Monday, April 01, 2013

Article Note: On using undergraduate personal essays for instruction and evaluation

Citation for the article:

Bonnet, Jennifer L.,, "The Apprentice Researcher: Using Undergraduate Researchers' Personal Essays to Shape Instruction and Services." portal: Libraries and the Academy 13.1 (2013): 37-59.

Read via Project Muse.

I am always interested in learning how undergraduates learn and do research, plus I have an interest in anything related to reflective practice. So, this article caught my eye. I will say that at times it seems a bit on the idealistic side; in other words, the students sampled seem a bit too perfect and very unlike some undergraduates I've worked with during my career. That aside, I like this idea, and it was one I shared with my library director. Here, we have done some analysis of student papers in the past, which is a set of data I have to review sometime. So, I am thinking adding some kind of reflective component to the students research process might be a good idea. Something for me to explore further.

The authors are reporting on a sample of students who submitted personal research essays, that is, essays reflecting on their research process and learning, as part of a research project that was submitted for a campus undergraduate research award. The final sample size is 34 cases evaluated by two coders. This is, in a way, a form of the literacy narrative essay or autobiography. Their library sponsors the award. It's a win-win situation, so to speak. The students get some recognition for excellent work, and the authors get some material for research and publication (namely this article and probably some further salami slicing). Snark aside, the value for the researchers is clearly in gaining insight into how the students learn and do research. The article makes a very good point that a lot of the LIS literature focuses on either novice undergraduate researchers or graduate students. The authors write,

"In other words, when studying undergraduate researchers, it is common to emphasize the novice researcher as an outsider to disciplinary expectations and to ignore the advanced undergraduate researcher in favor of faculty or graduate students already embedded in their field of study" (40). 

There is very little dealing with advanced undergraduates, a topic this article addresses.

Some notes from the article:

  • "The personal essays in our student sample not only provided insights into the nuts and bolts of students' research processes, but also illuminated their thoughts about the nature of engaging with and creating scholarship" (38). 
  • Citing Alison Head and Mike Eisenberg on the four ways undergraduates establish research contexts 9see pg. 39): 
    • Establish a big picture. Background and topic selection. 
    • Identify and learn relevant language related to the topic (vocabulary, keywords, lingo, etc.). 
    • Situational context, a.k.a. figuring out what it is the professor wants and expects. 
    • Gathering the information needed and finding the necessary sources. 
  •  They cite Gloria Leckie's work on the contrast between novice researchers, who have to learn how do literature searchers, learn how to read articles, and then sift the massive amounts of information they find versus experts who are already familiar with topics so they know how to follow citation trails and the names in the field (40). This is something instruction librarians need to keep in mind. But it is also something they need to teach their undergraduates. It is important for us to teach our students about the academic conversation and how to follow it. Following a citation trail is one of the necessary skills to be able to follow and then engage in the larger academic conversation. 
  • Purpose statement from the article: "Our purpose here is to open up some questions: what might be the implications for library instruction from what these apprentice researchers, a collection's core set of users, have to tell us? To the extent that they represent an incipient mastery of the very thing that library instruction exists to cultivate, library research, what might their accounts  of research tell us about what and how we should teach students who might, for example, receive a one-off library instruction session in a gateway course?" (41). Reminder that, as always, we should strive to meet the needs of various students in our classes, students of various intelligences and at various levels of knowledge in terms of research and academic work. 
  • "For the personal essays, the award committee looked at the sophistication of the search strategies used, students' comprehension of the material, and the use of appropriate resources" (42).
  • "In other words, students were prompted to describe ways in which sources and research shaped each other" (43). They asked students to reflect on how their ideas and research methods changed and evolved as they did the research.
  • "Perhaps unsurprisingly, students tended to draw on their personal backgrounds or life experiences as catalysts for their research topics" (44). In other words, the old adage of "write what you know" seems to be alive and well, which is something we often tell students in writing classes. 
  • "Students [in the sample] tended to chase footnotes, pursue the works of authors who piqued their interest, and mine scholarly bibliographies, all to expand their knowledge on a subject" (45). This is where things start looking a bit too rosy. I am not questioning these students being stellar. I am more wondering how this relates to the experience of many of us instruction librarians in the field where students may not be as stellar. Again, this emphasizes the importance of teaching our students higher level thinking skills and research methods. 
  • "Librarian-run research sessions not only helped students find materials, but also helped students realize that librarians are available and approachable, an insight that empowered students to engage with librarians at other institutions in person and online" (47). Most of us are just happy if they come see the librarians on their own campus for help. Making the jump to engaging librarians on other campuses is quite the leap for most undergraduates. Still, this does validate the importance of conveying to students that we are there for them. 
  • Though not used for this article in full, the authors did also solicit faculty reflection, doing so in the form of the letters of recommendation faculty wrote for the competing students. "In their recommendation letters, faculty were specifically asked to describe how the student's final project was relevant to the course assignment and learning goals, whether the sources used were appropriate for the scope of the argument and its method, and whether the methods of research and argumentation were consistent with disciplinary standards" (50). 
  • Statement of the obvious: "Judging from our findings, the students who are most consistently benefiting from research instruction are those who approach their professors" (51). These are also the ones who approach their librarians. 
  • Another statement of the obvious: "Librarians are consistently working to demystify the research process for undergraduates, in order to help students feel enabled and empowered to see themselves as capable researchers" (52). I labeled this as obvious since it is what I strive to do, and I am sure it is what good instruction librarians everywhere do as well. 
  • Still, going further on the previous thought: "While we are not always perceived as collaborators in the research journey, librarians are uniquely positioned to help students go beyond the minimum requirements posed by an assignment and consider a range of sources, dig deeply into a topic of interest, recognize multiple perspectives, and become impassioned about research" (52). We need to market what we do. Much work remains to be done. 
  • And as I said, this is a very unique sample of students, a bit too ideal. As they are described by the authors: "The sample represents a small and self-selecting group motivated by strong personal interest in their projects, a picture of the undergraduate researcher seemingly at odds with the vast majority of undergraduates who receive instruction from librarians" (52). Do note the latter part of that statement. I think that says what needs to be said. Still, we should be aiming high in all of our classes instead of trying to dumb down or "Google-fy" our instruction and resources. 
  • Lessons and things we can do (which I already do pretty much, but a nice reminder): 
    • "Help students to see the ways in which library research is often deeply personal, and capitalize on this fact" (53). Help students discover their passions and interests. As they select topics, ask, for example, what are they talking about in a class. 
    • "Help students to see the ways in which research is neither linear nor without stumbling blocks, and that both of these qualities can elicit research's most profound rewards" (54). This is, in part, why I often do on the spot searching for students in class, I offer to "start their research" if they give me a topic. Great fun in teaching if you can think well on your feet and reflect a little as you do it, thus modeling in a small scale how research works. 
    • "Emphasize the degree to which research is about relationships with other people" (54). Both on campus relationships as well as shaping relationships and networks off campus. 
    • "Design instruction sessions so that we engage students at multiple levels, including that of the apprentice researcher" (55).

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