Last semester, Instruction Coordinator for Atkins Library, Stephanie Otis, presented on her course collaboration with GIAS Instructor, Joyce Dalsheim. Entitled Reading is Research, the presentation described a new way of thinking about the skills that students need to research, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information, and how librarians can be more fully integrated into the classroom to help students through this process. Recognizing that an essential component of research and writing is the ability to critically read, a skill often assumed and sometimes lacking in college-level students, Otis and Dalsheim worked together to address it in the classroom. The following is an interview with Otis about the project.
How did the “reading is research” project begin?
Joyce came to me in 2012 with the idea for this project, since I was the librarian for Global, International, and Area Studies (GIAS). We found that we shared a common goal of helping students shift their perspective of research from a mechanical process of searching and gathering information to a critical approach to reading and thinking about information. Over the course of four semesters, we have continually updated and revised our strategies for integrating research instruction into Joyce’s 2000 and 3000 level courses. While she was looking to improve her students’ work and give them a set of lifelong skills, I was interested in the potential for the project to change the perception of the library and librarians among faculty and students.
How does this approach to working with a librarian differ from other models?
This approach requires deep collaboration and rethinking the emphasis of research instruction. It asks faculty to incorporate critical reading and thinking about sources throughout the semester, rather than simply requesting a demonstration of the databases from the librarian. Librarians work with faculty to plan the syllabus, class meetings, and assignments/activities together. This approach allows librarians to share a different type of expertise and helps establish the library as an academic and curricular partner rather than an optional service.
How often did you, as the librarian, meet with the students during the semester?
I usually meet with the class 3-5 times during the semester. The first one or two sessions, we look at one of the class readings to go through the steps of reading for research. Later in the semester, we talk about searching for additional sources, and near the end of the semester we evaluate the students’ lists of sources for connections, relevance, and academic value. This semester, I will be grading an intermediate assignment for students (an annotated bibliography) between the third and fourth meetings.
What are some examples of exercises and activities that you used to help students learn how to critically read?
In one or two of the library sessions, we very closely consider one of the class readings, to identify major theory and main ideas, to connect to cited sources, and to think about how the author contributes to students’ understanding of major concepts and terms in the discipline. Throughout the semester, students keep a key terms journal, where they are adding quotes and notes from their readings to a “definition” of major concepts of the course. In an annotated bibliography assignment, the students have to write about how the source connects to others they have found, and why it is relevant to their work.
Do you think this model would work with other classes?
I think even the specifics of this model could be used with other classes. While it might translate most easily to other social science or theory-based classes, I can imagine many other applications with only minor modifications. The specifics of these class activities and assignments might not fit neatly in other classes, but we have seen that they inspire faculty to rethink some of the assignments in their classes as they shift the focus of their pedagogy.
Guest post by Denelle Eads
Special Collections at UNC Charlotte provides a picture to the past and a way to incorporate rare and unique materials into the classroom. This summer, Special Collections connected with HIST 4600: Racial Violence in America, a course that examines the nature and the history of racial violence in the United States from the end of the Civil War to the present. Special Collections has an abundance of rich collections that support this course topic which includes primary source material related to race relations from slavery to civil rights issues from the past to present.
Students in the HIST 4600 course visited the Special Collections Reading Room and were introduced to some of the materials relevant to the course topic. An online research guide was created for the course to provide students with more information about the manuscripts collections. In working with these materials, students were assigned to establish how the collections might be used in writing history. After selecting a manuscripts collection of interest to them, each student had the opportunity to examine one of a kind, first- hand documents such as diaries, photographs, letters and other items pertaining to their class topic. They discovered the value of working with primary source material and the pleasure of engaging with original documents, a practice that can enhance the learning experience.
Learn more about Special Collections by browsing the website or visiting the Reading Room on the 10th floor of Atkins Library.
Denelle Eads is Special Collections Research and Outreach Librarian at UNC Charlotte Atkins Library. Contact Denelle if you are interested in developing an archives assignment for your class.
Research Assignments and Research Instruction for Student Success
Guest post by Stephanie Otis
Clear Expectations & Objectives
Many times, when students are asked to do a research project, they are surprised and overwhelmed by the expectation that they develop their own discussion with the sources they find. When students are assigned a research paper, they often focus on the end product (at the last minute!). Consider your goals in assigning the research paper and if there may be different or additional assignments that would benefit your students. It can be refreshing to move beyond the traditional research paper to reflect on learning objectives you hope your students will accomplish in completing a research assignment for your class. Some possibilities include:
- Students can synthesize multiple information sources into an independent discussion of a topic related to the course material
- Students understand discipline-specific information sources and the cycle and conversation among these sources
- Students can locate and consider secondary sources on a topic to better understand course material
In presenting an assignment, consider these goals in the way you write and discuss the assignment with students. It seems basic, but can be a big help for students if you go over the assignment as a class rather than just posting it in Moodle or on the syllabus and pointing it out to students. There may be terminology they don’t know: if you’re asking them to synthesize or analyze information, explain what that means or give examples of what that work will look like. We can’t expect students to stop simply cobbling together excerpts from random sources if we never teach them what we expect them to accomplish. Other terminology sticking points for students might be secondary vs. primary sources, scholarly/peer reviewed articles, and thesis or research question. Talk to students about the type of sources you expect and show them examples. Talk to students about the peer review process. Include your own experiences with research and writing in your discipline. By sharing your work and the process of research, writing, and publishing outside of a class assignment, students can be encouraged to join in the conversation with their own work.
Research/Source Activities to Prepare for Larger Research Project
One way to help students better understand and accomplish your goals for them is to give them guideposts along the way. Many college-level research assignments ask students to undertake the process of locating, evaluating, and incorporating information sources as one uninterrupted endeavor they face on their own. The anxiety that accompanies such assignments may not be so much about students’ inability to find sources, but a lack of direction and support in what they should do with those sources in order to successfully complete a research project. Rather than assigning one large research project where students are expected to work along on their own and turn in one product, have them work along the way on smaller pieces. This process will help them better understand the steps in the process and different levels or types of information. Instead of simply asking students to use academic sources, have them compare a popular source to an academic one to understand how some sources work better than others for research projects. Students won’t take for granted, like we do, that academic sources are “better,” we have to show them how and why we’re asking for something other than a website or an encyclopedia article for their papers. A simple iteration of this approach is to ask students to summarize and evaluate single sources on a topic that may contribute to a more extensive exploration of that topic. As a starting point, the instructor or librarian can provide students with an initial source and structure in groups or whole-class work to answer the questions and build the summary/evaluation. Once students have seen how the process of summarizing and evaluating works, they can apply the questions to additional sources and incorporate this approach into larger research projects. Here are a couple of smaller activities that could be used in place of or in progress towards a research paper: Research Assignment Activities.
By integrating conversations such as these into class sessions or assignments, we better articulate and support the steps in the research process that we expect students to accomplish.
Stephanie Otis is Instruction Coordinator at the UNC Charlotte Atkins Library. You can learn more tips from Stephanie by reading her chapter, “Before Search: A Scaffolded Approach to Teaching Research” in the recently published, Successful Strategies for Teaching Undergraduate Research.