Embedding Information Research Skills with Dr Karey Harrison

At the university I have been working at, I was able to attend an inspiring peer learning seminar.

It’s focus was on embedding information research skills within courses and was presented by Dr Karey Harrison. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to think about how we can encourage students to develop their research skills, especially since I was recently a student doing this myself!

The basic idea of this talk was that the usual way of teaching students information literacy/research skills in the library is limited. To embed these skills more effectively, student cannot rely on preconceived ideas, phrase searches and ‘recipes’ for searching. A new style of lesson is suggested by Dr Harrison, which provides more productive learning and the ability to understand the research process more deeply. It is emphasised that the research process is important, not just the outcome. The research processes (described below) are not linear and involve many overlapping cycles, they intertwine and students move between them in multiple directions.

  • Dr Harrison begins her research lessons with students around the idea of ‘language’. The common sense assumption is that language works through objective meaning. A word denotes and idea or an object. However, she challenges this. Students cannot simply assume that information is sorted into mutually exclusive categories. It is harder than this to source information – information can be multidisciplinary and definitions can vary dependant on the field.
  • ‘Embark’ – this is the first step in the process ‘cycle’. Dr Harrison states that when defining the research problem, one must be aware that the terms will be discipline and tradition specific. Students need to understand that the terms provided in the assignment may not be the same as the terms used within the library systems.
  • ‘Find’ – Dr Harrison suggests it is more productive to get students to search for ‘clues’ rather than for specific information/data.
    • She details the ‘snowball search’ – a student should start with something they know. This will lead them to find clues to lead them to find more information, this will grow their knowledge without requiring them to know any search terms to start with. For example – start a search for known item (a book or resource on the reading list). Look at this items subject terms, keywords and call number. Use these clues provided by the library structure to find similar useful items. I think this is a great way to start a search and can save some confusion when trying to decipher the best search terms, once you get started the search always becomes easier! I will definitely be utilising this type of search strategy with students.
    • Google type searches hide these ‘mechanics’ from students so they cannot see the metadata structures (i.e. subject headings) etc, this can be a problem in allowing students to become stronger at searching and understand the underlying process. I agree with this idea. One can rarely guess the correct subject headings used within a system, however if this type of metadata is hidden from the searcher to make it seem ‘simpler’ they will struggle to understand how and why they are finding items, and how to refine their searches.
    • It is also important to understand the ‘key concepts’ of the problem, not just phrases for searching. Key concepts may be different terminology to that which is used in the actual assignment. Students need to use advanced search and Boolean operators with the key concepts terms, not just a phrase search.
  • ‘Evaluate’
    • Dr Harrison’s marking criteria for this research class is centred on the process of the research, not the outcome.
    • She emphasises persistence – students must try multiple strategies. Searching is a problem solving activity – it involves trial and error, reflection, overcoming obstacles etc. Students cannot simply ‘satisfice’ and take the most convenient but perhaps less relevant result. I know when I was a student I was guilty of doing this! The process/outcome was sometimes not as important to me as long as I got a ‘good enough’ result to work with.
    • Therefore, students were required to describe the relevance of the resources they found. This forced them to not just select the first item on the list, but to really reflect on the process. Many students found this a challenge. I like this relevancy task as it really gets students thinking about what they have found, not just picking the first on the list.
  • ‘Organise’ – Facts are theory dependent. Students cannot organise information without thinking about the underlying theory. What a concept means is specified by the domain’s framework, not independently. Dr Harrison used the example of two calendars – one lunar and one solar based. In each calendar, the concept of days, months and years had a different meaning.
    • She also showed students about pattern recognition and how our brain works. By collecting and grouping information together, it can be easily viewed and patterns emerge. This allows for better understanding.
    • So, for example, by placing different concepts within a theory in a table one can easily see patterns emerging between what different authors might say. By reorganising the information it becomes clearer and easier to understand.
  • ‘Analyse’ – look at these patterns and ideas – what do they mean? Test these insights and models. Students created a metaphorical image that represented the concept they were researching. Students need to shift their perspectives as the world doesn’t always fit into preconceived ideas. Once these ideas are challenged they are easier to avoid falling into.
  • ‘Communicate’ – Apply and test, test models created in different domains…
    • This type of class therefore teaches students to reason and argue, i.e. critical thinking skills. The classes are scaffolded at different levels of difficulty across the units of a course.

I think these ideas are really useful in pushing students to take those extra steps to develop their research skills, especially at an academic/tertairy level. To understand the underlying process means they can apply this knowledge across a range of databases, assignment questions and so forth. Students who view research as a problem solving and learning activity, not a chore, will excel in their ability to find and use information. I especially like the idea of ‘snowball searching’ and putting information in context of different theories and disciplines. The challenge is getting students to understand the importance of doing proper research, embrace the process, as well as having enough time and resources to embed these skills in classes across all levels of schooling.

What type of challenges have you faced trying to embed or generally teach research skills? What do you think of these ideas?

Tune in next time and thanks for reading! 🙂

Michele De Aizpurua


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