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A new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project tells us that digital technologies are encouraging teenage students to write more creatively and to write more often. The study of middle and high school teachers focuses on the teachers’ perceptions of how student writing is affected by the Internet, search engines, social media, cell phones, and texting (what they call “digital technologies”).

The researchers found that teachers see these technologies as:

“generally facilitating teens’ personal expression and creativity, broadening the audience for their written material, and encouraging teens to write more often in more formats than may have been the case in prior generations.  At the same time, they describe the unique challenges of teaching writing in the digital age, including the “creep” of informal style into formal writing assignments and the need to better educate students about issues such as plagiarism and fair use.”

This report is the third in a series of three studies on middle and high school teachers:

How Teens Do Research in the Digital World (November 2012)

How Teachers Are Using Technology at Home and in Their Classrooms (February 2013)

The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools (July 2013)

I find these reports fascinating and informative. They fascinate me because they offer glimpses into a world (secondary education) I know little about but that directly affects my work as an information literacy librarian at a university. The reports are informative about both my future students and, I suspect, my current students, assuming that the ways that high school students and college students use digital technologies are more similar than different. The reports generate a fistful of ideas for follow-up: How would professors at my university answer the questions posed to teachers in the most current study? Are the students at my school similar in key demographics to the study sample? Do the people running the Writing Center on my campus read these reports? Do the findings resonate with them? Should we collaborate to build on the positives and address the concerns from the findings?






I recently attended a great presentation by April Cunningham and Hal Hannon on college reading and library instruction. It was part of the 3rd Annual Summer Retreat for Librarians, held at Chapman University in Orange, CA.

April and Hal link Carol Kuhlthau’s work on information search process with what we know about college students’ struggles to learn from academic texts, including scholarly journal articles. They developed or adapted three informative and thought-provoking models as a result. One illustrates the reading cycle during the reading process. Another is titled “Your Research Pathway,” and is designed to show students how to think about the steps of their project based on where they are in the information search process. The third model is another worksheet for students, this time focusing on unpacking academic texts in the sciences/social sciences and the humanities.

April and Hal have a web site with their presentation and models: It's well worth a look.

Melanie Sellar

On the second day of the ACRL 2013 Conference, we had the great pleasure of having lunch with Melanie Sellar. Melanie is currently the Education Services Librarian at Marymount College in Los Angeles.

During the ACRL Conference, Melanie was leading a session titled, “Visible Thinking: Using Course-Integrated Research Narratives to Engage Students and Assess Learning.” We invited her to lunch so we could hear more about her session and understand the value of research narratives in information literacy instruction.

Below is the Q and A portion of our lunch with Melanie:

Project SAILS: Please introduce yourself!

Melanie: I am the Education Services Librarian at Marymount College in Los Angeles. I grew up and attended college in Canada (a BA in linguistics from McMaster University, an MA in linguistics from the University of Ottawa, and an MLIS from the University of Western Ontario.) Before being hired at Marymount College, I was the Community Outreach Librarian and later the e-Learning and Instructional Design Librarian at the University of California, Irvine. I am also very proud to say that I founded Librarians Without Borders and now serve as the Co-Executive Director.

Project SAILS: What did you cover in your session?

Melanie: The main focus of my session was to introduce the theory behind research narratives, which stems from composition scholarship, and to show the research narratives in application at two institutions (University of Louisville and Marymount College).

Project SAILS: What are research narratives?

Melanie: Research narratives, which are also often called information literacy narratives, are an assessment and pedagogical tool that allow insight into student thinking by asking students to tell the story of their research experience. These narratives are heavily focused on a student’s thinking pattern or thought process compared to knowing the right answers – which is different than most tests and citation analysis tools. Another important focus of narratives is reflection. Students are asked to provide a step-by-step account of their research process, including a reflection on the difficulties/challenges they experienced. Students then create a first-person story detailing their research which positions them as expert on that experience.

Project SAILS: What do research narratives accomplish?

Melanie: An important outcome of using research narratives is that they provide a window into student thinking, giving faculty and librarians insight into the critical thinking skills of students. Research narratives also provide the “Why” behind research papers and answer questions like:

  • Why did the student select and cite this source?
  • Did the professor tell them to use a certain source or is this something the student chose to do on their own?
  • Did the student struggle finding sources? Why?

Research narratives also allow students to select what they thought was important to include in the description of their research process, while also showing the things students didn’t think were important enough to include.

Overall, research narratives provide a powerful tool for impacting teacher and librarian practice because we can have a better understanding of a student’s research paper when paired with the research narrative. As a result of seeing into a student’s research process we are able to better understand where the students are on the information literacy skill development continuum, and where further support and instruction is needed. We should use tools like research narratives to impact the way we are teaching, instead of simply deflecting the blame on students.

Project SAILS: What are the downsides to using research narratives?

Melanie: I think it’s important to acknowledge that research narratives do require more time to assess than, for example, grading a quiz.

It’s best to read many narratives at one time in order to better understand the data in light of other students’ responses. It does take time to read through each narrative and make meaning of the data, but the time is well worth it to really understand the information literacy skills of our students.

Research narratives also require collaboration with faculty, in terms of designing a prompt and potentially creating a rubric. Faculty that include the research narrative as part of the assignment need to provide copies of the research narratives to librarians for our own assessment. This “hurdle” is getting much easier with learning management systems, like Blackboard, where faculty can simply grant access for librarians to the student research papers submitted within these programs.

Lastly, students do not expose everything about their research process, but we are learning about what is most important to them, as selected by them.

Project SAILS: How have faculty responded to using research narratives?

Melanie: Research narratives have had a significant impact on our faculty’s classroom practices because they have been able to illuminate the research skills, behaviours, and attitudes of our freshmen.  Some results include:

  • Faculty are putting themselves in the mind of a novice researcher and adjusting their teaching practices and curriculum to their level of knowledge.
  • Faculty across the disciplines are becoming more aware of the shared responsibility to teach research skills.
  • Sparked conversations about teaching information literacy skills over the course of a student’s college career, not just in a Freshman English composition course.
  • More impactful integration of librarians in courses.

For more on how faculty are seeing the value of information literacy narratives, I interviewed a faculty member of one of our Freshman Composition courses.

Project SAILS: Are there other applications of research narratives?

Melanie: Yes, another important application for research narratives is use as a longitudinal assessment across a student’s time in college. Looking longitudinally at a student’s research narratives, year after year, may allow us to see if their thinking has changed over the time and how their information literacy skills are developing.

We really enjoyed meeting Melanie and hearing how she is using research narratives at her institution. We are planning to add resources specific to research narratives to our blog in the coming months, as we see the benefit of using a multiple-choice IL assessment (like Project SAILS) along with a research narrative. Using the two in tandem will allow faculty and librarians to understand information literacy proficiencies of their students, while also understanding the thinking process students are using during research.

Melanie’s Prezi from her session at ACRL can be viewed below:

You can also connect with Melanie on LinkedIn, learn more about her work with Librarians Without Borders, follow her on Twitter, or contact her for more information about using research narratives at your institution.

And, Or, Not . . . three important words for searching success.

These three words form the basis of Boolean logic and help students more efficiently search through the complicated world of information and find resources specific to their academic needs.

We have heard many instruction librarians discussing the difficulty of keeping students engaged once the “B” word is introduced in a session. Should the “B” word be avoided altogether? Should new methods be used to teach students about Boolean?

We think instruction on Boolean should continue to be emphasized when teaching students how to search and locate information. After all, Boolean is included in the ACRL information competency standards and the “searching” portion of the Project SAILS skills sets. But maybe there are better ways to cover this topic. One option is a free tool called Boolify.

Boolify presents Boolean logic in a fun and graphical way to show students the usefulness of applying Boolean search operators when looking for resources with the Google search engine. Though it was designed specifically for K-12, we think there are many advantages to using it within higher education settings, including:

  • Great for the hands-on learners in your courses
  • Clearly illustrates the usefulness of using Boolean operators
  • Though specific to Google, college students can apply the concepts to research databases
  • The interactive nature of the tool gives students the flexibility to continue refining their search based on the results provided
  • Identifies the logic behind research and uses this logic to improve research skills

But the thing we like most about Boolify is that it covers a very important skill set within information literacy in a practical and easy-to-understand manner. The key is that Boolify is focused on the end goal, which is to teach information literacy skills in a way college students can understand and retain.

In addition to the free Boolify tool, the site also offers lesson plans for teaching information literacy to your students.

Give Boolify a look and consider whether you can use it in your instruction.

York University Libraries recently published an article summarizing the collaboration efforts started between faculty and academic librarians in regard to information literacy instruction at their university. These collaborations were deemed necessary and important by the University following the results from a study called Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL).

The results from the ERIAL project show that “when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy” and that faculty, students, and academic librarians all bear responsibility.

  • “They [students] preferred simple database searches to other methods of discovery, but generally exhibited a lack of understanding of search logic that often foiled their attempts to find good sources.”
  • “Librarians tend to overestimate the research skills of some of their students, which can result in interactions that leave students feeling, intimidated and alienated.”
  • “Some professors make similar assumptions, and fail to require that their students visit with a librarian before embarking on research projects.”
  • “And both professors and librarians are liable to project an idealistic view of the research process onto students who often are not willing or able to fulfill it.”

Most importantly, faculty and academic librarians rarely work together for a common goal – to strengthen students’ research skills in order to more effectively complete assignments.

York University librarians wanted things to be different. They developed a plan to foster collaboration between faculty and academic librarians, with three options for information literacy instruction. Their article goes on to discuss a successful collaboration between a professor in Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, a law librarian, and business librarian. All three worked together to create information literacy tutorials and laboratory sessions specifically for the professor’s Masters of Law and Masters of Financial Accountability students. And the results were outstanding! Students felt more comfortable with research, the professor received better researched assignments, and the academic librarians demonstrated their value to both faculty and students. These results were possible for a number of reasons:

  • The professor understood the value that academic librarians could provide to his specific courses;
  • Academic librarians were able to connect (and form relationships) with students through the professor, who had an existing relationship with these students;
  • Information literacy instruction was more relevant to these students as it had a direct impact on a specific class assignment; and
  • The information literacy instruction was taught with a specific application in mind, making the short sessions more impactful than a general IL session.

And their IL collaboration efforts are continuing to see great results, as York librarians have created “course-specific library research sessions for an average of 700 classes and assisting approximately 25,000 students” each year.

What a great example of academic librarians displaying their value by utilizing the relationship faculty have with students and collaborating with professors to develop course-specific information literacy resources for their students. Another positive is that students are probably far more comfortable approaching academic librarians when they need additional research help for other classes, erasing the myth that academic librarians are only useful when you need help finding a book.

For more information on the articles discussed:

Click to read the full article on the York University collaboration.

Click to read more about the findings from the ERIAL project.