October 12, 2014

Moving away from teaching to the research paper

As I've been teaching a lot more classes lately that have a big research paper or capstone assignment attached in my new role as a subject liaison, I'm comparing it to my other work focusing on FYE-type instruction and student retention, thinking about engagement. This topic also came up in the Instructional Design Essentials ecourse I'm co-teaching with Erica DeFrain for ALA. Many participants in our course are starting to see the big red flags popping up with demo-based one-shots and student motivation as they have been working through designing their instruction or learning objects. As info lit instruction practice is moving more toward programmatic instruction and ensuring that an assignment is present so that there is more student buy-in and opportunities for assessment, I'm starting to question the assignment and (formal) assessment parts of library instruction... or, at least the research-paper-as-assignment.

The problem with one shots of course is that there is often an expectation to cram a ton of information into a 50-75min session that students will need to just remember for the rest of the semester and be able to complete their research papers "well." Not to mention library instruction becomes an isolated integration into the curriculum, particularly so when this type of instruction is in the form of skill-and-drill. There are many discussions going on--that have been going on for awhile now--pointing out that just teaching students how to use a database via a demo is not effective, and is boring for everyone (agreed!). Once students get to a point where they are writing a huge research paper, I almost feel like we've missed them, that they should have had more incremental, activity-based instruction, because this juncture in their instruction-need winds up being focused more on use of databases and just finding peer-reviewed articles to get the paper "done." I was teaching some undergrad students more context about what a literature review is for their required big paper, talking about their role as creators of knowledge, thinking of research as a conversation and where their research fits in, and crafting a narrative. I also did need to weave in database demos because the students had a certain requirement to fulfill. At the end of the session, I talked to the instructor to see if the session was what he was hoping for, especially since he had another section of the course coming in a few weeks later. He told me I really didn't need to talk about all that other stuff, all I really needed to do was point them to the databases because that's what they need for their paper. Students become so focused on the need to gather x amount of articles that other discussions become irrelevant and inefficient.

This is the issue with huge summative assessments, particularly the research paper. Barbara Fister has written about this problem at length, where she talks about Why the "Research Paper" isn't Working. I don't believe we have problems with student engagement when research papers are not attached to library instruction because our (potential) content isn't interesting, I think it's because traditionally (not everyone and not always, but typically in the past) a library instruction session divorced from an assignment *still* focused on a database demo. A database demo with no purpose, of course, is going to be agony for students (and the librarian). There are so many other things we could be doing, that some of us are doing, that serve as better options.

My perspective is that by the time students are writing huge research papers, they should have already had enough library instruction to where they could benefit from just a review of what they know. We should be scaffolding from the first year up instead of dumping all the boring mechanics of searching on students, with little other context, all at once. Now of course, much of this is out of our control, we get asked to do a one-shot where an assignment is already established, or even with efforts for collaboration, faculty might not want to work with us, or might just not feel they have the time. But when we can have a larger role in collaboration, especially for programmatic instruction, I try to suggest more scaffolding and lower-risk library instruction activities to enable greater discovery and discussion. Some of the best instruction sessions I've had have been with student success courses that don't have a big research paper, working with athletes, and working with a class examining social media that needed less help with "finding" and more so with creating a bigger discussion about information and communication. Unfortunately, I think this problem goes back to faculty not really knowing what we do and assuming we're just there to help students find things, as well as perceptions of librarians tying us to a "helper" role, so I think it just depends on the faculty we are working with and what our collaborative relationships are like. But I do think trying to move away from teaching to the research paper is one step in the right direction.

The Twitter convo continues from above...