Building Research Confidence

Last week I observed three more classes for my instruction practicum: Day 2 of the upper-level poli sci class, a freshman seminar class that had to address several different kinds of research, and an English 101 class where the students had an assignment to analyze song lyrics.  Looking back over my notes, I saw a several examples of the librarians working to build students’ confidence in themselves as researchers, no matter what their academic level.  When I taught composition at the community college the most basic struggle I saw in students was a lack of academic confidence.  Of course this will vary with the population of students–many of mine were returning to school for the first time in a long time and many of the ones who were “traditional” age had struggled with school in the past.  No matter what their level of achievement, though, I think it’s helpful to do subtle things to build their confidence.  Research is one of the main activities students will encounter throughout their time in school, and I think that self-sufficiency in this area will help students feel confident in many different kinds of classes.

In the two freshman-level classes, Jenny began by asking students something like whether or not they thought they were good at research or if they enjoyed it.  These questions got a predictably lackluster response, and she followed them up by asking what kinds of research they had done (usually a senior high school project), and where they started research.  The students responded that they usually went to Google, so Jenny would start a Google search using one of their topics.  I think a lot of students expected to be chastised for admitting to using Google, but Jenny confirmed it as a completely acceptable research strategy.  The Google searches would yield a Wikipedia link, perhaps some news articles, and maybe a few links that didn’t look very credible.  I’m pretty sure she continued to blow their minds by opening up the Wikipedia page and discussing how while this wasn’t an acceptable source, it was an excellent resource.  One of the activities she did that I really liked was using the Wikipedia entry to pick out keywords that might be good search terms in a database.  She also showed them how to find credible sources using the references and links at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.  I like the Google exercise because it meets students where they are comfortable and then pushes them to think critically about research strategies.  The skill of critical thinking about information sources will continue to serve them throughout their lives, and I think this is a great way to present it without being condescending.

In Lynda’s upper-level poli sci class I noticed her also working to build students’ confidence, but she used a different strategy with these more advanced students.  The students were using Lexis Nexis Academic to find news articles on a current political issue, and when she was teaching them the database, she emphasized that they should use the “power search” rather than the “simple search” because they were doing advanced research.  She could have easily just instructed them to use power search with no explanation, but this statement emphasized her confidence in them and the sophisticated nature of their work.  She taught them how to form a complex search that used truncation, specified a minimum length for the article, and only brought up pieces that mentioned the search terms several times.  I can see a situation where students might have expressed frustration with this kind of search because it was so complex, but they all appeared to be engaged in the research process.  I think it really helped that Lynda set up a situation where the students felt confident and capable.

One semi-related issue that I’ve been thinking about is vocal participation in library classes.  In all the classes I’ve observed, it seems like a few students establish themselves early-on as the “talkers” and then they answer every question throughout the session while most of the class remains silent.  There are a few problems, of course: only their needs and views get addressed, it becomes easy for a lot of students to check out, and, well, the talkers can get annoying.  Part of the problem for a lot of the non-talkers might be a lack of confidence with library terms.  It can be hard to shout out answers to complex-sounding questions about a database you’ve never used while twenty-five of your new classmates listen in silent judgment.  I’m not really sure how to address this issue.  On the one hand, I think frequent interaction with the class through questions is a lot more effective than simply talking at them.  But on the other, the nature of a lot of questions in library instruction is that they just sound like they only have one correct answer, and I think that can cause a lot of students to shut down.  As I move toward teaching my own classes, I’d like to experiment with methods for getting more students to vocally participate in class.  I think small group work might be one way to accomplish this–it allows students a more intimate environment to share their ideas, lessens the competition for talking time, and lessens the pressure of impressing the instructor and a large peer group.  I think large-group instruction is still very useful, but perhaps mixing some small-group time in might help as well.