Research is a lifetime activity

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

In designing the information literacy course I’m teaching this semester, I made the decision to end the course with a list of takeaways: ideas I wanted students to carry with them after the course was over. The last activity of the course is for students to add their own takeaways to this list, to tell me what made the most impact on them and what they expect to do with what they’ve learned in the future. The course just started, so I haven’t gotten a chance to see what students’ responses to this might be just yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with and what it might tell me about how successful the course was overall.

Among the takeaways I listed for them, one went in a direction that I wasn’t entirely expecting. The takeaway is basically that research is a lifetime activity.

In information literacy circles (and library circles in general) there’s a lot of talk about lifelong learning. So including a takeaway that tells students that research doesn’t stop when they graduate—that it’s something they will be doing in one form or another in various contexts throughout their lives—isn’t particularly surprising or new.

Also not particularly surprising is the fact that a lot of our talk about lifelong learning is forward-looking. By doing this, we’re positioning our instruction as “the start” of something: the start of what students know about research. What we’ve given them is a foundation on which to build future knowledge.

In writing this takeaway for my course, what was unexpected for me was how much time I spent talking not about the future, but the past.

In the past, information literacy instruction has focused heavily on the practices and conventions of college-level academic research, with its emphasis on the use of scholarly sources and citation. When thinking of research through a purely academic lens, it makes sense to think of information literacy instruction as some sort of starting point when it comes to students’ research experience. Since college research only takes place in a college setting (or an advanced high school one), this the first time students will be encountering many of the skills and concepts that we teach them. In this way of thinking, lifelong learning is about taking what they learn in college and adapting it to future contexts.

This works as long as you assume that students’ research experience somehow starts with their time in college. When you start to think of research through a more contextual lens, you realize that this isn’t the case. Far from it.

In my course this semester, there’s an entire unit devoted to personal research. This is the type of day-to-day information-seeking we all undertake in order to fulfill our personal curiosity or some personal information need. Some may question whether this type of activity counts as research because it’s so informal in nature. Informal research is typically called “information-seeking” rather than “research” but frankly I think that’s a matter of semantics more than anything else. (And a bit elitist besides.)

So let’s assume that personal research is, in fact, research.

If you do that, then you realize that not only does research not stop when students graduate, it also didn’t start when they stepped into a college classroom. Or any classroom, for that matter. This means research is not only something students will do their whole lives, it’s something they have been doing their whole lives.

In some sense, we already know this because as information literacy instructors we spend a lot of time (or are asked to spend a lot of time) breaking students of the “bad habits” that they’ve developed as part of their personal research activities. Things like searching Google for an easy answer rather than spending time formulating a search strategy based on a specific question and then carefully evaluating the quality and usefulness of each possible result.

Personally, I hate this way of teaching information literacy. As if our job is to “correct” what students already know about finding and evaluating information just because it doesn’t fit into the conventions of college research. As much as possible, I refuse to do it.

Instead, I tell students that the skills and experience they have with research are valuable, no matter what they are. That what they know about how to choose not only what gaps in their knowledge to fill in the first place but the best place to look for information to fill that gap and deciding whether a particular source is adequate for doing so is important.

It’s true that those skills may need to be honed or adapted, especially when working within a research context that comes with strict rules and conventions (like college research), but that doesn’t make them wrong.

We shouldn’t be teaching students that they need to erase these skills. We should be teaching them how to use what they already know to adapt to research contexts that may be new to them.

To do that, we have to do a better job of acknowledging and respecting that students do, in fact, already know something about research. That research is a lifetime activity not only in terms of what students will do in the future but what they’ve already done in the past. We already know college research is not a stopping point. We need to make it clear that it’s not a starting point either.

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