Among educators, it is something of a truism that today’s young people lack proper research skills. “Students rely solely on Google for everything,” and “Half the papers I grade are plagiarized,” are common complaints I hear from faculty members, who schedule library instruction sessions with an eye to addressing such perceived problems.

Indeed, librarians have long played an important role in championing students’ research skills. Since the earliest days of academic libraries, librarians have provided bibliographic instruction, teaching students how to use card catalogs, indexes and to critically evaluate sources. Since 1989, The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) has promoted information literacy, a more abstract set of skills including the ability to determine the extent of information needed for a specific purpose, to access and critically evaluate information, to incorporate information into one’s knowledge base, and to adhere to the ethical and legal issues related to the use of information.

Although ACRL’s Information Literacy standards are noble, they are admittedly vague, and lack context. For example, while we can all agree that students should learn how to be critical thinkers and judge the quality of information, the criteria for evaluating information varies widely according to the purpose for which it is used. A business student writing an analysis of a company would likely require the most recent information available on that company, whereas a student writing a paper on the causes of the Vietnam War might use source material that was twenty or even forty years old. Although librarians and teaching faculty often encourage students to use peer-reviewed journals, articles on very current topics cannot always be found in such publications. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach such skills in the abstract, divorced from the research process itself.

For information literacy instruction to be effective, it should be integrated with course subject matter, with assignments designed specifically to address critical thinking and research skills. Specifically, effective research assignments should exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Place emphasis on research as a process, instead of the end product (i.e. the term paper.)
  • Divided into steps, which can include outlines, preliminary bibliographies, oral presentations, etc. This allows instructors to give feedback and address problems as they arise. It also reinforces the notion that research is a re-iterative process.
  • Quality of student research counts towards the final grade. This can involve measures such as grading the sources cited, as well as having students complete a research journal or update at one or more stages.
  • The library is involved at one or more points of the process, such as helping the professor design the assignment, making sure the library has sufficient and suitable materials for students to complete the assignment, and helping guide students through their research.
  • Encourage students to think critically and creatively.

In creating such assignments, there are numerous examples of successful library-faculty collaborations. At York College of Pennsylvania, librarians and writing faculty members designed a course in which students wrote papers on topics related to their career aspirations, but which had relevance to the broader public. (A student who planned on becoming an engineer wrote an essay exploring the possibility that a missile, not an aircraft, struck the Pentagon on September 11.) After submitting an initial topic proposal, students gradually developed more detailed research proposals and annotated bibliographies, and shared their preliminary findings in an oral presentation, through which they also gained feedback from fellow students and the instructor. Only after students had undertaken this extensive research process did they revise and submit the final drafts of their papers.

At Moravian College, library and science faculty members collaborated to produce a course titled “The Misapplication of Science: Personal Perils and Social Costs,” in which groups of students explored questions related to science, such as “Is the use of cold laser therapy more effective than the use of nicotine gum in smoking cessation treatment?”, and which culminated in group presentations. Each student was required to keep a Group Process Journal, which detailed his or her role in the research process, from the first meeting until the presentation. The course grade was based primarily on the quality of the presentations, the research journal, and the quality and thoroughness of individual students’ feedback on their classmates’ presentations.

Faculty members have also created excellent assignments on their own. At American River College, Biology Professor Will Davis created an assignment in which students researched an issue associated with biology but with broad public relevance, then wrote and mailed a letter to a local politician or decision maker advocating an appropriate course of action on the issue. Davis reports that this research assignment gives students a greater purpose for their research and writing, and heightens their interest in civic issues. Furthermore, although Davis’ assignment is designed for Biology students, it could easily be adapted to other disciplines.

At Austin Community College, English Composition Professor Red Wassenich has students free write in class on topics they on which they already hold opinions, such as gun control, climate change, racial profiling or health care, then conduct research after the fact to see how well the evidence supports their opinions. Students then significantly revise the papers based on their research findings, often changing their theses in the process. Here at St. John’s University, Professor Phyllis Conn of Discover New York uses a similar assignment in which students free write their impressions of a neighborhood in Brooklyn, then conduct research on the neighborhood using both popular and scholarly sources, from which they develop a post-research reflection paper. Such assignments allow students to critically examine their existing knowledge, beliefs and biases, and to consciously reflect on how they use information.

Such non-traditional research assignments help integrate information literacy skills more seamlessly with course subject matter in a mutually-supporting relationship. We can all agree that teaching students to become discriminating, ethical, and articulate users of information is a worthy goal – it is our responsibility as educators to work together to help our students think critically and inquire freely.

Update: I will be giving a workshop for CTL on Designing Research Assignments at St. John’s on May 18, 1-3 pm in the Title 3 Learning Lab, Room 110, St. Augustine Hall.

Further Reading:

Gaspar, D. B. & Wetzel, K. A. (2009, November). A case study in collaboration: Assessing academic librarian/faculty partnerships. College & Research Libraries, 70(6), 578-590.

Jacobson, Trudi, and Thomas P. Mackey. Information Literacy Collaborations That Work. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2007.

Shoemake, Linda. Examples of Alternative Research Assignments. American RiverCollege Library, 11 May 2010.