Posted by: Emily | September 29, 2009

Brainstorming brainstorming

I’m stumped. How do we get students to do the brainstorming necessary to generate enough stuff to eventually pick out and develop a research question? As the librarians drafted our set of learning outcomes for this new collaboration with the writing program, we all agreed that teaching students to develop library researchable topics was a primary goal. So often students will come to the desk wanting help finding resources for their six page paper on abortion, or the history of lotion (true story). These are topics that need to be narrowed, but they need to be expanded first. What about lotion? Its ingredients? Its uses? Kinds of lotions used in different geographic locations, historical contexts? Before we can narrow, we have to fill in and flesh out, and that can be hard to do when students struggle to articulate any idea at all. I’m so well-trained at generating ideas and paper topics that I forget how I learned to do it at all–I could write twelve papers about this stapler, probably, and at least two of them would likely be interesting. How do I know how to do that?

So! Yesterday I worked with a group of Core Seminar students. (Core Seminar is our writing-intensive mandatory humanities class.) I pulled up a blank Google doc and asked the class to toss out ideas from their reading that interested them. Blank stares. I prompted with a few ideas I found interesting from the reading list. I asked again. The class repeated what I’d typed into the Google doc. So, yeah, that didn’t work.

What does work, or does anything? Or is this outside the scope of library instruction? Sometimes I think this should not be our bailiwick, but without topics, how do I explain research steps like defining your information need, choosing an appropriate library resource, generating and using keywords? Any ideas?



  1. I’ve successfully used mind mapping with students who had a topic but needed ideas/keywords. First I do an example on the white board then let them do their own. (With extra time, you can also get them to show their mind map to a neighbor for extra ideas).

  2. Mind mapping? Can you show me an example? And do you do this with whole classes? Do you look at their mind maps at the end?

    I know, I know, so many questions. I feel like a student, pretty much all the time.

  3. A google search will bring up tons of results, mostly more unnecessarily colorful than I do. I don’t have any of mine since they are done on the spur of the moment on a whiteboard.

    Yes, this was with whole classes, but no I don’t look at them.

    Student feedback on those sessions rated mind maps very frequently as their favorite/most effective part of the session.

  4. Ah, I should google it. Very good idea, Derik!

    *slapping forehead with palm*

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