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Catherine Fraser Riehle, an instruction and liaison librarian here at Purdue, faced a challenge in the first-year Honors Seminar she co-taught. This challenge was one that instructors in all disciplines find too common today: how to lead students beyond easy, “Google-based” research strategies into deeper and more critical research approaches.

Riehle, of course, is well aware of the unique challenges and opportunities that the information age poses for students today, and her original instructional plan seemed entirely reasonable. She would have her students develop criteria for assessing the quality of science-related websites, present them with pre-selected websites of varying credibility levels to evaluate, conduct class discussions based on their conclusions, and fill in whatever knowledge gaps remained by guiding them through established criteria for information evaluation.

But not only did she find her students were painfully bored by this process, the content she endeavored to teach them did not transfer to their research papers: their bibliographies reflected the typical first year reliance on the easiest, at-hand sources (e.g., top Google hits) in spite of the quality (or lack thereof).

For some instructors, this situation can feel so frustrating it seems hopeless. But Riehle attended the Teacher Track of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Immersion program and what she learned there changed her entire approach. The program encouraged its attendees to move away  from the traditional pedagogical models with their focus on experts imparting knowledge to passive students. Rather than these ossified approaches, ACRL instead presented constructivist theories, calling for instructors to become facilitators for students’ construction and personalization of meaning.

That next year Riehle returned to her seminar eager to apply this new approach. She began by having her students read articles from Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” column online at The Guardian. In a popular format, Ben Goldacre performs the kind of evaluation Riehle wanted from her students. His writing was a jumping-off-point for learning about information evaluation, allowing students the opportunity to see good information literacy in action in a “real-world,” accessible format. Riehle asked her students to respond to Goldacre’s articles and reflect on how they handle information in light of what they had seen the Guardian writer say and do.

The “Bad Science” postings would lead to discussions about the scientific publication cycle: Riehle would then have students engage with the University of North Carolina’s Biology Research Tutorial visualizations which presented them with a view into the academic publishing world with consideration for sources ranging from peer-reviewed articles to popular forms of media like Facebook and Twitter. Engaging with information literacy from such a practical and personally identifiable dimension for these future professionals illuminated for them the full extent of the publication cycle’s role in real-world science and knowledge and what role different sources can viably play in that cycle.

Finally the students learned how information can be used well and poorly, ethically and unethically, through an engagement with Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics; here students could see how the already existing knowledge they were working with was also a product of similar kinds of constructive approaches they had been using in the course.

The results Riehle saw in students research papers and reflections seemed clear. Students’ research had clearly improved over the course of the year. Furthermore, students could identify the changes in themselves, remarking in reflective blog entries just how much their approaches to and understanding of the information they were working with had changed.

One Response to “From “Bad Science” to Constructive Thinking”

  1. Larry Mykytiuk

    This post is interesting, because the initial method of instruction did attempt some kinds of active learning: “develop criteria,” “varying credibility levels to evaluate,” and “discuss,” but with the instructor immediately present to edit and correct their responses, figuratively “breathing down their necks.”

    The changes that came later were that the students were first confronted with an accessible, midlly irreverent way to begin considering the quality of information ( in Ben Goldacre’s column). Then they were given “space” to make their own reflections about how they handle information by comparing that with Goldacre’s example.

    Also, the “real-world” flavor of the Guardian and UNC web sites and Huff’s book helped the students sense that they were indeed constructing their own knowledge—not just being advised by some institutional expert. The construction of one’s own knowledge fits very well with the developmental goal most adolescents have: to establish their independence!

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