Teaching Research Techniques Require Understanding

What is the librarian’s role in guiding the research for the student who has no idea how to tackle a research project?  In the essay, Desperately Seeking Citations: Uncovering Faculty Assumptions about the Undergraduate Research Process, Gloria Leckie poses some interesting scenarios.  Taking the issues one by one, she lays out an implied, but logical path that teachers and librarians can follow to help their students conduct research more effectively.  Understanding what the student brings to the project in terms of life experience, prior training in research, motivation, and drive is critical in helping the student succeed when searching for citations.

As I was reading this essay, my mind kept straying to my middle school students.  Reminding myself that this article was written concerning college freshmen and sophomores, I couldn’t help but wonder how I might react if a student were to bring me similar requests.  When talking about the first year student who needs to do research on the topic of abortion, her female student is vividly portrayed. “…the student silently shows the librarian the handout she received in class about the research paper.”  I have had students do exactly the same thing when entering my library.  Unless I am trained in research techniques, and know what the teacher will accept as acceptable sources; I am as ill equipped to help this student as the student is in her ability to write the paper.

Taking a step back from the article I was reading, I reflected on the last five weeks of my life as a graduate student.  While I have been in the educational environment for the last thirteen years, I have not been a student.  I have been a mentor, a cheerleader, a cattle prod, and even an unconcerned bystander.  When my own daughters would tackle research projects, my first response was always, “Have you been to the library?” It was never, “Have you asked the librarian for help?”  It was as if, by entering the sacred halls of the library, the perfect sources would magically fly off the shelves, or instantly become apparent.

Until I began working in a library, my understanding of the role of a librarian was in step with the American stereotype.  I thought they were well-read experts, bent on helping the patron choose literature for entertainment reading, or that they were simply there to keep track of all of the books and monitor the use of the library collection.  Two years ago, I began working on my Library Technician certificate.  Throughout that course of study, I learned about research methods, different types of publications, how to conduct a Boolean search, and how to interact with patrons in a reference interview.  I felt very confident in my research skills and ability to craft a paper.  In the last five weeks, that confidence has been significantly undermined by my inability to easily succeed in each of my three classes.

In the article, Leckie discusses several assumptions that faculty make regarding student abilities.  One of these assumptions is that the student is operating from the need to acquire information.  In the case of the college freshman, who is taking at least four different classes from four different disciplines, the student is simply desiring to put a virtual check in the box marked ‘finished with that assignment’ so he can move on to the next thing on his list.  I can relate to this mentality, as this week I worked for at least 20 hours on a research paper, gathering the sources, reading the articles, and writing the paper—carefully citing each idea as I placed it in the paragraph.  This paper is worth 25 percent of my grade, but I have no idea what the teacher wants it to look like.  Prior work has not been graded, or commented on, and even still—I am not sure what my grade might possibly be, but I confidently put the check in my ‘assignment completed’ box.  That is, until I reviewed the teacher’s notes on how the citations and page numbering should be handled and discovered that what was true for the first paper is not true for this second assignment. Erasing the virtual check mark, I went back and spent two more hours revising the paper, changing the citation method, and redoing the headers. It has still not been submitted because I am uncertain about pushing the little blue button.

The next assumption asserted in the article is that the student understands what the teacher wants the paper to cover.  Broad statements such as, “Be sure to cover the material” are not helpful if the student is in the first class of any given discipline.  Is he to cover the dates of varying research, or is he to cover the exhaustive list of topics within the chosen project? Without guidelines, the student and librarian are both at a disadvantage.

 Leckie’s idea about using a stratified approach and walking the student through the search process is worth considering.  I wondered how I might utilize this approach in the middle school library.  I am not the teacher, but could I develop some sort of research worksheet that enumerates the stratification?  I could type each of the six stages as topic headings and hand the paper to the students to help them organize their research endeavors.  This approach might help the students who are still quite immature in terms of the cognitive development required to think critically.  A practical tool for guiding the thinking, eliminating the irrelevant, searching within the appropriate literature base, and keeping track of the citations could be valuable in helping the student succeed. 

The last assumption that is mentioned in the article is that librarians are nice people who want to help, but are there only if the researcher runs into trouble.  Hopefully the first part of this assumption is true, but beyond wanting to help, the librarian needs to be proactive.  If the librarian’s help is sought only when the researcher runs into to trouble, that is like closing the barn door after the cow got out.  By that time, the paper is due tomorrow, the computers have all suddenly gone offline, and the only automatic pencil in the room just ran out of lead.  This article has heightened my awareness of the students’ needs and will influence the way I interact with students in the coming year.  Because my library has no database subscriptions, I will encourage students to obtain public library cards so that I can help them access the databases found on the county library site and hopefully guide them to appropriate databases for their age and reading level. I have a co-worker whose mantra is “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.”  I don’t believe that I should have that attitude.  My mantra should be, “How can I help you plan so that you don’t run into an emergency?

In considering where my skills lie on the spectrum from novice to expert, I must consider myself as a librarian.  I am but a student in the field of Library and Information Studies.  I know how to formulate a successful search, how to find specific citations, and how to organize my thoughts.  I struggle with knowing what my instructors are looking for, and what preconceived ideas they have about my abilities.  Because each of my three teachers utilizes a different citation method, it has been a struggle to keep track of who wants which style.  This struggle will make me a better librarian, as I encounter patrons with different needs.  It will help me in my reference interviews as I explore what the student knows about the assignment, what he doesn’t know and what I may know about the teacher’s expectations from prior experience.  As a librarian, I would place my game piece at the halfway point on the path toward the finish line. 

As a student, I am a novice.  I am just beginning my course work, and I have a lot to learn about what is expected of a graduate student.  I am starting to understand that the end-result is not always relevant, but the journey is what is important.  When learning search and information retrieval techniques, the thought process is what is important.  When studying about the history and the functions of the library as an institution, the breadth and scope of the material is to be recalled.  When exploring new technology, the currency of the material and the history of any given technology is the most pertinent information.  As I move through the Master’s program, I will need to begin each class by deciphering what the professor wants to cover, as well as what assumptions have been made regarding my existing skill set.

After reading this article, I hope to enter into discussions with my colleagues and try to discover what their assumptions are about their students.  I also want to talk to my administration to see if I can hold workshops for interested students about search techniques. I believe that California undergraduates leave high school ill-prepared for the rigors of college level research.  At Azusa Pacific University, for instance, a class on research methods and techniques is required for some degrees, but it is a junior level course.  I would assert that this training begin at the middle school level.  The students are at a crux in their lives, forming who they will become and what kind of student they will eventually be.  What better time is there to lay a firm foundation for future scholarly endeavors?

In addition to providing food for thought, I found the Leckie article insightful and instructive to me as a library worker.  I believe it will help me to formulate better questions in my reference interviews and give me a tool to help my students learn effective search techniques.  I will try not to make assumptions about my student’s prior knowledge and craft questions to ask in that reference interview that will help both me and my student identify the true intent of the assignment. At the middle school level, reference interviews are held without the student’s knowledge.  They don’t make appointments or come up to us for help.  What I have done is ask, “What’s up?” and “How are your grades?”  What I may ask this coming year is, “How’s that Social Studies assignment going?” and “What kind of information do you need to help you on your way?”

References

Leckie, G. J. (1996). Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research. Journal Of Academic Librarianship, 22(3), 201.