From the archives – the librarian can’t find the best source

This post from Lauren Pressley really resonated with me – particularly her note that not-blogging promotes not-blogging because when you don’t blog often you feel pressure to come up with something really great:

If you blog rarely, every blog post counts. It might be the last one left up over the course of a few months. :) And if it’s on the front page of your site for a few months, it better be pretty darn compelling.

I’m sure that it may come as a surprise to many who have noticed how difficult I find it to keep this blog up to date that I used to blog in two places.  I was never really pulling my weight over there, but I used to blog with Rachel and Caleb over at Command-f.info.

Command-f doesn’t exist any more, but the thing is that I had some posts I really, really liked over there.  So I’m going to move a couple of them over here before they’re lost to me forever.  (Yay Wayback Machine!).  Sadly, I fear the two-part Batgirl epic is no more.

This was the first post I made on Command-f, in August of 2008.  I’m reposting exactly as it appeared then, except for updating a few links.

I don’t feel like I hear nearly the emphasis on “the best source” as I used to, but I still do hear people frame “library sources” and “other sources” as if they are something different, and if there’s something superior about one. It relates to what I was saying in the Good Library Assignments posts about the desire I see in both students and faculty to use library collections as a shortcut for quality.

And I think it also relates to conversations like this one at The Ubiquitous Librarian, where I can’t be the only librarian to think that the students’ problem here wasn’t with difficult interfaces so much as a lack of understanding of research as an iterative, knowledge-creating process.  Not a matter of figuring out how to retrieve “the best source” so much as being able, cognitively and dispositionally, to be inspired to think about new things they see in the sources they find.

So – back to the past…

command-f logo

July 4, 2008 – 12:26 am by anne-marie

So this has been bothering me for a while and I haven’t been sure how to talk about it. It’s the phrase “the best source.” As in, “Google’s great for some things but librarians can really teach you how to find the best source on your topic.”

So I started really thinking about this one day at LOEX of the West when someone suggested that librarians involved in Open Access advocacy and instruction librarians are sometimes working against each other because open access advocates advocate using sources that are openly accessible and instruction librarians want people to use — the best sources. Now, I consider myself an open access advocate and a pretty good instruction librarian and I hadn’t been feeling that tension. I realized that I don’t think I do teach people to find “the best source” or even “the best sources.”

Really – I don’t even know what that phrase means.

Now, a couple of caveats here – I am not a very good relativist. I have been smacked down around a lot of seminar tables by smart people and foolish people alike for not being a very good relativist. I have had to learn to embrace the fact that my relativism has limits. So when I say “I don’t know what the best source means” it is not because “best” is a relative absolute term and I just don’t believe in that.

Two, I understand the concept of the seminal source. I don’t love the adjective but I get the phrase. I believe in it. I have had some transcendent academic experiences when I read an article, a book – some source that not only got me thinking in a new way, but that unlocked a whole discourse for me because by understanding it I had a framework to understand all kinds of things that came later.

(The Female World of Love and Ritualby Carol Smith Rosenberg. Signs – 1975. Such hard work. So changed my ideas about what history could be)

But that’s not what we talk about in libraries when we talk about “the best source.” And seriously, some of the most impact-heavy sources are also some of the most criticized and challenged. Two seconds on Google and you can find about a million references like this summary of the Big Six Information Needs step: The best source answers the exact research question or problem at the appropriate depth and breadth.

I don’t know what we even mean when we say things like that. And this honestly isn’t my snide hipstery “what would that even look like” voice. I am really asking – in the context of a real search, or a real information need – what would that even look like? Help me understand.

See, to me, the best source on a project is the source that gets you thinking — it sparks the idea, the understanding, or the connection that shows you where you’re going. You haven’t finished thinking yet and you haven’t finished writing yet – but you shift from “omg I’ll never get this done” to knowing what it is you want to say. It’s going to be entirely different from project to project and from person to person. If we could obliviate! memories and give the exact same person the exact same project and the exact same resources I’m guessing they would be pretty likely to find inspiration in a different place the second time around.

When Kate and I spoke about peer review at LOEX of the West, I’d say that our best source was this one article by David Solomon. His framework discussing five roles that journals play in scientific communities was what really pushed us where we needed to be in terms of framing the discussion. He cited another source, which we ended up using just as much in our final paper – so Solomon’s influence wouldn’t even be immediately apparent if you couldn’t get inside our brains but that doesn’t change the fact that for us, in our preparation, that source was probably the best source for us to find.

The point is that drilling down to the best source doesn’t match any kind of search process I’m familiar with. It doesn’t match how I see people exploring or discovering. It doesn’t match how I see people learning. But we say it so much – I’ve got to believe that it’s me that’s missing something. What are the situations and scenarios where we need to refine and refine – to add ANDS and ORs and parentheses until we have identified the single perfect source that answers our research question? What kind of searching is that – what kind of information need allows us to make that determination in advance of the learning, the synthesis, the analysis and the creation? What kind of learning process allows us to reject source after source as not worthy, and to keep those unworthy sources from sparking our thinking?

If I’m not missing anything, I think we need to really let the “best source” thing go. And not in the relativistic sense that there is no best. But to stop using it reflexively and un-reflectively. We need to really think about what kinds of systems, tools, lessons and conversations we can have with people to help them connect to their best sources.

Because I hope it’s clear that I think that there are best sources, but they’re slippery beasts. They can’t be discovered by drilling down, by narrowing and focusing, or by limiting oneself to a pre-selected pool of “best” resources. Well they can, but that’s not the easy way to do it and I think it’d take some dumb luck.

The easy way is still pretty hard. It involves a constant give and take of exploring and evaluating and I think it might be made harder by some of our tools. A lot of our systems in libraries are really good at getting the user to one thing, and not so good at supporting the kind of exploring and evaluating I’m talking about.

I’m looking at the catalog here – at the Virtual Reference Summit here in Oregon recently David Lankes said that the library catalog is the inventory record most organizations hide – and it is.

It’s the inventory record designed to help us distinguish all our stuff from all our other stuff. It is best at helping us find this book and distinguish this book from that book and that other book over there. It’s not as good at helping us explore and draw connections.

Is what the catalog does well, and has always done well, shaping how we think about searching and learning and exploring? Maybe it is. Maybe as a part of all of these conversations about the next generation of catalogs we can also take some time to re-think the idea of the best source.

all mistakes are not created equal

I try my best to keep up with Inside Higher Ed bloggers, but I don’t always succeed.  Monday’s post from the Community College Dean jumped out at me (probably because of the title – The Ballad of the Red Pen) and then once it had jumped out at me, it got me thinking.

red pen lying on a page of black-and-white text

some rights reserved by Cellar Door Films (flickr)

So the post isn’t really about using the red pen so much as not using it.

(BTW, the only thing I clearly remember from the award winning one week of training I got before heading into the classroom as a graduate Teaching Assistant was this advice – Never Use a Red Pen.

The argument was that the red pen had become so stigmatized that just the sight of red ink could send students into panic mode.  To this day, I use something else)

Anyway, at the heart of this post (according to me) lies the concept of “stretch errors.”  These are those errors that happen when someone is trying to grow and develop — when they’re trying new things.  The suggestion is that one should be “thoughtful” about using the red pen too much when the errors you see fall into that category – too much discouragement to a student taking a risk and trying something new = problems.

This got me thinking about information literacy and research instruction and what I was saying in the Good Library Assignments posts.  If a big part of what we’re doing with college level research instruction is helping students grow, try new things, expand their repertoire — then we must be seeing “stretch errors,” right?  I mean, unless we’re totally failing.

But I’m a little stuck on what those would look like in the research context?  I have a whole stack of metathinking research narratives that I’m using for another project and I’m thinking I might go through them to see if anything comes to me.

(Please share if something came to you!)

As a starting point, it would probably be useful to think about where they’re likely to stretch.  Choosing sources has to be one of those areas.  It’s one the areas where we’re really pushing students to expand their toolbox, to try something new. There must be situations where students are trying to choose something scholarly, complex, expert and failing — but failing in a stretch error way, because they are trying something new.

Citing sources correctly is definitely something new, something they’ve not done before, but it’s hard for me to think about the formatting aspect of this as leading to stretch errors.  The question of when and where to cite though, the question of paraphrasing and summarizing and using sources in ways other than Quote Then Cite — then yes, I think we may be seeing some there.

colorful patchwork sewn in a crazy quilt pattern

some rights reserved by marylouisemain (flickr)

In fact, the very first thing that came to mind when reading this post was the Citation Project and its discussion of patchwriting.

Patch writing kind of blew me away when I first read about it because it was one of those concepts that explained so much.

WordPress tells me I have cited TCP a LOT, so I probably don’t need to say, but patchwriting is a kind of almost-plagiarism — defined as “restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.” 

The piece that really grabbed me when I first read about patchwriting in what is (I think) the first Citation Project paper was the idea that this happens when students are trying to do the right thing.  That they’re looking at the examples of academic writing we’re making them use – peer reviewed articles — and trying to mimic what they see.  They don’t have the domain knowledge, the vocabulary, or the experience yet to write this way for themselves, so they end up veering too close to their original sources in an attempt to mimic that genre of writing.  That just made so much sense to me, and now seems like a classic example of a stretch error.

Now, to find some more.

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.

20130816-082429.jpg

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.

Good Library Assignments, part 2

So if bad assignments are not better than nothing – what makes them good? Not what are the rules of good assignments, because tired of rules, but yes, there are some principles, or maxims or truisms that come to mind.

I bet these aren’t all of them either, but they are the ones I’ve synthesized from my thinking:

  1. Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.
  2. The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.
  3. The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.
  4. Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  5. Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  6. Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Right now, I’m thinking about the first four. In fact, I would say the things on this list are a little bit apples and oranges. The first two are obviously coming from those assignments that throw in a “use the library” requirement, or a “use peer reviewed sources” requirement, or a “you must use print journal articles” requirements or even a “you must use ERIC” requirement.

(Though that print articles thing is getting a little long in the tooth. I know, I know, it still happens but not like it used to)

The next two are getting at some reasons why I think that faculty add those requirements.

So let’s dig in a little more and think about how these themes mesh with what we know about how students use information, go about research, and approach assignments.

Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.

The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.

As I said, these are mostly about requirements within assignments, and I think the more interesting place to examine them is in the reasons why. But I also think that these cover those — “I just want them to go to the library and touch the books” assignments. And here’s the thing – those assignments don’t work either.

A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time reading about library anxiety, which is a topic that I find resonates well with faculty audiences. At least a little of this is because of the Library Anxiety Scale – because that scale has been tested and validated and used in many circumstances it means when I say “we know” it gives me a familiar type of expertise — we know, because in my field, we have done this research.

The two features of library anxiety that I tend to emphasize are these:

  1. It’s situational – like white coat hypertension – it only kicks in in certain situations. And those situations? When students actually need to use the library to complete a task or solve a problem. On my campus, everyone studies in the library (no, not really, but we’re packed most of the time). But the way library anxiety works means that a student could come to the library every single night, could have “their” own chair, or carrel or study room and still, as soon as they actually had to use the library to write a research paper, destructive anxiety could kick in.
  2. It’s characterized by a sense of “I should know this” – accompanied by a sense of “everyone else does know this.”

Given these realities, it’s pretty easy to see why an assignment that is designed to get students into the library to touch the resources isn’t going to help. And if it’s an ill-designed assignment, where they’re not going to find the thing they need to touch – then it’s going to do damage.

And even if we have the stuff, if the assignment is written in such a way that it assumes students have had experiences with information that they have not had (reading paper newspapers), or that they know things they don’t know (research is published in things called journals) — it will make things worse.

When students already think “everyone else knows this but me” then an unfamiliar term like “peer review” or “LC” will send them over the edge. Barbara Fister’s recent post on Inside Higher Ed gets at this point in a much more practical and detailed way.

Feelings matter. In particular, how we feel about our ability to solve problems — our confidence — matters.

The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.

I was working on a book chapter earlier this year – a textbook chapter for composition students. And one of the things that the editor and I had a lot of back and forth about was just this. She was bringing me information from the composition faculty who had reviewed the book about how they wanted this to be simpler, or that to be simpler.

And I would say back, yes I know that they would like X, where X = whatever shortcut we were talking about here: evaluation checklists, peer-reviewed journals ticky boxes, callout boxes explaining why library databases were better — I get these requests too.

I get why people want shortcuts. I really do. Especially in composition where the topics come from across several disciplines and you’re dealing with a whole bunch of discourses that you have no particular experience with — teaching how to find, recognize, use and choose information sources is really hard. I get why they don’t want to fall down the rabbit holes I fall down into when I try to teach “what is peer review and why should you care” quickly and efficiently. But still, at the end of the day, suggesting that there are shortcuts around thinking, evaluating and choosing don’t do students any favors.

I have a couple of short slideshows I use when I want to “show” people how difficult it is to navigate our information landscape as a student.

  • One shows the first page of four different articles. I lead off this one with the question: “which articles were peer-reviewed.”
  • One shows five screenshots of newspaper websites. For this one, the question is “what type of source is this.”

Both of those exercises are designed to illustrate how much we (faculty) already know about information and publishing and how we use that knowledge to make these calls — we’re bringing tacit knowledge to the table that many of our students don’t have.

The last one is a little different. It pulls out a set of sources easily found in library databases — it includes a partisan blog, a news aggregator, a newsletter, a small newspaper and some others. This one is designed to illustrate the no-shortcuts piece.

When I hear faculty complain that “my students just went to Google” I actually wonder how often their students ACTUALLY went straight to the library databases they were told to use? Given that they can easily find Google-like sources using Summon (and Lexis-Nexis, and Academic Search Premier, and so on) it has to be that some of these maligned students actually did use the library. The issue isn’t that they went to Google instead of the library – the issue is that they didn’t know what to do with what they found – and that’s an issue in both contexts.

Requiring something isn’t the same as teaching it

It would be great if we could just require what we wanted and know that students would be able go out and figure out what we meant, what we wanted, how to deliver it — and find the whole process enriching and interesting enough to carry into the future. We all know that’s not realistic.

When it comes to research, though what needs to be taught, and how much time and effort it takes to teach it can come as a surprise. I’ve linked this old post from Dr. Crazy’s excellent blog here more than once – but I think it does such a great job of communicating just how deep the rabbit holes go when you start teaching students about research and information. There are so many unwritten rules that define good practice in academic communication, and so many things we can easily assume are common knowledge — once you start unpacking those things for students, though, you can quickly find yourself lost in a web of “but to understand that, you need to know this — a full day just to teach MLA style? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Library anxiety is one reason why there’s a problem when we don’t unpack the requirements in our assignments, but it’s not the only one. This one looms especially large in those “bad assignments” that are categorized by mis-matches — between the requirements and the students’ ability levels or between the requirements and the point of the assignments themselves.

I’ve talked about student development before, at length, and I won’t do so here but tl:dr – students don’t come to college thinking about knowledge and knowledge creation the same way their teachers do. They’re not supposed to – they’re supposed to develop that way while they’re here. So when we require sources that have one set of epistemological assumptions embedded within them (like peer-reviewed articles) and we don’t unpack those assumptions, then students will try and fit the new sources into their current way(s) of knowing. When the sources don’t fit (as they inherently won’t) then they think the sources are just a series of hoops they have to navigate to make teachers happy.

If you, like me, think there’s value in the work scholars do, this should be worrying.

The thing is, unpacking those assumptions is a huge job — let’s look at the “you must use a peer reviewed article” requirement. This rabbit hole will take you almost all the way to China. To really understand and use these articles you need to know:

  • Scholars do research. Not “research paper” research but other types of original research.
  • Scholars frequently write articles about individual studies, which examine specific things – not every dimension of a topic.
  • Research is usually (but not always) reported in things called journals.
  • Scholars argue, but in a particular way. They aren’t necessarily trying to win (and end) a conversation when they argue — there’s always another question and that’s not a flaw.
  • The same scholars who write the articles in journals also review other people’s articles for quality.
  • When scholars review for quality they don’t repeat the experiment to see if it’s true.
  • Scholars continue examining and evaluating the quality of an article after its published.
  • Scholars belong to professional communities called disciplines.
  • Disciplines develop rules or best practices about conducting and reporting on research.They’re not all the same.

That’s a huge amount to unpack and you can’t really expect students to “get it” if you just mention it it once (even if you do so at length). And it doesn’t even get at the fact that most students don’t have the domain knowledge to read these articles critically.

So a huge part of “good library assignments” if figuring out what you, as the teacher, actually have the capacity to support. Can you devote a full day to teaching MLA citations? Can you spend a week on scholarly knowledge creation?

And there’s still another level to “teaching it” that’s equally important, and just as labor-intensive: feedback. Students need feedback on the choices they make when it comes to information sources and their research process. And they need the opportunity to apply that feedback and try again. Some colleagues and I did a small research-process study last summer (soon to be published in portal, if you’re interested) and our students reported that they rarely get feedback on the sources they choose. And this finding wasn’t a surprise.

Students know how to do school. It’s not hard for them to figure out what really matters — when teachers don’t invest time on the front end explaining a requirement, and don’t give meaningful feedback on the result – they’re quickly going to realize that they don’t need to put any real effort into meeting that requirement. That’s why we hear “as long as you put the web sources fourth or fifth in the bibliography, and the EBSCO sources on top you’ll be fine.”

It’s almost like teachers and students have silently agreed that library databases are going to be shorthand for quality. As long as students go through the motions of using them, then we’ll consider that requirement checked off and focus on other things.

But it doesn’t help them when they actually need information to solve problems or make decisions, and it doesn’t do us any good if they ultimately decide the work that scholars do and that librarians preserve, repackage and make useful is useless.

I was talking to a faculty member who teaches a class for first-years called science myth busters – and told me about an approach he uses that I think has a lot of potential across a lot of disciplines. He spends a full day teaching about the concepts of correlation and causation before he has students read research articles (and news reports about research). Then, when they read the articles, they analyze them — just on that concept. They consider how the news reporters understand it, and how the scholars talk about it.

What I love about this is that it gives the students a structure they can use to start to approach these sources like someone engaged in knowledge creation would — it gives them language they can use, and a concrete task to complete. It’s manageable for the instructor, and it’s meaningful for the student. And many fields or areas of study have key concepts that could be used in a similar way.

See, Project Information Literacy (and about a million other studies) tell us that students tend to stick with what they know. Once they have a research-process hammer, then they’ll try and turn every research problem into a nail. They’ll stick with the same type of sources, with the same research tool, with the same processes and methods. They port them from high school and will only adapt them as they need to.

I think a huge part of what we’re (the big we – the higher ed we) are about is getting them to expand beyond what they’ve done before- to consider different types of evidence, more complex processes and to build a bigger toolbox. But trying something new is scary. Feelings matter – and we have to create an environment that makes them feel they can do it. Skills matter – we have to give them the tools to do it. And practicalities matter – it has to be worth their while to do it too.

There will be one more part – hopefully tomorrow — but I’m heading out for some Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a few hours so it might be Monday.

Good library assignments, part 1

I’m putting together a workshop tomorrow for teaching librarians about good research assignments — so I went looking to see what else has been written on the topic. I found lots of good stuff (I’ll talk about that later) but mostly what I found were rules — do’s and don’ts — embedded into pages about “when to ask for library instruction.”

(I bet you can predict what the rules are).

But here’s the thing – I break the rules all the time. In the last five years I have:

  • Taught classes without the faculty member present!
  • Said. “okay, sure!” when I was asked for a scavenger hunt activity.
  • Scheduled workshops for classes that don’t have research assignments, and which aren’t going to have research assignments.
  • And in one memorable case – integrated a scavenger hunt into a workshop for a class that was in the library without their instructor, that was a third again too big for every student to have an hands-on computer AND that didn’t have any kind of research assignment.

I mean, I don’t break rules for the thrill of breaking rules. And it’s not like we have anything so structured as “rules” here anyway. But I know them, just like we all know them, which means that even though I had good reasons for doing all of those things, I felt I had to figure those reasons out and justify those choices.

But I realized this morning that … I’m tired of rules. Or, maybe it’s more that rules make me tired. The effort to control and regulate a bunch of external conditions to make the one-shot — which has a bunch of moving parts that are uncontrollable — work is really tiring.

(And the rules have a nasty little unstated flip side — the one that says if all of the rules are followed, then the only reason why the one-shot isn’t awesome is librarian failure. That exhausts me even more.)

So in thinking about “good library assignments” the last thing I feel like doing is coming up with more rules. That’s right, not even “no scavenger hunts.”

I’m trying to pull together 3 pieces of interconnected thinking here. I don’t think I’ll talk about them all today – but I am hoping they’ll cohere if I talk about them. Here they are:

War stories: Thinking over “bad library assignments” I have seen – what are the broader categories?

  1. Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate a thing that my library does not have.
  2. Assignments that require students to do a thing in an outdated or inefficient way.
  3. Assignments with no immediate payoff – that serve only an unknown future need.
  4. Mis-matches — between assignment requirements and students’ cognitive development.
  5. Mis-matches — between the assignment requirements and the audience/ rhetorical purpose of the assignment.

Truisms: What are some things that are usually true (from my experience) about research assignments and teaching research?

  1. Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.
  2. The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.
  3. The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.
  4. Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  5. Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  6. Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Expertise: What do we know about how students interact with research assignments that many others on campus do not?

  1. Library anxiety is real, has cognitive consequences, and can’t be fixed by requiring students to enter the building or touch the books.
  2. There are a lot of terrible sources available in library databases and on library shelves.
  3. Students will stick with what they know.
  4. Topic selection is difficult and stressful, and can be a barrier to student success on research assignments.
  5. Sometimes, it’s trying to do the right thing that leads students to do the wrong thing.
  6. Teachers and librarians have had experiences with (and built up a body of knowledge about) research and information that their students have not.

I’m going to dig into this more tomorrow, I think but for now – what do these things have to do with the rules above?

The faculty member present thing – probably nothing.  I agree that an active, involved faculty member makes my sessions better.  But I also have a lot of faculty at this point I’ve been working with for a long time — if someone I’ve assignment-designed with, taught with and published with needs to go to a conference the same week that her students need the library, I’m going to say yes.

But the rest – the rest do relate.  Because basically, I don’t think that a thrown-together research assignment, a mediocre research assignment, or a research assignment that’s separate from the class and will never be talked about again is going to make my session better.

And when we’re thinking beyond my individual session — then, a bad research assignment is going to make things worse.  So at that point, I have a couple of options – do the session without one (which I’ve done) or say, “no thanks, not this term” (which I’ve also done).

Why do I think they make things worse?  Because there are implicit messages buried in each of those “bad assignment” characteristics — let’s revisit?

Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate a thing to be successful — and my library does not have that thing (or enough of that thing).

Subtext:  Libraries don’t have what you need.  And perhaps even worse – librarians don’t know what you need and cannot help you.

Assignments that require students to do a thing in an outdated or inefficient way.

Subtext: People who use libraries do so because they don’t know the best way to do things.

Or, as a colleague and I used to say “let’s teach them – whatever you do, DON’T use library resources!”  This actually came from an assignment that never happened.  We wanted students to get an overview of the topic before going to scholarly sources (as you do) and we thought we might be able to embed a discussion about the differences between traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia in the unit (yeah, yeah, it was 2005.  It was how we thought then).

We opened up our online Encyclopedia Brittanica, took a stack of student research logs, and started plugging in the words and phrases that they’d used in their initial searches.  And OMG were the results ever terrible.  We compared twenty-five student searches (because rigor) but we knew after five that we were never going to send people to the Brittanica because we’d be sending the implicit message – “whatever you do, DON’T use library resources.”

Assignments with no immediate payoff – that serve only an unknown future need.

Subtext: 

Mis-matches — between assignment requirements and students’ cognitive development.
Mis-matches — between the assignment requirements and the audience/ rhetorical purpose of the assignment.

These are two different things, but the subtext I’m worried about is the same:  You have to use these sources, processes, and tools here in school, but once you graduate you’ll never use them again.

So what did I miss?  Plus, more to come.

Research Immersion?

From Lee Bassette in last Thursday’s Inside Higher Edabout the Digital Humanities Summer Institute

I am excited because I am surrounded by people who are interested in similar research and skills as I am. I can talk about my project with people who a) actually know what and who I am talking about and b) are as excited by it as I am. People are interested in me and know me as a researcher, respect me as a researcher. My professional identity at home is so wrapped up in being a teacher, it’s nice to have this important other part of me recognized and, dare I say it, validated. I have a real intellectual community, not just a theoretical one.

I have lots of professor friends on other campuses who talk about this kind of isolation, but not librarians. When we talk about the issues of solo librarianship, we’re usually talking about something else — not about being the only metadata person, or instruction librarian, or archivist in the place.

And as librarians, we have both a (sometimes potential) research self, and a (usually actual) practice self — I could easily imagine that there are some librarians who are alone in their research interest, even with plenty of professional peers. Who needs this kind of shared experience more than us — what would it look like? Research Immersion?

So, according to TechCrunch in 2010, Bill Gates thinks that by 2015, people won’t have to go away to college anymore because

Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world…. It will be better than any single university.

Fast forward to this year and Harvard and MIT launch edX, designed to bring an interactive course experience to anyone with an Internet connection (so, not just lectures) – building a “global community of learners” and strengthening programs back on campus as well.

Online education and it’s potential to disrupt college as we know it is a talked-about thing, is what I am saying.

But despite that, I have never really thought about this.

(via Walking Paper)

It’s kind of a longish video with a pace that is measured, or slow – so if you didn’t read it basically it seems to be a platform that manages online course offerings – potential teachers can upload their classes, potential students can find and sign up for classes.  There’s some consistency in offerings – they’re all one-day, in-person workshops that cost $20.

Here’s the thing, I can see this working with enough critical mass — but I’m not sure I can see it working on a college campus.  But I think it should work on a college campus – like, I can see it working on a campus that’s not all that different than the ones we have.  Why?  Well, reasons…

  1. We have a lot of really smart students who know how to do stuff.  We also have a lot of really smart faculty and staff who know how to do stuff, but I haven’t figured out yet if it works better in my head to be something bringing the whole community together – building a learning community that encompasses the physical community — or if it’s better as a student-teaching-students thing.
  2. We have students (and faculty and staff) who have a lot of interests – who want to learn how to do stuff.
  3. We talk a lot about high impact educational practices – those practices that increase  student success and engagement.  What’s important about these practices isn’t so much “if students get these experiences then school will be easier for our students” so much as “if students get these experiences then they’ll develop the networks, resources and resilience to get through the tough parts, stay in school and ultimately figure out how to succeed.  Taking on the teaching role doesn’t directly fit any of these practices, but it seems to fit in spirit — basically, if the teaching feels like it’s part of what makes the community the community, then participating would increase attachment to the community.

But on the other hand, other reasons …

When school pressures hit, there’s very little that survives. Which is what I mean when I say I can see this working on a college that is similar but not exactly the same as what I see outside my window.  (or what I would see if I had a window).  Basically, what I mean here is that I find it hard to see our students finding time for this kind of, well, dabbling a lot of the time — they can use working out or even parties as a legit reason not to study — one keeps you healthy and the other keeps you in friends – but taking a class on fixing your bike?  No, that I can’t see being treated as a legit reason not to focus on the classes and learning you’re actually paying for.

And I’m not sure what that means – I can easily see something like this working with my students just after they leave college.  Well, not easily, but realistically, I can imagine this kind of ecosystem taking root.  In college, on the other hand, it’s a lot harder.  I’m not sure what I think about that.

But here’s the thing – this seems like a great thing for libraries to manage.  This is information literacy, browsing, exploration and curiosity.  Exactly the kind of thing we are all about in college – but think about the ecosystem we build to support it.  What’s missing?  This kind of collaborative sharing of expertise — the people networks.

Which brings it back to he discussions of online learning I started with  – see, I’m pulling it back around.  Seriously, I’m as surprised as you are.

One thing that got me (and really, almost everyone else) two years ago when that Bill Gates quote appeared was just what a top-down, boring view of education it suggested — sitting in front of lectures, absorbing the knowledge =/= education.

And I’m a known lecture defender, but seriously – what made college worth it for me was the people.  And not just the faculty, though they were important, but my peers as well.

Which is why I think, on one level, that I couldn’t stop thinking about this community-teaching model after seeing it this morning.  Because it’s using technology to develop the community, but it gets at something that could only work on campus – that reflects part of why I love our campus community (and all of the campuses and communities I’ve been a part of).  It gets at part of the reason why, even though I had to do a distance library degree, I chose a program where I had classmates.

Of course, I learned a lot from my classmates, and of course I learned a lot from my interactions with faculty.  But even more than that – those relationships (especially with peers) are what created the culture of learning that existed in my college experience — the expectations, the standards, the ideas about what was worth your time and what weren’t – -those things were all social, shared values that we gave each other.  Some campuses did it really well, building a culture that really pushed me beyond where I would have been on my own.  Some, well, showed me how great I used to have it.

Even though I think it wouldn’t work – I keep trying to think about why it would.  Because a college that developed the kind of culture where that kind of sharing and learning was possible, was rewarded, was considered important enough to do even alongside the classes you’re paying for — that would be really cool.

babies, bathwater, whatnot…

Two recent rants have caught my eye, interestingly both from people who seem to have recently attended SXSW, a conference to which I’ve never been (but always wanted to go).  Anyway, one calls for “flipping the conference” and the other wholeheartedly agrees.

Before I start, let me say that I doubt either of these posts is really calling for eliminating all broadcast-type lectures or presentations from all conferences anytime or anywhere forever and ever.  Just like I don’t think that people who call for flipping the classroom – the discourse both of these pieces are riffing on — are talking about replacing lectures so much as using them better.  There’s a big difference between throwing out lecture altogether and recognizing that the teaching shouldn’t end there (and sometimes shouldn’t start there).

So this isn’t a “someone’s wrong,” rant so much as I don’t hear this expressed very much, and I think expressing it is important – there’s a continuum here, after all, and if the endpoints skew to one side then the conversation is affected.

This is the side that I never see expressed.  I like lectures, sometimes.  I think there’s a place for them.  I like some of the things that are “the problem” in these conversations and I am going to tell you why.

1. Remember, we’re all different.  

Both of the above pieces refer to this one shared assumption – that the really important thing about any conference is the “discussion, debates and conversations.”  And I think a lot of people express this, and believe it and for them it’s true, but for me (and not just me, I think) — It’s not.

I’ve come out before as a pretty serious introvert and I’ve got to tell you, two or three days filled with nothing but discussion, debates and conversations sounds like my idea of hell.  Okay, yes, I can imagine many worse things than that so maybe not hell, but seriously, it would take me at least a week to recover from something like that.

(Note.  I am not exaggerating for effect.)

For a quick primer on what I mean when I say “introvert” watch this:

To me, the best part of any conference is many things.  Sometimes it’s an inspiring keynote, sometimes its a meaningful conversation with someone from my home state over drinks half a continent away, sometimes its an idea that came to me in the middle of a talk on a topic I never would have sought out and am only being exposed to because it was the most interesting-looking paper in an underwhelming session.  You see what I mean?  It’s ideas and they come from everywhere and I don’t want to limit where I might run into them.

Lectures can be a super-effective way to get a lot of ideas out there to a lot of people really quickly.  Do I think we should build in time for reflection, time for discussion, time for debate?  Yes, of course I do, but don’t throw out the lectures.  See, I don’t need to do all of my thinking and all of my learning AT the conference.  Sometimes I want to get exposed to as much thinking and as many ideas as humanly possible while I’m there and I’m okay with doing some of my thinking and processing and conversation on my own time.

And here’s the thing, I think there IS value in giving busy professionals some space in their work lives to stop doing everything else, to focus on ideas and content for a few days.  Sometimes that means taking advantage of that shared space to talk, to discuss and debate.  Sometimes it means time to think, to reflect, to listen.  There’s value in providing a space where people who are passionate about the same things can share the experience of hearing new ideas or learning new things.

2. We don’t do the reading 

Because that shared experience is essential to making those conversations, debates and discussions about something, or at least about something new, isn’t it?

And here’s the second thing – I don’t think we’re going to do that in advance, on our own time.  I have been responsible for leading conference events and workshops and discussions that provided people with advance readings before and I am pretty confident in my blanket statement that no one ever does them.  I mean, let’s face it, there’s not gonna be a test.

(Okay, Jane does them, but then she has to catch everyone else up.)

We come to the conference, with our pens (or iPads or laptops), ready to absorb the knowledge* but I’m guessing that prepping in advance rarely goes further than what we can get done on the plane ride, if that.  And lectures are a GOOD way for lots of us to get that shared experience, to absorb that knowledge that can be our jumping off point.

Lectures don’t suck.  Bad lectures do.  Now, are bad lectures worse than bad active learning exercises?  I don’t know, I can get stuff done during a bad lecture without being actively rude, which is something I value.  I can think and reflect on the good ones.  Ask my co-workers how many projects have been started by emails I wrote from bad talks about ideas I got during bad talks.  (Spoiler alert!  A lot)

(Note.  I’m not advocating for bad lectures.  But maybe bad lectures > bad other stuff.)

Bad discussions, though, those are tough.  And a lot of times, they’re bad because there’s no shared content pushing them forward – because my class didn’t do the reading so it’s a series of unconnected “here’s what I think” statements – oh wait, that’s another topic.  But it’s not entirely another topic.  Discussions grounded only in a set of possibly connected individual experiences, not in a shared reading, or talk or idea – those can become deadly unfocused or reflect not much more than the loudest voice in the room.  It takes a lot of skill to facilitate discussion and spark conversation.  We don’t all have that skill.

*Bonus points for catching that reference

3. Let me be inspired

Because just like we all learn in different ways – we all teach in different ways.  Some people are great at facilitating discussion, creating debate and pushing the room to collaboratively developed insights but everyone isn’t.  Some people need time to deliberate practice and prepare to be their most effective and I don’t want to shut any of these people out of the conversation.  Isn’t there room for all?

It’s common in these discussions to talk about how none of the learning that really stuck with us from college came from lectures – it all came from more active work done (usually) outside the classroom, etc.  Well, okay. Some of my most memorable learning in college happened in lecture halls, listening to some truly fantastic speakers.  I think about those historians, political scientists and (in one case) psychologists every time I hear the anti-lecture conversation start up because I think the world is better place with those people doing what they do best.

And here’s the last thing – people like to be inspired and they are INSPIRED by good talks.  Look at the tweets from just about any conference and you’ll see tons of excited OMG I am so inspired comments – occasionally sparked by conversation but more often sparked by speakers.  Passionate, skilled, awesome speakers.

 

 

Peer Reviewed Monday – Expertise Reversal Theory

ResearchBlogging.org
Okay. So I am pretty sure that the actual article I am pointing to here (probably behind a pay wall – sorry) is not peer-reviewed.  It is the editors’ introduction to a special issue of the journal Instructional Science.  In this introduction they tell us that there are five empirical research reports and two commentary pieces in the issue, but this piece is neither empirical research nor peer-reviewed.

So, take a look at the whole issue, if your access to Springer journals is sufficient.  If not, I will summarize!

So, expertise reversal theory.  Sounds fancy.  I have definitely heard much talk about its theoretical context – cognitive load theory.  That shows up all over the place in library instruction circles. I was in an airplane during the opening keynote at WILU last week, but from what I heard (and I heard it a lot – the keynote must have been really good) the “brain guy” talked about the kinds of things that come up in conversations about cognitive load theory.

Expertise reversal theory is a subset of this research.  It suggests that the very same things that reduce cognitive load in novice learners can actually increase cognitive load in expert learners, or in learners with more domain knowledge.

The implications of this for library instruction seem immediate and obvious.

In the classroom.  How many times have we talked about the problem of the class that seems to be equally divided between the students who have never been pointed to a database and students who have been to the library classroom four times this year?  You can’t pitch your presentation to the experts in that scenario, and depending on what you have to do for the novices, you might find yourself saying “well, hearing it again won’t hurt them.”. This theory suggests that maybe it will.

On the web. This is, of course, the really significant place where we have to think about the possibilities this theory raises,  Who makes Beginning and Advanced online help possible?  (okay, maybe Zotero but who else?)

I have been thinking about my tutorial posts from last year, because they were part of a larger process that Hannah and I presented on at WILU.  One of the main takeaways I took from the craft tutorials was the way that they assumed that the people using the tutorials brought with them a body of knowledge, and that idea runs throughout this discussion of expertise reversal theory.  The authors argue that the most important cognitive factor in learning is prior knowledge:

Studies of expert-novice differences in cognitive science have clearly demonstrated that learner knowledge base is the most important and fundamental cognitive characteristic that influences learning and performance.

Basically, the way I read this overview is like this – novices don’t have a set of mental models, body of domain knowledge or prior experiences to structure their interaction with new information, tools, etc.  They need help – and to reduce their cognitive load, we provide  help that gives them that structure, whether it be text presented together with images, detailed step-by-step instructions, or whatever the case may be.  More experienced learners have those mental models in place.  When you give them that structuring information, it becomes something they have to wade through, and it might actually impede their ability to access their own prior knowledge.

At the most basic level, they need the opportunity to “opt out” of the extra help you put in there for novices.

A couple of the papers in the special issue are of interest, though I haven’t read them closely enough to analyze yet – they look at how well expertise reversal theory holds up in messy domains (specifically literary criticism and writing-to-learn in psychology) instead of focusing on “well-structured” domains like math or physics — and as instruction librarians, messy domains are where we usually live, right?

Kalyuga, S., & Renkl, A. (2009). Expertise reversal effect and its instructional implications: introduction to the special issue Instructional Science, 38 (3), 209-215 DOI: 10.1007/s11251-009-9102-0

Zotero assignment revisions

So, in the end the Zotero assignment worked very well on the Zotero side, and less well on the information literacy side.  So I’m spending this week revising it and designing some new activities.  A few quick takeaways:

The assignment was trying to do too much.  It was the main way to assess:

  • Students’ ability to recognize different source types and explain where the fit into the scholarly process.
  • Students’ ability to track down those different source types.
  • Students’ understanding of what the scholarly and creative output of their department (and by extension the scope of intellectual activity within their discipline).
  • Students’ ability to use research tools to organize and manage their sources.

Way too much.  Illustrated mainly by the fact that there were a few students to managed to do all of those things in their work.  That made it very clear what others were missing and made me want to figure out a way for all students to be able to get to where the few did in this class.

So here’s the thing – the first two outcomes up there were the problem, not the technology or logistics of syncing libraries and the like.  The bibliography project should really be about the 3rd and 4th outcomes.  The collaborative nature of the bibliography (and ability to see the breadth of what our faculty produces) was lost on students who had to work to hard to meet all of the format requirements that were in place to measure the first two outcomes.  All of the format requirements I put in to meet the first two outcomes took away from the authenticity of the experience, and of the evaluation and contextualization I had hoped the students would be able to do.

So this term, I am planning to get at those first two outcomes in different ways, and then make some changes to the bibliography assignment:

  1. drop the number of sources required in the annotated bibliography from 5 to 3.
  2. increase the emphasis on evaluation (and multiple methods of evaluation) in the annotations.
  3. change the workflow a bit – have students create a broad, pre-evaluated body of resources in a personal library and then have them select their 3 sources from that larger pool, annotate them and add them to the collaborative bibliography.
  4. build in a required conference so that I talk directly to each student about the process fairly early on.
  5. drop the format requirements altogether and allow students to add any 3 resources they want (while increasing their responsibility to justify those choices in multiple ways in their annotations).
  6. push the due date for the sources up a week, add a week between the final sources due date and the final reflection due date, and target and focus the scope final reflection essay significantly.

(Big hat tip to my students.  Many of these changes were also articulated by them when I asked them to help – in some cases their input was what really allowed me to put my finger on the problems).

What about the tech?

In the end, syncing did cause problems for a few, and Zotero hurdles did cause problems for a few.  Students who were, for whatever reason, not able to spend a focused amount of time at some point earlier in the term learning the mechanics of Zotero found it very challenging to manage finding sources and figuring out Zotero in the context of a last-minute scramble.

I had thought that my students would have to do the bulk of their Zotero work at home because of having to re-download and sync Zotero every time in the classroom.  MY Zotero library was still very difficult to sync in the classroom (I assume the hugeness is a factor) but the students rarely had to wait for more than 2-3 minutes.  Clearly, I can and should rely a lot more on classroom time as a place where students can be working with Zotero.

Most students were very positive about Zotero.  A few found it cumbersome.  There was a clear pattern though that I found interesting, but troubling in that there is nothing I can do with it.  The pattern was this — those students who had reason to use Zotero for real, for a real research project, during the term were much, much clearer in their evaluation of its value.  And by extension, I believe that they are the ones most likely to keep using it.

My class is a 1-credit class.  I can’t assign an authentic student-y scholarly research project that would take that little work.  But whether or not they have reason to use it in another class is nothing I can control.  It’s troubling because it points to a deeper issue about this class’ place within the major – issues we all know about but aren’t sure how to fix.