Column Editor: David Parker (Lived Places and Underline Science; Phone: 201-673-8784)
Against the Grain v34#3
In the fall of 1997, I was a graduate teaching assistant leading a section of a social sciences overview course that was included in the writing across the curriculum catalog. Each incoming first-year student at the university, regardless of major, was required to satisfy a writing across the curriculum course. The final requirement for the course was a four to six page paper that selected a social science discipline, e.g., anthropology or history, and explored a chosen person, topic, or country through basic practices of the chosen discipline. For example, a student might have chosen anthropology as the discipline and the Miskitu people as the subject. The student writer would then apply basic anthropological concepts like cultural relativism or ethnography to a four to six page paper about the Miskitu. From the perspective of a seasoned graduate student, it seemed a simple assignment. From the perspective of a new-to-university student engaged in a first-year experience, it was a daunting task.
I quickly learned that new college students must be supported on three interlocking dimensions: 1. They must develop basic research and information literacy skills. 2. They need to have available research resources appropriate to their experience level and 3. I, as a teacher, needed to design my course with resources that engaged and inspired what I now refer to as early career academics. More on each of these three topics below:
1. Develop Basic Research and Information Literacy Skills:
There are fundamental questions first year college students need help addressing. How do I select an appropriate research topic? How do I begin the search and validation process for sources to address my research topic? How do I establish the authority of the sources I use? How do I structure my research paper and what elements should it include? And how do I properly cite my sources?
Guiding first-year students through these questions and helping them produce a respectable research paper is a top concern of librarians, staff in the writing center, and faculty who teach introductory, writing-intensive courses. For those of us who work in the development and provisioning of products to support the university, addressing the needs of first year students must be a top priority. And we can take our lead from faculty and staff deploying methods such as scaffolding or chunking the research process. We should ask how our product design process supports the methodology and infrastructure our customer institutions have developed to teach basic research and writing skills.1
2. Provide Entry-level Content and Databases for Conducting Research:
The next step for our intrepid, first-year academic, with research topic in hand, is to begin the actual research; that is to dive into the abundant resources available from the library and otherwise. It is at this point that we would do well to recognize that primary sources, data sets, journals, and scholarly monographs developed with advanced researchers in mind are not very friendly for beginning college students. And, likewise, the user interfaces, search facets, and subject browses that “house” these content formats are typically developed with fairly sophisticated users guiding the requirements.
We should be curating, designing, and building research resources with first year students for first year students. Our product development practices should be based on seeking out the input of early-career researchers and the faculty and staff that support them. The sources we curate to populate these databases should be aimed at beginning college students. The platforms and user interfaces we build should be based on the best examples of simple-to-use products highlighted by the librarians and instructors we support.
If our aim is to encourage and empower first and second year students in developing solid research and writing skills, we must also provide content and databases uniquely designed for their developing research capabilities.
3. Design Courses with Rich and Engaging Media:
Professors and faculty that develop courses for first and second year college students have special requirements. Introductory and principles level courses are often very large; sometimes surpassing 100 or even 200 students. And if large enrollments are not a primary concern, then engaging and maintaining the interest and focus of students coming from secondary classrooms is paramount. The center for teaching and learning offers instructional designers to support faculty in developing these courses. Our role in education technology and library services is to ensure that we are curating and equipping librarians, faculty, and instructional designers with content that supports the design of engaging, multimedia, interactive courses.
Early career academic students and researchers will produce better research questions and make better use of the information literacy resources and subject databases we develop if the courses that generate the research assignments are highly engaging. This means we in the library services companies need to be curating and aggregating the very best of streaming video, virtual reality, podcasts, audiobooks, open educational resources (OERs), and other emerging media into database and product solutions. We should be designing into our products quizzing and gradebook support. And these solutions need to be delivered in platforms that easily integrate in learning management systems with tools to make off-campus access seamless and fast.
We have faced so much disruption in the past several years and this has surely fallen especially hard on incoming college students. We must redouble our collective efforts to increase the likelihood of first year researcher success. From the library platform and product side, this means we should be building products and tools that aid faculty and library staff in teaching basic research skills, information literacy skills, deliver easy-to-use content and database design, and provide faculty with curated multimedia content for creating courses that deeply engage first and second year college students.
1. A super example of scaffolding the research process from Modesto Junior College: https://libguides.mjc.edu/researchassignments/scaffolding.