ACRL Questions: Models of teaching the contextual nature of research

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This is a new post in an ongoing series where I’m answering questions that came up during my ACRL presentation “Research is Not a Basic Skill.” Previously, I addressed a great question I got about student overconfidence. 

In addition to that, there were a couple of questions related to models for teaching the contextual nature of research. I answered them as best I could in the moment, but wanted to share some further thoughts.

The Suggested Model

So a lot of my presentation was focused on laying out the idea that research is contextual in nature even though, historically, information literacy instruction hasn’t treated it that way. This is likely due in part to the fact that the ACRL Standards portrayed information literacy as a set of basic, library-based, academic research skills. The ACRL Framework has given us some room to expand beyond this.

But what would it look like?

My suggestion, which I haven’t gotten an opportunity to test out yet, would look something like this:

model for teaching research contexts

These are example units for a credit-bearing information literacy course that’s organized around genres of research rather than tools and skills. So, one unit would be organized around academic research and students would first study an example of academic research to learn the conventions, then learn how to do academic research, then produce an example of academic research themselves. Sort of like in a composition course where students learn about and then attempt to produce different genres of writing.

How long would these units be?

One good question that came up was how long these units would be. The one credit information literacy course I currently teach is eight weeks (half a semester) and each module is about a week long. When I taught the same course in person, we would meet for two hours once a week. It worked pretty well for a general information literacy course that was mostly about common topics like using library databases, evaluating scholarly articles, and avoiding plagiarism.

That same format probably wouldn’t work well for the model I’m suggesting. For this, I think you would need a full semester. It would probably need to be a three credit course. As for how long each unit would need to be, I would probably start by looking at some example syllabi for composition classes since the structure here is based on a common structure for those courses. That might give some good guidance the first time out.

The problem with genres

Of course,  the length of the units would depend a lot on what genres of research you were teaching and how in-depth you want to go with each genre. The genres I’ve suggested as a starting point are ones like academic research, scholarly research, professional research, personal research, and creative research. There’s also scientific research, which admittedly might be hard to fit in to a course like this.

Things get sticky, though, when you start to consider how deep this context thing goes. Because “academic research” (meaning the type of research students do for a grade) isn’t one big monolith. In fact, treating it that way was the big mistake the Standards made in the first place and the whole reason why different disciplines basically had to come up with their own set of information literacy standards to make up for it. They all do things a little differently. It’s the same with professional research. No two professions do research the same way.

So maybe these are places where you give students the opportunity to learn about research in their discipline or in their (intended) profession. Maybe instead of telling them what the conventions are, they have to find that out for themselves and then find examples and then produce an example of their own. There could even be class presentations in which they share what they came up with. These are just some possibilities.

Can this be scaled down to one-shot sessions and tutorials?

Probably the biggest problem with the model I’m suggesting is that it’s a credit-bearing course. Most librarians don’t have the opportunity to teach a credit-bearing course. Instead, they might teach one-shot sessions or a series of scaffolded sessions or through online tutorials or some other way. So a new model for a credit-bearing course isn’t going to be useful to them.

For those librarians, I do think it’s possible to at least introduce students to some of these ideas in a one-shot session or a tutorial. In a one-shot session, it could be as simple as asking students to think about what research is and what type of research they’ve done. They might be surprised to find out that looking up something on Google or Wikipedia to satisfy personal curiosity is a form of research and that it’s perfectly appropriate to use those tools for that type of research. Then explain how the conventions of academic research are different and therefore require different tools.

You could also have a series of tutorials. One on each genre of research, introducing the conventions of that type of research. For students, this might be a useful way to at least create awareness that while they may be experts in some types of research, they are novices in others (and that’s okay!).

That said, I know as librarians we’re used to making do with what we’re given. We’ve fought hard for that little bit of instructional turf we’ve staked out for ourselves and we have to keep fighting just to hold onto it. It’s just not realistic to ask for more. And, hey. We’ve managed to do good things with what we have, haven’t we?

But I also think that if we’re ever going to convince anyone that research (and by extension information literacy) is anything but a basic skill, we need to move away from our old models of teaching wherever possible, especially if we’re serious about the Framework. And if you’re still not sure, consider this: Like research, writing is also often (falsely) considered a basic skill. But no one expects students to learn composition in the space of a single 50 minute session or a five minute video.


Like I said, the suggested model is one I haven’t gotten a chance to test out yet, so all of this should be taken with a major grain of salt. If I’m being really honest, I would be excited for anyone to use any of these ideas as part of their teaching, no matter what shape it took. And if you do use it, I hope you’ll let me know!

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