Setting the Stage for Effective Library Instruction with Writing
SCIL Open House, January 30, 2004

Presenters: Yvonne Nalani Meulemans and Judith Downie

At Cal State San Marcos, Yvonne Meulemans and Judith Downie are using writing exercises to enhance their Information Literacy instruction. In their course-integrated as well as their one-shot instruction, having students write has proven to be a good learning tool and an authentic assessment of student learning.

Downie teaches course-integrated library instruction as part of the General Education Lifelong Learning (GEL) class, required for most undergraduates. The GEL class is intended to give new college students the skills they need for scholastic success and includes a three week Library Research Module that totals 7 1ˇ2 hours of instruction. Students complete an annotated bibliography in preparation for the research paper that is their final project for the course. Downie also incorporates a Research Journal into the students' projects. While the annotated bibliographies are submitted to the lead faculty for the course, the Research Journals are solely for communication between the librarian and the students.

The informal writing permitted in the journal combined with the requirement that students reflect on their research process has offered Downie insights into student information literacy. For example, despite the emphasis that Downie placed on beginning research in the library catalog, 53% of students have revealed in their journals that they began with the Internet. The reflection element of the process is important for students who are new to research as they realize the relationships among information sources and even their own place in the systems of scholarly communication.

Combining students' reflections in the journals with their annotated bibliographies also allows Downie to assess whether students are critically evaluating the quality of the sources they are choosing for their work. The insights brought about by enhanced communication have enabled Downie to meet her students where they are.

Instructors interested in implementing Research Journals should be advised that students can sometimes include very personal information. Instructors should, therefore, examine university policies and their own expectations as they begin a project like this.

Though time is limited, one-shot instruction can likewise include writing exercises in order to encourage students to contextualize the content according to what is most important to them and also provide them with a record to take from the session. Meulemans described how writing in the one-shots can take different forms. One technique incorporates Guided Notes, which the librarian provides as an incomplete outline or a series of questions. Either format gives students a structured option for recording the content of the instruction in their own words and therefore requires their active involvement in learning.

Meulemans emphasized structuring sessions to include time for students to fill in their Guided Notes. Students are informed that their notes will be collected and then returned to them and they are therefore more likely to complete them. Meulemans uses the Guided Notes to spur students to paraphrase the requirements of their assignments and to consider why a librarian is meeting with their class. By having students write responses to these prompts, Meulemans finds she is more likely to get students to participate in the class discussion. At the end of her sessions, Meulemans uses a What Next? Exercise that asks students to reflect on the instruction and list the next three steps they will take in working on their project. These responses are also collected.

Through collecting, reviewing, and summarizing these exercises Meulemans develops insights for improving her instruction. By returning the students' Guided Notes and What Next? Exercise to their professors, Meulemans opens communication about improving student learning outcomes and even implementing new alternatives to research papers. After faculty review their class responses, the Guided Notes and What Next are returned to the students who then have a contextualized summary of the instruction to prompt them as they continue their research.

Meulemans and Downie draw an analogy between their writing assignments and the importance placed on showing one's work for a math problem. In both cases, it is the process rather than the product that is most important in order that students' learning can be authentically assessed. Requiring students to write during Information Literacy instruction is a step toward putting the content of the learning in their hands‹a component of learner centered instruction. What students record becomes a qualitative articulation of what they are taking away from the instruction, whether the session lasted three weeks or 50 minutes.

Reported by: April Cunningham, National University Library