Practical Advice for Teaching Information Literacy and Research

Laura J. Panning Davies is chief of staff at SUNY Cortland (NY), where she served as director of writing programs and associate professor of English since 2014. She teaches courses in first-year writing, writing pedagogy, public rhetoric, style, and technical writing.

Erin Ackerman is interim assistant director for public services and social sciences librarian at the R. Barbara Gitenstein Library at The College of New Jersey. She is also an adjunct professor in TCNJ’s Political Science Department.

How do you get students started on the research component of first-year writing?

Erin Ackerman: One of the challenges about teaching research is that we often start with, or limit, our focus to finding and retrieving sources—I call that the “how to library” part. And while that’s important—you’ll never get a librarian telling you it’s not—what we advocate for is explicitly and incrementally teaching students how to think about sources, and what to do with them, before we actually send them off to find them (such as in an assignment prompt to “go find those ten peer-reviewed sources”). To quote my colleague John Oliver (The College of New Jersey), “When we start students off with the ‘go find,’ it is almost like we’re asking students who have never seen or tasted a cake to all of a sudden bake one from scratch.” So we need to give them a different taste of research first.

Erin Ackerman
Image Credit: Amanda Cowell

The ACRL Framework represents reconceptualization of information literacy as a set of big ideas related to information use, discovery, and creation—and it’s a descriptive, not prescriptive, framework. For me, one of the most important things about the framework is the idea that information understanding and practices exist on a spectrum from novice to expert. Our expectations for students should take into account students’ novice status, and we should start with helping them move along the spectrum gradually and deliberately.

Why is it important to embed information literacy and research throughout the course?

EA: Understanding how to do research and be information literate doesn’t happen in one shot—it is not an inoculation delivered by a librarian parachuting into the course for one or two days. We really want to focus on breaking apart that idea of research and information-literate behaviors so that students can learn practices and habits of mind that allow them to interact with sources in a way that aligns with important first-year writing goals—such as students being able to think about credibility and attribution. We want to design embeddable information literacy activities that can be brought into the course that don’t necessarily need a whole session devoted to “how to library” but can be incorporated into existing assignments.

Laura J. Panning Davies: And emphasize research as a recursive, rhetorical process just like writing. We spend a lot of time in our first-year writing courses stressing that a first draft doesn’t equal the last draft, and that how we write depends on audience, context, purpose, etc. The same is true for research. Over time, it should be something that can change: the sources students start with don’t have to be the sources that they end with, and how they interact with different sources depends on the source and what they need it for. It’s also a good idea to scaffold the research into manageable steps. If you can, think about research as a semester-long project. Not only does that encourage students to develop persistence, but it also gives them small, manageable steps along the way.

Laura Panning Davies
Image Credit: John Austin Davies

How do you break students of stilted academic analysis and incorporate authoritative sources beyond scholarly articles, such as blog posts?

EA: I think so many librarians would love to have a chance to talk about the idea of authority as constructed and contextual—the idea that different sources are appropriate for different uses, and that different types of writing and audiences will need different sources. I work with a first-year introductory course in which students analyze a particular product and create a blog post on consumerism as their big project. So, we do a lot of looking at annual reports and interest group statements, and we talk about “What does expertise mean in different contexts?” It’s such a joy as a librarian to discuss “What do we mean by expertise in terms of credentials? In terms of experience? Or in terms of knowledge of an area?” and not just show students a box to check off the peer-reviewed sources.

How do you make the “researched argument essay” feel less tedious and more meaningful?

LPD: I have assignments that I’ve named “sneaky drafts.” Just like you would sneak in pureed butternut squash in your kids’ mac and cheese, these are sneaky ways to get your students to collaborate with sources. I frame my whole course around: “You’re not writing about sources—you’re writing with sources.” I believe students need a lot of time to get to know their sources, so I build in more creative, sneaky drafts in a lot of different genres that prompt my students to compose with their sources in new ways: from a research or grant proposal to an email or a memo—I try to mix it up.

Do you have any suggestions for creative exercises to help students who may not be accurately understanding their sources?

LPD: This gets at the heart of something I care deeply about: we don’t often teach a lot of reading in first-year writing. Like with research, too often it’s “Here’s an article, read it, and then write with it,” without going through the steps of how to break it down, understand it, and engage with it.

An example of one of the different genres I often use as a “sneaky draft” is an academic conversation. After students have done a little bit of research, I ask them to put their sources in a dialogue, formatted like a script. They have to set the scene and invite a couple of the sources to an academic conversation— very Burkean parlor—and use their research questions to drive the conversation. I make it very clear that the student writer has to be part of the conversation – they can’t just be the questioner who listens. They have to contribute. The responses of the sources that they bring in as characters have to be true to the argument of the source. So, this exercise requires summary, a knowledge of the source’s arguments, and good open-ended questions that are debatable and invite different perspectives. They have to understand the author’s argument in a deep enough way to write about them fictionally, and we talk a lot about being accurate and precise. Plus, it invites students to start making their own tentative claims in a way that doesn’t feel like a research paper. These are always a delight to read – one of my favorites was set on the International Space Station.

Do you have tips for a multimodal research project?

LPD: Between their first full draft and their next draft, I have started asking students to pause and remix their argument in a new multimodal way. They take one little piece that really intrigues them, and then turn it into a podcast or a video. With multimodal sources, we also do a lot of work with fair use, accessibility, and diversity. We’re thinking about who our audience is and how arguments are made through color, layout, and type. Students really get into that part of the semester because it expands the idea of what research is, what it’s for, and why it matters.

This Q&A was adapted from a virtual workshop. Request access to the full recording here.

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