Posted by: Emily | October 28, 2008

Once more, with feeling: breaking down topics into parts

So today I had a group of students in BIO140–Gender and Biology. (I’m unused to a school big enough to use codes, so they still have some novelty appeal. BIO140! Cute!) The professor had sent forward a list of research topics, so I figured this was a perfect chance to try once more, with feeling, my strategy of talking a little about the pre-thinking we have to do before we light into library resources.

Instead of working through the five-screen handout like I did last week, I distilled it down into a single handout that asked students to articulate their research topic and break it into three discrete parts. I started by taking a topic from the class, the effects of endocrine disruptors on human health, and tossed that natural language phrase into Google and took a look at the results. We talked about what was on the screen and how hard it was to tell what was an article and what was a webpage and how some of this might be useful for helping us understand but wouldn’t be accepted by the professor standing in the back of the class. (I mean, I talked about it–the class was virtually silent, but that seems to just happen sometimes. What do you do? Call on people?) Then I talked a little about how library research requires a little more structuring of our research question, and handed out the handout. At first, everybody just stared at it. Lots of blank faces. But then the professor asked me a question that must have been whispered in the back of the class. Do you want the students to work on your example or their own topics? To which I said with as much populist vigor as I could muster, Do your own! Let’s get some actual work done today! And that set them to scurrying. (Yep–gotta tie the instruction to the actual work of the course.)

We came back after two or three minutes, and I released their computers from classroom control and moved quickly through WorldCat, Medline via Ebsco (xoxo the new Ebsco interface), and the Gale Virtual Reference Library. Then we did about thirty minutes of searching using a set of guided exercises, and again: No Facebook! People were searching the databases! I liked the shorter handout, and I liked doing it first so I could refer back to it as I moved through sample databases. See, we’re going to take a term from each of our topic circles, and plug them into these library search boxes. I saw lots of students using that handout, looking at it and then typing some things into the database and then looking back at the handout. I feel confirmed again–engaging the students in a personally relevant thinking process almost as soon as we sit down in the lab is a good idea.

What happened in your class today?



  1. I just saw Jessamyn West’s post about Andrea Mercado’s post on applying speed-dating to conference intros and wonder if we couldn’t apply it to instruction. Teach the search concepts, set each student on one database, then have them come back and be that db. Kind of like a poster session I guess?

    Just a thought. What might you library praxitioners do with that idea?

  2. “I feel confirmed again–engaging the students in a personally relevant thinking process almost as soon as we sit down in the lab is a good idea.”

    YES. As soon as my students sit down in the lab, they want to log on and start playing around online. It’s automatic–it’s like they don’t even think about it. So when they sit down at the computers, I tell them to turn the monitors off on the computer so that we can have a little bit of discussion. And our discussion is about 1) what types of information sources are there, 2) what tools do we have to locate those sources, and 3) how do we turn our research topic into a workable search?

    Turning the monitors off helps eliminate the distraction and temptation of the allure of Facebook, and it keeps their attention on me and the board and the discussion I’m attempting to lead. We come up with keywords on the board, and then we use those keywords in whatever search activity I have planned.

    pre-search pre-thinking FTW!

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