Librarians want to help students succeed with your research assignments. Our interactions with students in the library show that success involves not just the mechanical steps of doing research, but also the critical thinking skills that are needed to make good judgments along the way. We try to help students focus on the objectives you have in mind when you assign research projects. Do you want them to:
- Develop a sense of the core journals in your discipline?
- Understand how an issue has evolved over time based on broad reading of the subject?
- Understand how to evaluate sources of information for reliability, authority, bias, accuracy, and scope?
- Begin to incorporate outside ideas into their own knowledge base and then support their own original ideas with outside sources?
We offer assignment-based, tailored instructional services to help students achieve your goals. And we can provide active support right up until the due date. What can we do to support the objectives you have embedded in your research assignments?
Students are great consumers of technology: Smart Phones, Instant Messaging, DVD's, and the Web. Their ability to be critical users of information, however, is less developed. These students are not unlike the sixteen-year-old who has learned the mechanics of driving a car, but is only beginning to develop good judgment behind the wheel. This judgment only comes with experience. Students' comfort with technology is often greater than their ability to select reliable and useful information, incorporate that information into their knowledge base, and effectively use it to accomplish a specific purpose.
The abilities to effectively find, evaluate, and utilize information define a set of skills called "information literacy." Students' information literacy skills develop throughout their time at Marquette in an incremental manner. The steps toward mastery can be viewed as progressive performance levels: beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. Students' ability to conduct research as freshmen is different from the ability of a senior, which is different again from that of a graduate student.
In order for students' skills to advance to higher levels, it is important to provide guidance and support over the course of their time at Marquette. Showing them the ropes one time as freshmen does not normally provide the level of support needed for the developmental process to occur. It is helpful when students receive subsequent instruction, at appropriate points along the path, on how to handle more complex research tasks than those which have previously been required of them. This subsequent instruction has been referred to as "scaffolding," where faculty and librarians provide continuously higher levels of support as the students move up to more difficult critical thinking tasks. When students are required to engage in a new and more complex research activity, a new layer of support is placed on top of the previous layers, in a "construction site" scaffolding manner. This process is not unlike the support provided to children as they acquire language skills. Adults explain the more complex language rules over time--a period of years, as children become more advanced and utilize progressively complex rules at subsequent stages in their development.
As students move to higher levels of ability, they develop a confidence in their ability to conduct general research. At this point, a second challenge is to help students successfully navigate through information in different fields, understanding the unique contexts and processes used to create and disseminate information in each field. This learning process occurs through normal classroom activities in a particular field of study, as well as through active research assignments with which librarians can assist.
Information literacy consists of five skills, as defined by the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association. The skills are intended to apply to any information seeking situation, whether it's deciding where to get a bank loan or completing a course assignment. Sample components for each of the five skills are found below. The complete list of skills can be found on the ACRL web site at "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education."
How well do your students perform the following skills?
- Define and articulate the need for information.
- Identify a variety of types and formats of potential sources of information.
- Consider the cost and benefit of acquiring the needed information.
In an academic environment, the employment of these skills usually begins and ends in the classroom, with a library research component tucked in the middle, as follows. Normally under your guidance, a student will identify their information need by selecting a topic for a research assignment and focusing on a narrow question related to that topic (skill one). They will then access the needed information through library-hosted databases, library-owned books, or web sites (skill two). The next step, evaluating the information critically, is normally based on reliability criteria along with your requirements for the assignment (skill three). Students are then challenged to incorporate information effectively, which requires the ability to synthesize main ideas, to construct new concepts, and to identify contradictions or unique characteristics of the information (skill four). Finally, students must use information ethically and legally, understanding related economic, legal, and social issues (skill five). Together these skills contribute to the student's ability to complete a course-defined project.
We have found that in general, the more we can tie together the library and classroom elements and support students' work in a unified approach, the better the students' experience will be. While faculty and librarians can identify clear delineations between classroom activity and library activity, the student views their work as a seamless process.
Research Paper Grading Rubric (for research component)
Assessment is a fundamental part of the university's work and librarians are interested in supporting your efforts in this area. One benefit of adding assessment of information literacy skills to your assignments is that it can be done without expending too much time of your own. A librarian can create an assessment tool, explain the process to students, and collect and decipher the results--if you wish for the librarian to be involved at this level. As with any new endeavor, discussion between you and the librarian is crucial at given points to ensure that the process meets your needs, but you can let the librarian perform much of the work.
You may already have information literacy components embedded in your existing course. Adding a method to measure student performance in this area may be straight-forward--as easy as asking them to answer a few questions related to their research methods and experience.
Formative and summative assessment are two means of assessment that focus on different goals. Formative assessment allows for "checking in" with students while they are on the path to mastery of a skill. Formative assessment of information literacy skills can be conducted 1) at the end of a class period that has provided an opportunity for students to practice these skills, or 2) in the midst of a research project. Summative assessment (required by NCA and for use in assessing Marquette's core courses) is a measure taken at the end of the student's journey, to determine ultimate skill acquisition. Summative assessment of information literacy skills can be conducted after students have completed a research project. This approaches allow students time to internalize new concepts, fully employ new skills, and reflect on their research experience.
Methods of formative assessment can include:
- in-library, documented activities, allowing students to perform specific skills and to demonstrate knowledge
- research logs, allowing students to "narrate" their research process in real time (including challenges, discoveries, and conclusions)
Methods of summative assessment can include:
- analysis of annotated bibliographies
- reflective paragraphs submitted by students with their project describing their research experience
- end-of-project questionnaires, allowing the collection of responses to particular questions
The following is an example of an information literacy skill that can be measured. The libraries offer access to over 250 electronic databases and selecting the appropriate one(s) for a particular project or subject area can be difficult for a student. In addition, identifying appropriate journals and trade magazines for a particular subject can prove challenging for students who are not familiar with many of the reputable sources in a given field. An exercise that would address this issue would be to ask students to provide a short reflective paragraph with a term paper that describes the basis on which they chose a particular database and articles from particular journals. Either you or the librarian affiliated with your department could review these descriptions, applying criteria to measure the extent to which a student used good judgment.
Attainment of Knowledge and Performance of Skills
The two components of learning that can serve as the focus of assessment are the attainment of knowledge and the performance of skills.
Factual knowledge associated with library research include understanding:
- the variety of information sources available and the issues inherent in choosing a source
- the differences between an article database and the Web
- the process by which databases search for information
- the benefits of employing various synonyms to retrieve additional information on a topic
- the criteria by which information can be judged for reliability and usefulness
- the nature of scholarly conversations in various discourse communities (health sciences, engineering, history, sociology, etc.)
- the variety of services available to students in the library
Skills that students might perform include:
- matching their information need with an appropriate research tool
- using a specific research tool effectively
- using advanced searching techniques (boolean operators, synonyms, limiting)
- effectively evaluating an information item for its usefulness
- making good judgments about the editorial purpose of a magazine or journal (to inform, to entertain, etc.)
- making good judgments about the credibility or expertise of an author in popular or trade magazines
- effectively selecting web sites based on authoritativeness, point of view, coverage, currency, and accuracy
- effectively incorporating outside information into their arguments, recommendations, or projects
- using the correct formatting conventions for citations and bibliographies
The best window into what students can do with their information literacy skills is a course-required project that incorporates these skills. A librarian can provide assistance in measuring the information literacy-related pieces of the project.
Do you teach a core curriculum course? Six knowledge areas include research or information literacy components: Rhetoric, Diverse Cultures, Histories of Cultures & Societies, Mathematical Reasoning, Science & Nature, and Theology. We are happy to work with you to create a plan to support student research and information literacy skill development in your core course. If you would like to talk over possibilities with a librarian familiar with your discipline, please contact us.
As a side note: Library staff currently serve on the Core Curriculum Review Committee and the University Assessment Committee. Through this involvement, we are staying abreast of issues and developments related to the core.