of Research Instruction
|Research Assignments and
Imagine You’re a Student
Before you begin exploring the teaching of research from the perspective of a librarian and a composition teacher, we’d like you to think about the issue of information seeking strategies used by today’s students from the perspective of a student.
For the purposes of this activity, the student’s age is unimportant. Also unimportant is the race, ethnicity, class, school, course or gender of the student. And don’t misunderstand this directive. Although we understand all of these factors to greatly influence the research practices and knowledge of every student, there are a few things related to research practices that we have seen as somewhat universal in our work over the past 10 years with primarily freshman and sophomore students both as a librarian and as a composition instructor.
For this exercise, you are a student in the first two years of college—community or four-year school. Your professor asks you to find some information on the issue of animal rights. You could be using this information for the basis of a speech, an essay; it really doesn’t matter. Which of the following would most likely be the first place you would go to find information:
Now imagine that your professor has taken you to the library for an introduction to the resources available there and then asked you to find information on the issue of animal rights to prepare for an assignment. After such a tour, you will now most likely go the following to find the information you need:
Finally before giving you the identical assignment, your professor has introduced you to the library resources and asked you to complete an online tutorial such as the Texas Information Literacy Tutorial (TILT) which introduces and defines many common practices in the process of research to prepare you for researching a topic like animal rights as well as sources you might use. Now, you are most likely to use which of the following:
Our initial guess about the outcome of this survey is that professors and librarians around the country will answer that regardless of the three approaches we described, most students do the exact same thing—Google it. We have found that the most common research practice for any topic given the current instructional paradigm regarding the teaching of research (and we use the word “research” to mean any information seeking behavior) is to Google or Yahoo your way to information. As you will see, we have nothing at all against Google or Yahoo or search engines in general as a way to find great, credible information. At issue is that many instructors, faced with the great wealth of information available online through both open and restricted sources, have not changed the way they teach students to conduct research nor faced the truth that most faculty members are unaware of the variety of information and/or search strategies that are needed to conduct research in an online environment. One widespread faculty approach to helping students conduct research online—whether they are in face-to-face or completely online classes—is to send them on a general tour of the library or to assign a library-created and hosted tutorial. Hence, although students have access to more resources than ever, no one is directly responsible for teaching students what to use or how in a way that develops competency with a variety of sources. Tours and tutorials as currently used are insufficient to shift our own and students' research practices.
In this essay, we (Tom, a composition instructor at a large state university, and Glenda, a librarian at a large community college) describe our collaboration in the teaching of an online, research-based advanced composition class offered by the state university where Tom teaches. We describe why, in addition to using the instructional media provided by libraries to help students navigate fee-based subscription databases (also called restricted sources), we develop our own instructional media in hopes of shifting the research practices of our students. We have found that most tutorials are either too general to be effective given the specificity of a particular assignment or simply not used at the point of need. By "point of need," we mean that moment in a student's research process when she actually needs access to a certain kind of information. The tutorials that we describe in this article are designed to guide students to information sources that they need to complete the assignment they are working on. The focused nature of these tutorials stands in sharp contrast to generic tours and tutorials.
Our research and experience indicates that the tutorials designed by librarians to teach research strategies to students are aimed at general competencies. Elizabeth Dupuis and Clara Flower, who were responsible for the development of the popular Texas Information Literacy Tutorial (TILT), acknowledge that the tutorial “was not intended as a replacement for classroom instruction but, rather, as a replacement for the more mundane aspects of classroom instruction so that librarians could transcend fundamental concepts and go beyond what they had been doing before” (Orme, 2004). Our experience in developing tutorials has mirrored this sentiment. The tutorials we developed were designed to replace or enhance some of the routines of classroom instruction, but ours were brief and designed as a part of the assignment we had given. Students thus come into contact with these tutorials and the strategies they demonstrate just as they need these strategies to complete their assignment. The Camtasia tutorial tells students, for example, how to access a full-text article on a particular subject using Academic One File. First, though, our tutorial shows the students how to find Academic One File at Boise State’s virtual library. They will need the practices they learn in these tutorials in order to complete the writing assignment we have given them. In a computer classroom, it is easy (and Tom and Glenda have both done this) to lead students to the virtual library. Many instructors, however, don’t have these resources. In addition, as we describe later, there are several other reasons for developing and posting instructional tutorials to class Web sites.
Although these tutorials clearly tell students exactly how to access particular databases that are available in our virtual libraries, we have found that these tutorials, coupled with a directive to “use as many research sources as possible,” do not necessarily result in students relying on multiple resources when they perform their research. First, as we discuss in another essay, “Competing Sources,” (Peele & Phipps, 2007) students are used to easy access to information, and are often unwilling to learn research strategies that are initially more time consuming. Second, many of the instructors who teach the composition classes (or any discipline other that Library Science) are themselves unclear about how to navigate the rapidly changing world of online databases and shouldn’t be expected to keep up with these changes in technology.
We propose, then, that in addition to guiding students toward tutorials like TILT and taking their students to receive a tour of the physical library, composition instructors should also work closely with librarians to develop specific, directed tutorials that are fully integrated into their writing assignments. In other words, the tutorial should be developed based on a particular assignment. As students complete the tutorial, they are also fulfilling one aspect of the writing assignment. In this way, their interaction with the tutorial is directly relevant; students who are learning to navigate the virtual library and other resources are able to apply their knowledge directly to the task at hand. Learning research practices in this context, as we describe later in this essay, is more effective than learning research practices through TILT, which never allows students to make these research practices directly relevant to their own work.
We also propose that, as a preliminary part of the writing assignment, students should be required to produce research logs, which detail, step-by-step, the moves they made to find their sources. It is not sufficient, as many composition instructors believe, to simply check students’ citations. Scholarly resources can be found through simple Google searches as well as through virtual libraries. Our aim in creating tutorials that are relevant to writing assignments is to make sure that students are using multiple research platforms—Google, Google Scholar, specialized Web sites, subscription databases, and the school’s library catalogue—and that they understand the need to choose their resources based on their audience and purpose. And this set of abilities and strategies around the selection and use of multiple sources is going to, we believe, become increasingly important in a world whose information is largely stored, sold and arranged in increasingly more complex and often hidden ways.
In this essay, we begin by describing TILT and by discussing, in the context of research essay assignments, its strengths and weaknesses. We then present a tutorial that we have developed in both PowerPoint and Camtasia formats; these tutorials were developed in accordance with the principles that we list in Principals for Designing Tutorials.
Please note that you will need Quicktime to view the videos in this article.