Pivot Instructional Focus from Search to Find and Use

Pivot Instructional Focus from Search to Find and Use
by Rebecca Hewitt, SUNY Polytechnic Institute

From 2013-16 I co-led a research project at Hartwick College on the information literacy practices of first year students based on authentic assessment of student work using a rubric that assesses four aspects of how student find and use research sources.  

More about that research can be gleaned from the poster presented at SUNYLA 2017, Closing the Loop: Operationalizing Three Years of Information Literacy Rubric Assessment Results, reproduced below (Figure 1).  Through three cohorts of first year students, the most consistent finding is that students are more skilled at finding appropriate sources of information than they are at using the evidence in those sources effectively and citing appropriately.

Figure 1.  SUNYLA 2017 Poster.

First year students consistently show close to proficiency level skill in understanding the research requirements of their professors and identifying and acquiring sources that meet those requirements.  This finding shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone working in academia today; building information systems that label sources in ways that closely match the requirements of many research assignments is intentional (see Figure 2, Source Type Icon Set from EBSCO Discovery Service).  Not only library services, but popular search engines such as Google facilitate searching limited by academic criteria, as in Google Scholar.

Does this finding also serve as evidence that search technology has eliminated the need for advanced search techniques?  Even novice researchers, such as the first year students studied, can be effective without any understanding of Boolean Logic, nesting, truncation, phrase searching, and controlled vocabulary.

We have left the days of Dialog Bluesheets behind.

If students are effective searchers, in that they understand the research guidelines of  their professors and can identify and acquire sources that meet those requirements with little or no intervention by librarians, what value can we add to the research process of lower division students?  The answer, suggested by the first year students my colleagues and I studied at Hartwick, is how to use and cite evidence from research sources effectively and ethically. Students consistently score lower in these aspects of information literacy.

With respect to the use of evidence from research sources, common weaknesses include:

  • excessive quotation of sources,
  • over reliance on a single source, or citing too few sources, for a work of that length, and
  • including unattributed facts or unsubstantiated conclusions in their work.  

Yes, these issues do overlap with those commonly taught in lower division composition and English courses, but instructors in these fields universally assure me that students can’t get enough reinforcement on these points, and that I am welcome to cover them in my research classes.

How can you easily pivot the focus of your instruction?  Try requiring students to produce a deliverable that is light on the finding skills with greater emphasis on the using and citing skills.  For example, my introductory nursing students have a homework assignment to complete after the research instruction class that requires them to find one scholarly research article and work with it in two ways:  they must produce an APA citation for the article (copying the EBSCO or Google Scholar citation generator version is sufficient), and they must incorporate one fact from the article in a sentence with an appropriate APA in text citation.


Figure 3.  NUR 134 Homework Assignment

With this assignment, the students are practicing all four aspects of information literacy covered in the Hartwick rubric:

  • identifying an appropriate source,
  • using a piece of evidence from that source by summarizing, paraphrasing or directly quoting it,
  • creating an appropriate in text citation, and
  • Generating a full bibliographic citation.

With this assignment students are asked to practice many of the skills of research and writing in miniature, with just one source and just one piece of evidence from that source.  There are aspects of information literacy covered on the Hartwick rubric, such as sufficiency of sources to support the argument, that are, perhaps, too advanced to be addressed by this assignment, but librarians have long advocated the baby steps approach to the research paper, and this lesson plan represents one baby step toward acknowledging that our tools have changed and our instructional practice must change apace.