Teaching the contextual nature of research: What went well

Image by Ralf Kunze from Pixabay

So this semester, I got my first opportunity to really put my money where my mouth is with all this talk about the importance of teaching research as a context-based activity with a new (to me) course where I planned units around the different types of research I’ve written about elsewhere: academic, creative, personal, professional, scholarly, and scientific. These are ideas I’ve incorporated into my teaching in different ways before but this was my first time teaching a full course that was really focused on approaching information literacy through this lens. I was a bit nervous about how it would work out, especially since I just published a book where I talk about how great my teaching ideas are without having been able to use a lot of them myself.

So how did it go?

Mostly, it went surprisingly great. For the most part students really seemed to respond to and enjoy learning about the different research contexts that they have participated in or will participate in over the course of their lives and where college-level academic research fits into all of that. That said, there were also some definite challenges, both expected and not.

For this post, I’ll be focusing on what went well. Next time, I’ll share some of the lessons learned and reflect on some changes I might want to make before teaching the course again in the fall.

With that in mind, I have to start by giving at least some credit for the success of the course to the students themselves. Since the course I teach is a one-credit elective, it’s common for the students who take it to be…well, let’s say they’re often not as engaged as they could be. Once in a while, though, you get a good group and while there were definitely some students in this course who were just going through the motions, there were quite a few who seemed very willing to meaningfully engage with the lectures I had created and the activities around them.

I think it helped that with many of these activities, I wasn’t necessarily testing whether students could give me the “correct” answer but instead on how well they had engaged with the question. For example, an early activity asked students to define research in their own words. This was before I had shared my own definition of research with them, so I was essentially asking them to make a prediction. As I expected, many of their definitions reflected a tendency to conflate research with academic and scholarly contexts. Technically, this was “incorrect” based on what we were going to be learning in class, but I didn’t penalize them for answering this way as long as I could see that they had made an honest effort to think about what I was asking them.

The students also really seemed to enjoy learning about personal research and having their personal searches for information validated as “real” research. Some of them had never thought about these activities as research before while others had always felt that this should count as a type of research and had wondered why it didn’t. Plus, it was really interesting for me to read about students’ personal research interests and the way curiosity drives those searches.

Another area that students seemed to enjoy learning about was creative research. To prime them for this unit, I asked them to think about favorite movies or TV shows or books and the research they thought might have gone into those. Because I love talking pop culture, I had a lot of fun reading students’ answers and I think they liked thinking about the research that went into their favorite media in this way. For the most part, I think setting up the activity this way also helped solve some of the issues I saw in past courses where students didn’t understand the difference between creative research (i.e. research that is done to enhance a creative work, like a painting, a novel, or a song) and research that happens to be creative. Which is to say, I still saw some of this, but not as much of it as I had noticed in past classes.

Probably my favorite part of the course was the second project. In this project, I asked students to submit a research product that was creative, professional, or personal in nature rather than one that was academic or scholarly. (They had already proven what they knew about academic research in an earlier project, which took the form of a traditional annotated bibliography with an added reflection about academic research conventions. That went about as well as annotated bibliography projects always go.) I made a change to this project at the last minute so that students could either create something entirely new or use something they had already created and discuss the research that had gone into it.

What great things many of them submitted! I got to see so much cool artwork as well as glimpse some of the more professional work students had done as part of their jobs and internships. I also got some unexpected stuff as well: one student had done some personal research on hiking and for his research product submitted photos of all of the hiking gear he had accumulated as a result of this research. Another sent images of friendship bracelets in different patterns. So cool!!! So much cooler than reading through yet another set of boring (to me and to the students) annotated bibliographies or research papers.

What was especially cool about this project was how articulate many of the students were about the nature of their research and the role it played in their work. Interestingly, they were less able to do this for their academic research assignment, probably because even though they were allowed to choose the topic for that project and even though we had learned a lot about the purpose and conventions of academic research, it’s still a type of research that students don’t connect with personally in the same way they do their creative or even professional research. I feel like in this project, students showed me much more clearly what they understood about common information literacy skills and concepts related to finding, evaluating, and using information than what they could get across when talking about more typically academic projects.

So overall I’m really happy with how things worked out and I’m looking forward to trying out this new context-based structure again in the fall. But there are definitely some changes that I’ll be making before then. I’ll talk about those in the next post.

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