You may not be aware of this, but every year the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee puts out two lists of Selected Resources, one focused on teaching methods and instructional design and the other focused on assessment. These lists feature articles and other materials that have been published the previous year that are worthy of note. It’s a resource that doesn’t get as much use or attention as it should, so I’ve decided to assign myself the homework of making my way through each item on last year’s lists and write about it here.
Today we’re all about “’It Was Information Based’: Student Reasoning When Distinguishing Between Scholarly and Popular Sources” by Amy Jankowski, Alyssa Russo, and Lori Townsend.
Disclosure: I am currently a member of the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee, which selects and evaluates materials for the Selected Resources lists. I played a role in the selection process and reviewed several of the items that ended up on the final list as part of that process.
What it’s about
Librarians teach students the differences between “scholarly” and “popular” sources all the time. But how do students use what they learn to actually assess whether a source is scholarly or not? And are they correct in their assessments? Here, the authors seek to answer these questions and along the way encounter unexpected challenges with deciding what librarians mean when they talk about whether something is “scholarly.”
Defining our terms
Originally, Jankowski, Russo, & Townsend intended to measure students’ ability to correctly identify whether a source was scholarly, popular, or “other.” For research purposes, they needed to come up with a way to define “scholarly” that would justify their judgments about students’ correctness. In the end, it turned out there was no good way to do this except to use signposts like whether the source had been published in an academic journal, who the intended audience was, the use of language, etc. A checklist of criteria that will be familiar to any librarian who’s had to try to teach students the differences between scholarly and popular sources but not necessarily useful for what they were trying to do. It led them to change the goals of the study itself, seeking instead to understand not whether students could correctly identify a scholarly source but what reasoning they used to decide whether a source was scholarly or not.
Which seems pretty genius to me.
There is no such thing as a “scholarly source”
Reading about the authors’ struggles to define “scholarly” makes me think about a teaching choice I made a few years ago and have continued to use ever since.
In the credit-bearing information literacy course I teach each semester, I start things off by listing the many myths about research that I know my students are carrying with them based on their past experience with research assignments. One of those myths is that scholarly sources are the best type of source to use all the time and in every situation. In the midst of trying to explain the contextual nature of research, I also take time to tell them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a scholarly source. That “scholarly source” is just an imprecise catch-all term that their professors use as a way of telling them not to cite Wikipedia or other sources found through a simple Google search. That the best thing to do when told to rely only on scholarly sources is to use peer-reviewed sources because “peer-reviewed” has a set definition. And while not all scholarly sources are peer-reviewed, all peer-reviewed sources are scholarly.
This information gets a variety of reactions from students. Some are like, “I KNEW IT!!!” while others feel like maybe I’m lying to them or trying to trick them in some way. This is not what they are expecting to hear from the librarian teaching the class.
Truth be told, I originally included this information in the course mostly because I was tired of students coming to the reference desk with research assignments that told them to find “scholarly sources” but didn’t include any details on what, exactly, the professor would consider a scholarly source. But I also think it’s true. While librarians and professors may be able to recognize whether a source is scholarly on sight, this is an ability that comes with time and experience. Students who are just starting out need something more concrete and, as Jankowski, Russo, & Townsend show, the word “scholarly” does not give it to them.
Using genre theory
Toward the end of their article, Jankowski, Russo, & Townsend include a tease for where this work has taken them. Namely, an approach to teaching that is based more on genre theory and asks students to consider the purpose, process, and product of a source of information. This is really exciting. I’m still learning about genre theory myself but I think it has a lot of potential applications to information literacy instruction and I’ll be really interested to read more about this particular approach.