Librarians remove roadblocks to learning
Imagine being 17 or 18 years old and reading this: "Cite five relevant peer reviewed papers from scholarly journals." Thousands of students must parse phrases like this in their first few months at university, yet few know what the verb "cite", the adjective "relevant" or the word "scholarly" means in this context. "Even if they know how to cite a reference, they might not know why," says Mark Bodnar, Business Librarian at SFU. Every day frustrated students get help from librarians to puzzle out what their professors and lecturers want, but many instructors at SFU may not realize that they, too, can get help from SFU librarians with their research assignments. "We've got the same goals as the instructor. We want engaged students who are learning what their instructors want them to learn," says Rebecca Dowson, Liaison Librarian for English and History.
Instructors do a great job in class getting their students totally involved and giving them stimulating assignments. But sometimes students go off to do the research and then surprise the instructor by submitting completed assignments that are not what they expected. "Somewhere along the way the student got lost or hit some roadblock. Librarians can help instructors look at assignments and understand what research knowledge, what jargon, what skills are going to be required so students can hand in great assignments," says Bodnar.
The two librarians felt so strongly about this that they created a workshop presentation called "Mapping the great unknown: helping your students overcome hidden research roadblocks". They've given it at two conferences so far. Once at SFU in May, 2009, and a year later to a group of teacher librarians. Their topic goes beyond how to research. "This is about how instructors can remove research roadblocks, keeping the focus on the content," says Bodnar.
Liaison librarians are constantly confronted by students who are lost and confused. "I get students every day who don't know what "scholarly" means," says Bodnar. "They come to the reference desk and they'll know what the requirements are. They need scholarly articles or peer reviewed articles. They know the term but not what it is or how to differentiate it."
At their workshop, Bodnar and Dowson start by handing out an assignment to the participating instructors. They use real assignments that students had brought to the Library reference desk. "Participants work in groups trying to figure out what the students need to know to actually get through the assignment," says Dowson. The workshop then switches to an instructor’s perspective and asks: when we are doing everything right, where are we still losing students? "We always make the disclaimer that as librarians we don't know what happened in class, what the student heard from the instructor. Maybe plagiarism was explained, but sometimes students still don't know what it is," says Bodnar.
Even when the students eventually understand all the academic terminology and what is required of them, they often don't know why. They don't understand the value of a scholarly article or how to evaluate information sources. "It's a two phase process," says Bodnar who teaches an hour-long session on the concept of 'relevance' as part of the evaluation process. It can have many different meanings. "Relevance in English compared to how it's used in Marketing is a totally different world," says Bodnar. Dowson adds that such problems are compounded by SFU's interdisciplinary focus. "Our students are asked to take courses in many different faculties. They may come with some idea of what a word means in their home faculty but it changes when they go to another class." Instructors can prepare their students for these potential stumbling blocks when they design assignments.
Bodnar and Dowson provide solutions for instructors to support their research assignments. Sometimes it's as simple as defining terms like ‘scholarly’ or ‘plagiarism’. Instructors are reminded that they can invite a librarian into class to talk about how to research a particular topic, or how to evaluate information. Librarians also get involved earlier in many cases. "We can confirm if our resources support the research requirements of the assignment, and also we might be able to give some feedback on the types of problems we've seen in similar assignments," says Dowson.
SFU liaison librarians are happy to read through assignments and identify potential problems. Then they will work with the instructor to produce a web-guide for the assignment, or give them pointers on what they are going to need to discuss with the class, and the pitfalls the students are likely to encounter. Dowson emphasizes that librarians would never ask an instructor to change their assignment. "It's just highlighting things to be aware of to help their students complete the assignment in the way the instructor hopes they will," she says.
SFU librarians are available for much more than locating obscure journal articles. "Often faculty don't realize they can call librarians to help identify places where their students are falling down. We can help discuss plagiarism, or work with them to build a research guide for a specific assignment," says Bodnar. He points out that the library has many study guides already available and accessible on the web. Bodnar reiterates that a librarian has the same goal as an instructor: "We want students that are engaged and that are learning what they need to learn in class."
"There's one of us for every subject area," says Dowson, pointing out that SFU has many liaison librarians. Find out who yours is.