Information literacy strategies and student agency: Connecting the dots with “dissection” activities

I’ve mentioned before (like here, here, and here, for example) that I’ve been trying to get students to think metacognitively about the strategy of their work. Such a lens helps students turn a concrete experience into a framework of best practices for their future application. In the case of the common information literacy session devoted to searching, for example, this means moving away from thinking about a series of keystrokes and clicks to instead thinking about the why: why we select particular search words, why we enter them in a database in such a way, why we get back a particular set of results, why we select individual sources, and so on. By talking about strategy, we reflect on the purpose and the effect of the choices we make. By turning our steps into best practices, we see how to apply them the next time around. Time and again, I’m excited to see how engaged students are in these conversations. Talking about strategies helps them recognize and enhance their agency in the research process.

I’ve been trying to embed this strategy lens wherever I can. I’ve had occasion in the past few weeks to work with some faculty and students on strategies for synthesizing information particularly. For example, I recently worked with a faculty member and students in a senior capstone psychology course. By the time students get to this course, they’ve likely had a number of information literacy sessions with me. An intensive experience in the sophomore/junior research methods course is a core part of their information literacy development in the major, but we’ve likely intersected in other anchor and elective courses, too. And that’s only the librarian-led information literacy experiences. There are plenty of other faculty-led information literacy learning experiences along the way. The capstone, then, is a course where we can make some assumptions about students’ past courses and knowledge. When the faculty member and I sat down to talk about our goals for this course, we honed in on what we see as students’ biggest continuing struggle: synthesizing sources. By this point, they can identify and narrow research questions, find peer-reviewed empirical journal articles, and read and understand the methodology and findings of those articles. They still struggle, though, with effectively putting those sources to work in their own writing. More specifically, we wanted students to consider how an empirical journal article’s introduction and literature review are constructed, as they think ahead to their own research and writing for the course’s major research project. To that end, we developed a few activities to help students work on developing their synthesis skills. Over the course of two consecutive sessions, we implemented the following plan.

Session 1

Part A – Working backward: Dissecting an article’s introduction and literature review

  • We selected an article that students had read for a previous class session so that they already had some familiarity with it. Students worked with their pre-existing research groups to read the article’s introduction and literature review. We developed the following questions to guide students’ close reading. We numbered the article’s paragraphs and asked students to specifically locate illustrative passages. After working through the questions in their small groups, we then discussed each question as an entire class.
    • Where and how do the authors discuss the real world significance of the topic and their research (i.e., why we should care)?
    • Where and how do the authors refer to and use theoretical frameworks?
    • Where and how do the authors give a bird’s eye view (i.e., overview) of research related to their topic?
    • Where and how do the authors discuss other studies’ findings?
    • Where and how do the authors discuss other studies’ designs/methods?
    • Where and how do the authors identify holes or gaps in the existing research?
    • Where and how do the authors introduce their own research question/study? How do they relate their question/study to the identified gaps in the existing research?

Part B – Working from the ground up: From a single article to patterns across articles

  • We talked about approaches to reading and notetaking to help students identify how to focus their attention on what’s important in an article and recognize patterns across sources. We modeled creating and using a chart to track individual sources and set up opportunities for pattern recognition and synthesis. We illustrated this reading/notetaking strategy with the following chart details:
    • In the chart, each column is a category/prompt about an aspect of an article (e.g., question, hypothesis, methods, measures used, findings, research gaps/recommendations, etc.) and each row is an article (e.g., Jones 2012, Rodriguez and Smith 2014).
    • Each cell of the chart gets populated with the students’ summary about that aspect of the article. This helps students to identify what’s important in each article and to succinctly paraphrase key elements.
    • Once completed, students can scan each category (i.e., column) in the chart to find themes, similarities, and differences across sources.
    • Students can organize the notes (i.e., cells) into groups by those themes, similarities, and differences, working toward an outline. Their summary and paraphrasing can begin to transform into sentences in each group or paragraph. Their ideas about the patterns they’ve identified can help them introduce and close the paragraphs and transition between sources in each paragraph.

Homework for Session 2

  • Students in each research group identified an important article for their own research project, already underway. Each group member was to read the article and individually respond to the dissection guiding questions for that article’s introduction and literature review.
  • Students were to begin developing their own charts for notetaking and complete at least one row of the chart for the group’s common reading.

Session 2

  • Students worked with their research groups to discuss their responses to the dissection guiding questions, as well as their first steps on their notetaking charts. The faculty member and I consulted with each group.

Students’ responses to these activities were overwhelmingly positive. They were actively engaged in the small and large group discussions. Multiple students commented to me how much they wished they had learned these approaches sooner.

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While the above example was implemented with a group of seniors, there is certainly room to work on synthesis with younger students. A few weeks after the psychology capstone, I tried a similar activity with students in a first year seminar. At my institution, first year seminars are small, discussion-oriented courses that focus on students’ critical thinking and writing. This time, the faculty member, the course’s writing assistant (a more experienced student who is trained and embedded in the class as as a writing tutor/mentor), and I worked together to focus on helping students identify and evaluate how evidence is used in high quality popular literature (think essays published in The New Yorker or The Atlantic). By dissecting how authors use information differently in their essays to develop their ideas and engage readers, we wanted to help students become more critical consumers of information and also help them think about their use of information in their own writing. In a single course session, we implemented the following plan:

Dissecting an essay

  • We selected an essay recently published in The New Yorker related to the theme of the course. We asked students to read the essay in class and then, in a group of three, to locate and discuss key elements of the essay and their purposes, per the following guiding questions. We asked students to specifically locate illustrative passages. After working through the questions in their small groups, we discussed each question as an entire class.
    • Where can you locate the author’s thesis?
    • Where does the author use evidence to support her thesis?
      • Where does the integrate an anecdote? Why? To what effect?
      • Where does the author use quotations? Why? To what effect?
      • Where does the author cite academic research / data? Why? To what effect?
    • How does the author establish expertise and authority?
    • Where does the author pose questions? Why? To what effect? How does the author use evidence to answer the questions?
    • How does the author conclude the essay? How has the author used evidence in the essay to build to/support the conclusion?


  • Students were asked to read another article and again respond to the dissection guiding questions.

Once again, students were actively engaged in discussion. I was struck by the thoughtfulness of their contributions. The writing assistant in the first year seminar wrote me later to say how she appreciated that the activity and the guiding questions

“scaffolded student discussion and forced students to talk about ‘hard’ or ‘stressful’ topics (like the thesis, using evidence to support claims, determining how the author asserts power) one at a time, thus reducing the anxiety involved! Truthfully, I plan to use these questions to prompt myself next time a reading baffles me!”

I think it’s worth recognizing the affective language in her note: hard, stressful, anxiety, baffles. Developing strategies, as uncovered in these examples, can help students develop agency.

In both courses, guiding questions directed students to read closely and analyze sources incrementally. The guiding questions helped students recognize what’s important in a source and served as a model for how to critically read and analyze other sources. Moreover, the scaffolded questions served as a framework for students to make sense of the content itself and for their own writing and synthesis. By dissecting the sources for these key elements, students could see how each was constructed, decoding complexities that can sometimes seem a mystery and make research and writing feel insurmountable.

How do you help students develop strategies and agency? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

One thought on “Information literacy strategies and student agency: Connecting the dots with “dissection” activities

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and helpful post!

    I have started to focus more of my instruction on synthesizing sources, since I am increasingly frustrated at leaving students with good quality peer-reviewed sources they don’t know how to use.

    I’ve been trying an activity this past year aimed at helping students synthesize sources to develop arguments for their research papers. I give them a handout with a research question at the top and a number of quotes from different sources with a variety of opinions, and ask the students (in pairs or small groups) to come up with an answer to the question using the sources provided, then share their answer on a Google doc I project on the screen. We have a discussion about their process and the variety of answers. Then I ask them to put together a very brief outline of the main arguments that they would use to support the thesis they just created, and indicate which sources they would use as evidence for each. This step seems very obvious to me (since they basically need to reiterate the points they just made in their thesis) but it is a challenge for many of the students, so I know I need to work on this part of the session. The activity takes about half an hour, depending on the group.

    I very much like your emphasis on reading sources thoughtfully and will think about ways to incorporate this aspect.

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