The Annotated Bibliography as an Establishing Shot: Part 2

So I realize there’s a lot of chaos and confusion going on for a lot of people right now. I’m hoping to write a post later this week about how the coronavirus is affecting things for me and my library but before we get to that, I did promise that I would talk about how things went with the reflection piece of the “establishing shot” annotated bibliography project I wrote about last week went. So this is that.

Like I said before, the purpose of the “establishing shot” annotated bibliography was twofold. First, it helped me understand where the students were at with their research skills before they’d received much or any instruction from me. Second, completing the annotated bibliography at the start meant that it could then be used as a tool for reflection at the end. Students could look back on it and comment on how they had grown as researchers since the beginning of the course.

Just like with the annotated bibliography, I was super apprehensive about the reflection piece, mostly because a big chunk of the students’ grades would be riding on it and I didn’t want to receive the same kinds of rote responses I had so often seen in the past when I asked students to reflect on their work. I really had no idea what I was going to get.

Friends, I was amazed.

First, I should be really clear that the group of students I had this semester was pretty great. I don’t know if they were just naturally engaged or if the changes in the course inspired them to be more engaged than they would have been otherwise or what, but they were with me on just about everything pretty much from the start. There were definitely a few stragglers, but overall I was super impressed with them as a group.(1) It could be that I just got really lucky this time around.

Either way, the list of questions I gave students for the reflection looked like this:

  • How does your annotated bibliography reflect your experiences as a researcher and information creator as they were at the beginning of this semester/course?
  • Look at the sources you used and think back to our module on information formats. What formats of information are represented here (scholarly articles, websites, non-scholarly articles, books, something else)? Why did you choose information in this format/these formats at the time?
  • Think about our module on evaluating information. What informed your decisions to choose these sources over other ones you might have used at the time? In retrospect, what criteria did you apply for choosing your sources?
  • How did you choose to give credit to your sources? What informed your decision to do it this way?
  • Looking back, what role did the context of the research you were conducting play in your decisions about the formats you used, how you evaluated information, and how you gave credit to the sources?
  • If you were to do this annotated bibliography over again, how would you use what you’ve learned in this class to change your work and why would you make those changes? (If you wouldn’t make changes, why not?)
  • Are there any other changes you would want to make? Why would you make those changes?

That’s a long list, so let’s just start by saying that the grading of this particular project is not for the faint of heart/pressed for time. But each question is tied directly to a unit from the course in order to test how well they were able to apply some of the concepts and skills we had learned along the way. Pretty much everything is covered.

Surprisingly, the question students seemed to have most trouble with was the first one about how the annotated bibliography reflected who they were as researchers at the start of the course. Most of the students kind of dodged the question by instead waxing poetic about all they had learned in the course, which was nice to hear but also not the point. The ones who did engage a little more honestly with the question, though, had some great things to say. For example, one student admitted that in looking at her annotated bibliography, she realized how much she, as a researcher, tended to choose sources based on convenience rather than because they were valuable to her research. It was a remarkably honest thing to say.

The context question also had mixed success, which was not unexpected. In my mind, when I first created this assignment, I envisioned that students would talk about the expectations of academic research and how their work either did or didn’t reflect those expectations, based on their own experiences and what we had talked about in class about the contextual nature of research. Instead, many students felt that because they had gotten to choose their own topics, this meant that they were doing personal research rather than academic research and, because of that, their choice not to use scholarly sources (for example) was justified. I have no idea if that reasoning was engineered backwards so that students wouldn’t have to admit that they’d been “wrong” not to use scholarly sources, but enough of them arrived at this conclusion that I have to think there’s a chance it was their honest assessment of the context in which they were conducting research.

Which. How interesting. I mean, really.

The students’ ability to choose their own topics came up in a number of other ways as well. For example, one student talked about how he wished he had been allowed to cite more than four sources because he found it fun to do research on a topic of his own choosing. Another student mentioned that if he had been assigned a topic rather than getting to choose his own, he would not have put as much effort as he did into evaluating the quality of the sources because the topic itself would not have mattered to him as much and therefore neither would have the quality of the sources.


So, yeah. In the past, grading the culminating project for this course was always a thoroughly teeth-grinding experience. There was definitely some teeth-grinding going on here as well—not every reflection I got was a glowing success (far from it). But for maybe the first time, I actually found myself interested in reading what students had to say. Their responses were no longer quite so rote and neither was my grading process.

Between the annotated bibliography and the reflection, I feel like I learned so much more about my students as researchers and as learners than in any other course I’ve taught up to this point. I’m truly amazed.

But the big question is: did the reflections show evidence that students were developing their understanding of information literacy?

You might not think so, given that so far I’ve mostly discussed the fact that they weren’t entirely willing to be honest about who they were as researchers at the beginning, among other things.

So let me tell you something about this project that truly horrified me: the evaluation question.

In asking students how they evaluated their sources, many of them openly admitted that they had paid little or no attention to the currency of their sources, the authority of the people writing them, or even the accuracy of those sources. Most privileged instead the ease of access or whether or not they agreed with the source’s information. They also freely shared that they chose (mostly) websites or other sources that were easy to find and work with over other types of sources.

As a way to understand how students think about research and information, this was gold—and also in line with what research tells us about how students evaluate information. As an indication of their information literacy abilities, this made me want to hide under my desk.

But remember that this was a statement of how they evaluated their sources before they had learned anything about evaluating information from this class. So when they got to the question about what they would change, a number of them said that they would change their choices as far as the formats of the information and that they would apply different criteria for evaluating those sources.

These answers were specific and convincing. I didn’t feel like they were just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear or parroting information that they had read in one of my lectures back at me.

So this is a project I will definitely be using again, though due to a sabbatical in the fall it’ll be at least a year before I teach another credit course. If you’d like to adapt the project for your own purposes, I would definitely recommend it. Let me know if there are any materials that I can share that would be helpful.


(1) Mostly seniors in a variety of majors.


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