Creating an information need

As I wrote about in an earlier post, each semester I teach two to three sections of a required library class here at AUC.

The class seems like a great opportunity for students to engage with library resources. We have about 13 hours with them… a dream compared to 50-minute one shots.

The problem, however, is that it’s hard for anyone to learn about resources outside of the context of a real information need. But how do you create a scenario where students are invested? At least in one-shot sessions, students have a paper coming up and know they need to research eventually.

Last fall, my colleagues and I decided to re-vamp the course for the spring semester. The class would be focused on students’ individually chosen research topics, with the hope that they’d be more engaged. Also, researching the same subject in a variety of databases could make the distinctions between those databases all the more apparent.

This worked, sorta. Some students got it: they came up with interesting, appropriate topics and used the semester to research them. They learned about stereotypes of Arabs as they related to the portrayal of terrorists; they learned about how marketers target young children; and they learned about how teenagers can benefit from the practice of yoga.

Others, not so much. As their teacher, I take the blame for this. I didn’t spend much time in class refining students’ research topics, so several students had topics that were entirely too broad (i.e. global warming, Italy).

Perhaps not surprisingly, some students who were really invested in their topic learned a lot and excelled regardless of the topic.

Interestingly, on my earlier other post, Jeff Pomerantz made a suggestion to do something very like this based on his experience teaching a class to information science students. I think this idea will work, but we need to spend time helping students craft better research topics.

My colleague Nancy encouraged her students to come up with a research topic along the lines of this: the effect of ______ on ______. This clicked with her class and helped them focus.

We have some more ideas for this fall, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post. I’d be interested to hear from other librarians how they are tackling similar classes.


3 Responses

  1. I’m late with this comment, but I’ve been teaching an upper division course on research that I originally thought students would pair with a research-intensive course like a senior seminar. In practice, they didn’t always have a concurrent course requiring a big research project, or they did, but the course squeezed it in at the end and it didn’t synch up well. So they mostly come up with topics they may or may not be all that invested in.

    The surprise is that they are quite interested in information issues – the future of the news industry in a digital world, how government information policies influence access to information, how validity of information is being crowdsourced, sometimes for political reasons, the future of books and reading, whether Google or Yahoo should censor web content based on which country the searcher lives in … so it has evolved into a course about the nature of information rather than on how to find and use it (though that’s a part of it). I’m not sure that, without already developing a lot of context in their previous courses, if they could engage the same way; I don’t know how well it would work for first year college students.

    This year a colleague has adapted this course focus to develop a lab component for a political science course. We may do more of that if this works. I’ll be taking some of my course content and turning it into a faculty development 3-day event this January so I can poll faculty on what they think of that idea.

  2. Barbara, this is very interesting. I would love to hear how it all works out. Kudos to you for engaging your students.

  3. […] Posted on March 24, 2009 by Joan There are real challenges in teaching a required information literacy class to college freshmen, but we keep trying to make […]

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