Research means…

For the past few weeks, I’ve carried my purple Dallas-Fort Worth registration folder and my iPad everywhere I’ve gone on campus. I made a Prezi of beautiful library pictures and presented it to my Head of School and the Division Directors. (Here’s the Prezi, and for full disclosure, I’m on the planning committee for next year’s conference, so that was partially the purpose. Tampa is going to be amazing! You’ll also note that I’m borrowing inspiration from the host schools. Thank you.)

I want my community to understand ways that libraries are innovating and ways that librarians can help students thrive. So, as I’ve been considering this post, I’ve tried to reflect on the most pertinent or most practical item I learned at the conference. After much deliberation, I’ve decided that it was the comments by the Texas Women’s University librarians about preparing students for college-level research in the session “Information Skills for College Success.” In preparing for their own presentation, they completed faculty and student surveys on their campus, and they compared their experiences as librarians. During the session, they polled attendees, and by a wide margin, we believe that our high school students have the most trouble evaluating potential resources. At the college level, this manifests itself specifically in helping students find scholarly sources, credible sources on the Internet, and primary sources, particularly in the sciences. At Texas Women’s University, they’ve found that it’s helpful to require journal logs, so that students keep track of the information-seeking process. It also facilitates communication between multiple librarians who may be helping students with the same project, so all parties know what has been tried and the level of helpfulness of each possible source. In addition, the librarians have noted that when students find good sources, they still struggle with paraphrasing main ideas, preferring to change a few words rather than mulling over how the big ideas of the source match the big ideas of their own paper. They said that many students are unused to being given freedom to develop their own topics and theses, especially “first years who are no longer managed by their teachers and parents.”


(The session was held at Fort Worth Country Day, in this beautiful glass meeting room. What a lovely campus!)

This leads directly to the statement that primarily caught my interest, which is that high school librarians often talk to students about research, as though research is a unilateral concept. Yes, there are steps that most research takes, but lab sciences research differently than the Humanities. They shared that professors are disappointed that students do not do the background research on a topic to develop a vocabulary and general understanding before jumping right to their theses and arguments. They said to share with our teachers that colleges do use encyclopedias, despite many high school teachers’ belief that they don’t. There are encyclopedias beyond World Book and Britannica; academic volumes on a specific subject with overview entries written by experts. Students are unfamiliar with the nuances of subject-specific research, and this hurts their ability to research successfully. A project examining the usefulness of a Revolutionary War artifact is different than a paper analyzing feminist themes in Tolstoy is different than a presentation making projections on glacier melt in Greenland based on climate trends. I’m the first to admit that I’m guilty of generalizing research, especially since my time with classes is always limited. I have called Ebsco a database, simply telling them to put a checkmark by the actual databases I recommend for a particular subject. When students get to college, they might be going from the small number of general academic databases that my library provides to two hundred detailed ones. After hearing the librarians present, I want to add a bit more thought in getting to the databases that we are using, or brainstorming with the class if this is research that could benefit from use of professor’s blogs, statistical data, or even social media.

We finished the session with a game to bring back to our faculty. We were given twelve possible sources, and had to rank them. What are the two we’d use first? What are the two we’d use next? Which five are possibilities but not necessities? Which five are unlikely choices? As librarians, we had some agreement, but it was limited without knowing the topic. The idea is that completing this at a faculty meeting will open up a conversation with your teachers. Students won’t then hear from one teacher to never use Wikipedia while another says that research means JSTOR and another says that .org websites are always reliable. According to the speakers, when students are given assignments, they are nervous and will generalize research unless they’ve been taught ways to approach research successfully in that particular subject.


Research Game for faculty

Here’s the game: Rank the following possible sources. (With no additional information)

-Washington Post (current article)
-Scholarly Journal
-Book that is not research based
Popular magazine article
-Scholarly blog post
-Internet Interview with a prominent person
-Encyclopedia Britannica Online
-Book over ten years old written by a reputable author
-Any .edu or .gov website

 Would this work in changing the way you and your teachers teach research in your school? How would you rank the items without knowing more? Any particular successes to share in teaching college-level research to your students?

We all attended so many different sessions. If you were only able to share one message from the conference or bring one idea back to your campus, what would it be? I look forward to comments below!

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5 Responses to Research means…

  1. Dave W. says:

    Hi Christina,

    First, thank you for posting the information on the research game! I’d LOVE to do this with faculty IF we could ever get a block of time to do it. I’d really like to, however, modify the sources to be ranked and try it with some 8th graders. I can see it working as both an instructional activity and a really useful embedded assessment tool for information literacy!

    You asked, “If you were only able to share one message from the conference or bring one idea back to your campus, what would it be?”

    For me, of all the great things I took away from the conference, the thing that continues to resonate most with me is a point made by both Debbie Abilock and Kurt Eichenwald in their individual talks and that is that we need to be sure to build MORE context into our kids’ research experiences (at least MORE than I have been doing with my kids). Debbie talked about “cut and paste plagiarism” really being “incomplete synthesis” and Kurt Eichenwald talked about getting kids to read books because “information is not knowledge.” I’ve been mulling over the way that I teach the basics of “research” (I treat it as a monolithic process, too), and I really want to tweaking our kids’ research process as Debbie suggested. Have kids read broadly from 2-3 sources first. Only after they have some context, should the go back and do close reading and start taking notes. Time pressure makes us short circuit that process, but I’m seeing how important it is to let kids develop context before they being their “research.”


    • Christina Pommer says:

      Thanks for your feedback. I have thought a lot about Debbie’s talk too. Many of the teachers at our school require notes after any class research time as a way of making sure the students are staying on task. However, for our 9th graders this year, we asked that they take notes on Google Drive. I was able to watch some of them as they read and typed notes. Some are simply much better at it than others. And it can be hard for the weaker students to know the broader context. It’s easier to write down the materials that airplanes were made of during WWI than it is to consider the larger picture of how aircraft changed warfare overall.

  2. CD McLean says:

    I’m typing up my notes on this session! I loved this one. The study where they got some of their info is from, which I found to be fascinating. I also like your idea of using the game. I would like to do this game with the kids to talk about what types of sources professors are looking for, what we are looking for, because, really, if we don’t tell them we require something other than a website, then they won’t give it to us. That is the first problem. What is heartening in looking at the research is that our libraries are on par with many college libraries and we do the type of research that colleges do. So, reading through the report should help us gain a better understanding of where the holes in our curriculum are.

  3. Great post, Christina. I too am looking at this session (and the Hot Topic session that relates) most closely as my takeaway. I’ve just been given 1.5 hours at our last faculty meeting (“Katie Archambault has some terrific teaching tools she will introduce to us. This will be the first of a series of conversations about how to make best use of Dietel.”) and I think I’m going to play this game with the faculty to get them started on source evaluation exercises we can do with the students. I want to give my thoughts on how best to use Wikipedia, when to Google (or how best to Google), building keywords, promote databases as sources of topic exploration, etc.
    There was a half day pre-conference session at this year’s AASL conference that was full when I went to register that Debbie A co-presented on that dealt with slowing down the research process. A great blog about it (I guess they presented at ALA too?) is here I want to include some of this in my faculty presentation as well.
    My challenge is to make this time meaningful, to hold their interest and engage them in a conversation that they can then convey to their students and one that we can build on as a faculty next year through this series of conversations that are going to be interspersed through faculty meetings next year. I welcome any suggestions you might have. 🙂

    • Christina Pommer says:

      Thanks for the link! I love the guided inquiry component. Good research isn’t quick; it’s thorough. I think that getting teachers to back up the idea of research as it relates to their various disciplines is the first step, followed immediately by the takeaway that the library can help with research across all subjects.

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