How is it that a student can find and use research-quality information sources and still produce a mediocre research paper? Poor writing skills? Maybe…probably. There’s another factor in play too. Ask yourself this. How much time do you spend on teaching students strategies for evaluating their information needs? Not evaluating information sources, evaluating information needs.
Identifying information needs is the first step in the whole research process. Yet, we tend to gloss over that skill and focus on finding and evaluating information sources. It doesn’t help that classroom instructors create assignment “recipes” (e.g. 4 peer-reviewed articles, 1 website). And students follow those recipes. Either that, or they make the assumption that anything that appears relevant in their database search results will meet their information needs. That’s because they don’t know what their information needs are! And because they haven’t explicitly identified their information needs, their database searching techniques are less focused. And that impacts their selection of information sources.
From a learning task perspective, students need to first have the skills to critically evaluate and identify their information needs before they can even begin to identify the places to go to find that information. They need to understand the anatomy of a research paper, and the different types of information sources that are necessary for different types of research papers (i.e. primary, secondary, tertiary). It is only then that they will be ready to focus on selecting and navigating databases, and finding and evaluating information sources.
While classroom instructors can and should play a big role in this step of the research process, don’t assume they are (or will). Fortunately, there are a couple of instructional strategies that you can use to address this learning issue without having it eat up precious library session time.
- Annotate an exemplary research paper to identify the type, purpose and place for reference sources used in the paper. For example, on the bibliography page, you can highlight and color code selected sources with explanations about the type of source and reasons it was selected for use. Then, use the color coding within the body of the paper to identify where the source was used and how it served its purpose. You don’t need to show the entire paper, just selected sections (similar to how the APA manual shows examples). Locate this on a LibGuide or Google Doc, and have the classroom instructor scaffold it into the assignment.
- Create a Think Sheet of probing questions that gets students thinking about their information needs for the research assignment. Include definitions and examples of different types of sources. Ideally, students would fill this out before the library session.