The annotated bibliography as an establishing shot: Part 1

A while back, I wrote a post about the article “Documenting and Discovering Learning: Reimagining the Work of the Literacy Narrative” by Julie Lindquist and Bump Halbritter. In this article, Lindquist and Halbritter discuss their use of the narrative essay as an “establishing shot” at the beginning of their composition course and how this helped them get a sense of students’ writing skills before they’re received much writing instruction. They then used the narrative essay as an artifact for students to reflect on at the end of the course.

This article inspired me to wonder what would happen if I used a similar strategy with the annotated bibliography assignment in my information literacy course. What if I put the annotated bibliography at the beginning of the course instead of at the end?

Well, I tried it out for the first time this quarter in my fully online, asynchronous course. This is the first in a two-part post on how things went. Today, I’m going to focus on the annotated bibliography piece. Next time, I’ll talk about the reflection.

The before

Here’s how the annotated bibliography project used to work: After talking to students about their role as information creators, I would ask them to think of a potential research topic related to this idea and then build an annotated bibliography around that topic. I would give them detailed guidance about what types of sources to use, the format of the citations, the format of the bibliography itself and the content of the annotations. Like, I literally gave them percentages: I wanted the annotation to consist of 10-20% summary of the source and 80-90% analysis/evaluation of the source. The students would then submit what I called a “preliminary” annotated bibliography about two-thirds of the way through the course. I would spend hours scoring their work against the rubric I had refined over time and giving them extensive feedback on how to improve their work. Students who scored 90% or higher or who were otherwise happy with their grades didn’t have to do anything more. Students whose scores were below 90% had the option of submitting a revision. With their revision, they needed to include a brief reflection on the changes they had made and why.

For all the time I spent giving such extensive feedback, about 3-5 students per class (out of about 15-18 who were eligible in a 23 person roster) would submit revisions at the end and there was only about a 50% chance that the revisions they made would reflect the changes I’d recommended. A lot of times, I would find myself giving students a slightly higher grade for having put in at least some effort to improve their work rather than because the changes represented a substantial improvement over the original or showed any real understanding of what I was asking them to do and why.

This is probably a familiar story to any instructor who has taken the time to give students detailed feedback and the opportunity (or requirement) to revise their work. Understanding and implementing feedback is a skill in and of itself, as is revision. Most students are still developing those skills and the motivation for doing so in a one-credit elective is going to be relatively low.

Still. If nothing else, I figured the new version of this project would free me from having to chain myself to my desk for hours on end to write feedback that would then go largely ignored.


The after

The new version of the project works like this: At the very beginning of the course, students share, via a discussion post, a topic they are curious about. That becomes their research topic for the course. Next, they create an annotated bibliography of sources on that topic, before we’ve discussed anything about how to find, evaluate, and use information. They are told that they can use any sources they want (as long as there are at least four of them), give credit to them in any way they choose, and format their work in any way that makes sense to them. They will get full credit just for meeting these requirements.

The annotated bibliography serves two purposes. First, it gives me a sense of what students’ research skills are at the beginning of the course, before I’ve really taught them anything. Second, it becomes an artifact that they can use as a source for reflection on their growth as a researcher at the end of the course.


The biggest difference

Before, I allowed students to choose any topic they were interested in as long as it related in some way, shape, or form to their role as information creators. I wasn’t picky about what they chose but generally speaking, students were a little bewildered about what, exactly, they were supposed to be researching and enthusiasm was overall pretty low. This made for very boring annotated bibliographies, for both me and them.

buster keaton posters
My giant Buster Keaton poster

Asking students to write what they were curious about was…whoa. There was a noticeable uptick in the enthusiasm factor. I thought it would be difficult to convince students that they could write about literally anything because students tend to be stuck in a mindset that in order to get a good grade, they must research only cliche academic topics. So I gave them an example I was curious about myself: Buster Keaton. I told them a little bit about how I had become interested in Buster Keaton’s work and what I would hope to learn from researching him further. I also showed them a picture of the giant Buster Keaton poster I have hanging in my office.

I don’t know if sharing an example helped or if students would have run with the prompt anyway. A lot of them chose things they had learned about in other classes but wanted to know more about. Some chose topics that were deeply personal. Others chose fun pop culture topics, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or favorite celebrities and athletes. Suddenly, it was fun for me to read about their interests and it helped me learn a little more about them as well.


The unexpected difference

Still, when it came time for students to hand in their annotated bibliographies, I was apprehensive. I had no idea what I would get.

What I got were, in a lot of cases, not annotated bibliographies, at least not in the traditional sense. Some of them were, probably from students who were familiar with the form or who had taken the time to look it up. But most of what I got were either actual academic essays reporting on the topic or narrative essays reporting on their research. The narrative essays were interesting and showed me a lot more about students’ though processes when it came to choosing and evaluating sources than I would have gotten in a standard annotated bibliography.


Students get to show off their expertise

A few of the students also seemed to relish the opportunity to show off their expertise not only about the topics they’d chosen but the sources they’d used. One student was particularly enthusiastic about a sports website he was familiar with in researching a topic related to professional athletics. Another student researching a favorite celebrity knew exactly which entertainment news websites to go to learn more about her topic. Were these scholarly sources that would pass muster in an academic essay? No. But that wasn’t the point of the assignment and the students seemed to enjoy being able to show off their source-related knowledge in using them for this project.


The importance of letting go

In my description of the original annotated bibliography project above, you’ll notice that I was attempting to exert a lot of control over what students handed in, down to the balance of the content of their annotations. I did this in part because I wanted to be clear about what I was looking for but also because I had certain ideas about what a “good” project of this type looked like.

In the new version of the assignment, I left every detail, with the exception of the number of sources, pretty much up to the students. I asked them to be the ones to make the decisions about what format their work took, how they gave credit to their sources, etc. This was was a big risk and in many cases, the work they handed in would not have scored very high on the rubric I had spent so much time perfecting. The choice of sources was not always great, the quality of the citations was generally inconsistent or downright poor, the formats student chose did not make sense for an annotated bibliography. But under the new system, I was obligated to give students full credit as long as they had met the stated requirements. So the only loss of points was for students who included fewer than the required number of sources.

In an information literacy class, it probably seems like bad form to give students perfect scores for poor research and there were a few cases where it definitely set my teeth on edge to do so. Like, thank goodness I already have tenure. But then I started to think about the point of the assignment. The point was not that students would hand in perfect research. The point was that they would submit a piece of research that would serve as an “establishing shot,” an artifact of the research skills they possessed before I’d actually taught them anything. In that sense, the assignment was extremely effective. It showed me exactly where students were at when it came to the types of sources they were comfortable using and how they used those sources.

This is where the fact that many students submitted their “annotated bibliography” as more of a narrative actually came in handy. Rather than a clinical summary and evaluation of the sources that usually makes up an annotation, I got to see a little bit more of their thinking process, which was really useful.

And when it comes to grading, well, the “establishing shot” annotated bibliography was worth much less of the grade than the “culminating project” version of it. Instead, most of the points went to the reflection piece that came afterward.


I’ll be talking more about how that went next week.



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