Exploring artifacts of students’ learning trajectories, or The view from here

I’ve been serving on the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at my institution for a little over a year now. If you’re not familiar with the purpose and scope of an IRB, it’s generally the group’s charge to review, approve, and monitor research conducted with human subjects. It’s the IRB’s responsibility to ensure that researchers are taking steps to protect the safety, welfare, rights, and privacy of subjects.

A majority of the applications I’ve reviewed in the past year have been submitted by undergraduate student researchers. At my undergraduate-only institution, it’s not unusual for students to propose and conduct studies. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to see students’ research from this perspective. While I often consult with students working on research projects, it’s usually from my vantage point as a reference/instruction-type librarian. I confer with students as they identify topics of interest, explore the literature, identify gaps, develop searching and organizational strategies, and so on. My position as a member of the IRB offers me a different view of their work. In their IRB applications, students describe: their research aims and procedures, the characteristics of their intended subject population, how they will recruit subjects, how they will protect the privacy and anonymity of their subjects and obtain informed consent from them, how they will safeguard the data they collect, the risks involved in their proposed research, and how they will reduce those risks.

Each student’s application is unique, of course, but my colleagues and I have noticed a few challenges that seem to come up more often than not. Most common among these problem areas is the informed consent form. Northwestern University’s IRB describes the importance of informed consent well: “Obtaining informed consent is a basic ethical obligation and a legal requirement for researchers. This requirement is founded on the principle of respect for persons … [which] requires that individuals be treated as autonomous agents and that the rights and welfare of persons with diminished autonomy be appropriately protected. Potential participants must be provided with information about the research project that is understandable and that permits them to make an informed and voluntary decision about whether or not to participate. The amount of information and the manner of presentation will vary depending on the complexity and risk involved in the research study. Informed consent is an ongoing educational interaction between the investigator and the research participant that continues throughout the study.”

The informed consent form, then, is an important method of communication between researcher and potential subject. In my recent sample of applications, I’ve noticed students struggling to effectively convey their projects’ goals, benefits, and risks to potential subjects. Students sometimes leave out important information about what subjects will be asked to do in the studies. Students also often use very technical or formal language that is not only unfamiliar, but likely inaccessible, to people new to their study or discipline. Of course, we all struggle with this. Once we’re inside a research project or, for that matter, a topic or a process of any kind, it can be hard to step outside and see it from a beginner’s perspective.

It’s interesting, though, to perhaps consider the disconnects visible in the forms students have drafted as artifacts of their transitions from research newcomers to insiders. The students, as they work to research and design their own studies, become increasingly steeped in and comfortable with the methods, language, and conventions of the discipline. They may begin to take pleasure in their growing fluency even. Their facility and satisfaction is visible in the informed consent forms they design. They may not yet, however, have the metacognitive awareness to look past–or perhaps back on–their own trajectories to consider how to communicate effectively with their potential subjects, newcomers to their work. Of course, it’s possible that I’m overreaching a bit with this analysis.

Still, the connections between this work and information literacy teaching and learning seem rather notable to me, especially around the concepts of information ethics and audience. When I began this post, exploring these ideas and accompanying opportunities for teaching was my original purpose. What I find more useful at this moment, though, is this reminder about the journey from newcomer to insider and the viewpoints that journey affords, but also sometimes occludes. Despite my best intentions, where and how have I, by virtue of my sightlines, obscured the potential for others’ understanding or blocked their entry? I’ve written before about how librarians are uniquely positioned as translators, which I consider as one of our profession’s core strengths, opportunities, and responsibilities. I’m grateful for these reminders to pause and reconsider my own position, journey, and viewpoints and how that facilitates or hinders my interactions with my students, as well as my colleagues.

Two perspective triangles, with their perspective axis and center” by Jujutacular is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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.

2000px-Gra_w_kropki_bazy.svgGra w kropki bazy – Dots (game)” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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?

Homework

  • 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.