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Assignments: Being Clear about What Matters
July 22, 2010 - 9:23pm

I’m at that tipping point in the summer when I’m thinking about what I want to do to revamp the first term seminar I’ll be teaching in the fall, but telling myself to put it off until August so I can get some writing done. (In August, the poles are reversed; I think about writing projects that I didn’t get done while I putz around with courses.) One of the things I want to do better is create prompts and scaffolds for research assignments, based on the findings of Project Information Literacy’s latest research report. In this study, researchers Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg collected nearly 200 assignment prompts from faculty at a variety of institutions, prompts that in some way or other involve undergraduates in making choices among sources they locate themselves.

What they found in a nutshell is that assignments describe in detail what the finished product should look like – how many pages, how wide the margins – but not so much about how to turn a topic into a research question or how to make good choices among sources. A majority of the prompts recommended the use of the library – with 60 percent recommending that students find resources on the library’s shelves. Another 43 percent suggested students use library databases, though most didn’t recommend which ones would be most productive. Around a quarter of the assignments discussed finding information on the Web.

In follow-up interviews, faculty described the efforts they made in class to explain and assist students in the process of using and making good choices among library and Web resources; they don’t expect them to know the ropes, though some assigning papers to seniors seem a little frustrated by how ill-prepared their students are. But I’m still left musing about the relative importance of page length, citation style, and margin size versus understanding what kind of evidence is valuable, or even why research is worthwhile. The vast majority of the assignments asked students to write traditional “research papers” – a form of writing that bears little resemblance to genuine scholarly research or the kind of researched writing that students will encounter after they graduate. Very few of the assignments explained why this form of writing was worthwhile. It’s just what you do in college: mash up some sources and tack on a moral.

All of this is particularly interesting in view of what the research project had previously found about students and their research habits. They pore over the assignment, trying to interpret what the instructor wants; virtually all students use the Web for resources, and nearly all use library databases, but not many go to the library shelves. They avoid being overwhelmed by options by using the same databases for most of their research needs, whether or not it’s appropriate for the discipline or not. And for the most part, they don’t turn to librarians for help, except when looking for search terms; librarians turn out to be a kind of babel fish for scholarly discourse. Though in interviews, faculty described the ways the librarians provided support for their students, the vast majority did not mention librarians as a resource in their assignments.

While I already try to do what Rob Weir recommends – get students actively and repeatedly involved in research, using the library as a lab (I am a librarian, after all; I’m biased) – I will try to be more informative in the assignment about how to come up with a sharp question and make sound decisions among possible sources, and spend less time on how to present and document them. Though I had an unusually good group of students last year, they weren’t terribly good at either task, but the first is far more important.

Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping an eye on Project Information Literacy. They’re doing interesting work.

 

 

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