year it turns out to be delightful — you’d think I’d learn). This year, though, I had some legit reasons to panic because the faculty member asked me to spend 10 minutes or so teaching them about citations and plagiarism.

(She didn’t put that time limit on it, that was just the amount of time more than I had from last year — and she also didn’t mind when I spent more time on it — this isn’t a war story — just a note about where my head was).

So anyway, I had just read Project Information Literacy’s great report on the First Year Out data — explaining how new graduates face information problems in the workplace. I was very struck by their finding that a lot of new employees know that they were hired with an expectation that people their age are good at technology and that they therefore feel a they should be doing things quickly and online.

So to do this plagiarism thing, I broke the students into groups of 3 and had them do a think-trio-share thing. I told them to imagine that they were in an internship at a company they really wanted to work for. They’d just been given their first task — something like researching a new scheduling software tool for the team to use — and they were going to be expected to write a report in a week with a recommendation.

I asked them if they agreed with my assumption that their new boss would draw some conclusions about them from the results of this – the first major project they delivered — they agreed. So then, I asked them to think about how they’d like their new boss to describe them, based on their work on this project. I told them each to come up with 5 adjectives. And then in groups I asked them to come to consensus on 3 that they thought were really important. Then I asked them to do it again – but this time think of what they would like their new boss to know about their process – about how they approach a task. Then they came up and wrote their words on the board – if someone else had the same one, they wrote over it. Kind of a low-tech tag cloud.

Unfortunately, I am disorganized and did not take a photo. But the words were pretty great – a combination of: articulate, decisive, open-minded, out-of-the-box thinker, creative, comprehensive, critical, concise, thorough, efficient, resourceful, smart, intelligent and so on.

(“technology savvy” and “fast on the Internet” did not come up – which I do not think undercuts PIL’s finding at all — I think in the safe confines of the classroom, they didn’t think those things mattered – which is not the same thing at all as being in a job where you know you’re expected to be a technological whiz-kid)

So then we talked about how the sources they chose to consult would/could communicate these things about them as an employee, and about their work process. I said that’s a major reason we cite – to present a particular picture of ourselves. And then we shifted into a conversation about what types of sources would help them do this for the assignment they had in that class.

So how does this connect to anything? Well, one of the major outcomes of this particular class is that students will develop basic skills they need to work as a professional in the field of environmental engineering. Now, think about the plagiarism thing. The professor wasn’t asking me to talk about that as it connected to that outcome. Her main focus was good citations in her class projects, right? And there’s nothing wrong with that. But taught that way – then citations (and implicitly, the sources you choose) become just another hoop you have to navigate in school projects – that are totally disconnected from anything that might extend beyond.

A lot of our courses have an explicit connection to beyond — they’re intended to teach people to think and communicate like an historian, a rangeland ecologist, a soil scientist, an environmental engineer, and so on. And in libraries we think (I believe) that most of what we have to teach should support our students in what they do in the classroom and beyond. So, lay those connections bare, is what I’m saying.

(I was talking about this activity in a workshop for faculty in another context and one small group started talking about how they could take this premise for talking about citations and build on it – how they could bring in examples of professional writing that students could analyze to see what types of sources are used in the field – or to include that concept in questions to guest speakers.)

Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

One of our learning technology people told me years and years ago when we were chatting about teaching that he believes we shouldn’t force students to make too many choices to be successful — that if you want to give them freedom to choose a topic, then you should provide a lot of structure in terms of form – and so on. That’s kind of like a rule, but it has stuck with me.

See, I’m pretty good at interpreting assignments – actually, I’m pretty great at it. I didn’t stress out much when it came to predicting what teachers were really looking for, what would make them happy — I knew what they wanted to see. I actually enjoyed the unstructured “I can’t wait to see what you all come up with” types of assignments. But I realized in library school that I’m way in the minority there – that for others, these free for alls are incredibly stressful.

Here’s the thing – a lot of people who go into academia are pretty good at school. And a huge part of being good at school is knowing what’s really being asked for. I am guessing that a lot of professors probably loved getting to play with ideas and sources and concepts when they were students, and were good at it. And then we become professors and we want to design the exciting, enriching assignments we would have wanted as students. But in many cases we weren’t typical students – what we wanted wasn’t what everyone else wanted or needed?

I read an article years ago about the writing classroom where the teacher (I think she was a middle school teacher) asked the class to re-write a short story they’d just read from a different character’s perspective. I am pretty sure that I would have adored this assignment in the sixth grade — that’s just how my brain works. But the class pretty much crashed and burned. Instead of giving up on the assignment, or on them, she broke it down into a series of smaller exercises that helped the students re-frame the story, empathize with different characters and – and this is important – develop the confidence to create something themselves that was going to stand alongside (in their minds) the original story by a “real author.”

It is important to remember what a huge step it is to feel confident enough to say “no one else seems to be interpreting these facts this way, but this is what makes sense to me and I’m confident in my analysis and evidence.” Talk about unpacking – that’s a career’s worth of information literacy development embedded in that one sentence. And this brings us back to where we ended yesterday — that a huge part of what we do is give students the courage to take risks. Is it a good idea to ask them to do that in every stage of a multilayered project?

One concrete place where I really think this all comes together is the topic selection phase — a place were many students don’t get much guidance — and a place where many research projects fail. Not only do the affective dimensions loom really large at this stage, but topic selection is also a skill (that requires domain knowledge). And at the same time, there’s a hefty dose of practicality in play — you’re going to be judged by someone else, that means figuring out their rules.

For this, I’m going to turn to Project Information Literacy again – their 2010 paper on how students use information in the digital age has a great section on barriers students face and for many of those students (like, easily most) the biggest barrier is “getting started.” The finding here is that students approach topic selection extremely aware of the fact that they are navigating a host of unstated expectations on the part of their teacher — not just in terms of “that’s interesting” (or not) but from a much deeper and more complex level — “that’s a topic that will (or won’t) let you do the kind of analysis and use the kinds of sources I expect to see here.” It says they think of this as a gamble:

Instead, for many students we interviewed, course-related research was difficult because it was more akin to gambling than completing college-level work. Yes, gambling. The beginning of research is when the first bets were placed. Choosing a topic is fraught with risk for many students. As one student acknowledged in interviews: either a topic worked well or it failed when it was too late to change it.

In the last couple of terms a colleague and I have been experimenting with the information literacy models in our FYC class to see if we can’t improve them. We started out looking at delivery platforms, but something we saw during our assessment that term led us down the rabbit hole of curiosity and getting started. So this last term, we took five sections and built in a set of activities where they browsed for topics. Their course instructors sent them to ScienceDaily, and then led them through a process of topic selection. I wouldn’t say this was uncritically successful — there are things we want to tweak – but successful it definitely was. But one of the most striking things about the process was actually the conversations we had with the instructors before where they confirmed, from their experience, that yes – topic selection is super scary and stressful for students and for some, it’s a barrier they can’t overcome.

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I think activities and assignments that focus entirely on that crucial first step — what kinds of questions do people ask in this field – would be fantastic. But if you want to do a more fully-fledged research project in a class, then building in activities that provide structure, feedback and hopefully spark interest during the topic-selection stage are crucial. Browsing is a great way to get started with this — structured, guided, useful browsing that will expose students to sources and ideas they haven’t seen before. This is a map that some colleagues and I created for a workshop – we wanted a visual that would help students start to understand the scope and extent of research happening on our campus. We started the workshop with a browsing activity – and I think a lot of students would have stayed there the whole time if we’d let them.

Conclusion

I wouldn’t say I have any strong, definitive conclusions here — the closest thing to a big-c Conclusion is I think the idea that helping students take risks is what we need to do — and that our assignments should be authentic enough to make them take those cognitive or affective risks, but structured enough to give them what they need to be successful in their risk-taking.

But the workshop this was in service of happened, and the conversations were great. And I just checked back on my three strains of thought and while they may not have fully cohered — they’re all here in some way. So I’m calling this a win. Thanks for coming along with me.

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