Speaker Deck

How Students Learn and How the Library Can Help

by barbara fister

Published June 14, 2014 in Education

These are the notes for this presentation - they should help make some sense of the slides.

Thanks – and apologies for my ignorance of discovery layers (my context v. Harvard)
Today we’ll talk about discovery – but a different kind: students discovering their own identities as knowers, and people who can join the scholarly conversation and go on to be involved in the world. Threshold concepts are a new way of defining that kind of knowing – we will return to that.

Some classic studies of note (references are at the end of the slides)

• Carol Kulhthau and process studies (mine, Barbara Valentine’s) – these studies from the late 80s and early 90s found a huge part of the research process for undergraduates is finding out enough about the topic to know what questions can be asked. A lot of anxiety and procrastination is involved. What students need to know in order to do good research has little to do with tools, everything to do with their sense of agency. Many students who aren’t driven by intrinsic motivation think of research processes in terms of efficiency.
• From scholars in composition and rhetoric: Richard Larson called the research paper a “non-form of writing” that was nothing like real research. Jennie Nelson studied undergraduate writing from sources and found four primary ways students approach research: 75% compile, 10% seek sources after writing their papers, 10% gather sources and coax a thesis from them. Only 5% engage in a recursive process. Doug Brent wrote an interesting book on reading as rhetorical invention – looking at how reading connects to making meaning.
• Joan Bechtel – her article on conversation as a paradigm for librarianship promoted understanding that knowledge is created by people in an ongoing conversation.

More recent work
Project Information Literacy – hugely important, confirms hunches and previous research.
• Getting started is hard and takes time.
• Efficiency is a strong incentive
• Habits are developed early and stick
• Instructors, friends, family consulted before librarians
• What students learn in college matters in their early careers, but employers want them to be more critical, more social, more able to dig deeply.

The Citation Project – first year writing
• Most students grab quotations and mash them together (patchwriting)
• Most avoid reading the sources from which they quote; quotes drawn from page 1
• Most behave exactly like the students in Jenny Nelson’s pre-Internet research.

The Stanford Study of Writing
Students who write lackluster research papers can find and use evidence with rhetorical sophistication when they are doing it for a purpose they care about. They write a lot and they understand audiences. The traditional research paper as a genre (or non-form of writing) does not call forth that kind of engagement with communicating ideas. One example: a first term seminar on living simply taught by a Gustavus religion professor in which the students asked if they could write about the topic for other students like them. The teacher was brave enough to throw out the syllabus and let them create a website and blog for fellow students.

Ethnography: with these studies, the focus shifts from the user in the life of the library to the library in the life of the user.
Of particular note, the ongoing Visitors and Residents study focused on libraries in the US and UK which maps people’s use of information, both personal and academic, on a spectrum from visitors (quick, just the facts, efficient but not engaged) to residents (sense of engagement and participation within a community of knowledge). These characteristics are my extrapolation from an early V&R study of Web users.

• Sources are random piles of things; you use the web and search engines to sort through them and find what you need.
• The important thing is to get what you need quickly and not waste time.
• Information is something you find and use, not something you create and share.
• Authority is found in good sources.
• Research is finding out what the authorities have to say.

• Sources represent communities making meaning and so are connected together.
• You can’t be sure what will be useful except by poking and prodding.
• When you’re making meaning, you’re getting ideas by drawing on other people’s thoughts and making connections.
• Authority is a socially-negotiated.
• Research is a process of making meaning.

Library buildings offer spaces for both – you can nip in and out or stay for hours. Library systems, however, tend to be built for visitors, for quick and efficient finding. Results are flattened, like Google results. They resemble shopping platforms that encourage consumption but not engagements. Not designed to map conversations and connections and relative significance.

Threshold concepts - a new focus for informaiton literacy, particularly in the draft framework being developed to update the standards. The focus is on the places where students get stuck, hoping to help them through thresholds of understanding. These concepts are troublesome, integrative, irreversible, transformative (and bounded? Not for us).

Difficult to define what these are. Students need a lot of scaffolding to develop these insights and habits of mind. The idea is to shift from being passive consumers of information to active creators of knowledge within a social context. I believe these are fundamental to liberal learning and are liberating.

Things that seem to work when it comes to information literacy:
Focus on the parts students have trouble with – mapping an area of inquiry before choosing a topic, looking for key words and phrases, learning not just what scholarly sources look like but why they look that way (citations as links, disciplinary differences reflect values). Focus on finding out, not on finding sources. Ask students to think critically about the library and its tools (LC classes are crazy! Why is that?) Encourage students to think about sources as people talking to other people. Practice reading literature reviews to see how a writer maps concepts and identifies a gap in knowledge. Use conversation as a metaphor early and often. Finally, offer conversational opportunities to faculty to involve them in the discussion because they have the greatest impact on students and often relish sharing ideas among themselves - and have few opportunities to do so.