What water?

Recently I was lucky enough to come across the publication of a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace in 2005 to a group of wide-eyed graduates from Kenyon College. While it’s difficult to sum up what one takes away from a four-year-degree, this particular rumination helps to qualify the value of a liberal arts education by hitting home a simple metaphor.

Wallace starts with a joke about fish. One looks to the other and says, “So, how’s the water?” The other fish replies, “What’s water?” The speech goes on to point out that a liberal arts education opens our eyes to the world around us by providing experiences that help us move beyond our assumptions. Situations and phenomena in our daily lives become more nuanced and complicated.

Helping students “see the water” is at the heart of the information literacy teaching that librarians-as-educators do. When I think globally about information literacy and what’s outlined by the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, it seems we want students to open their eyes to the world of information. We want them to recognize that finding and using information isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Not so that they’ll shy away, but instead, graduate with the abilities and understandings they need to shed assumptions, ask questions, and navigate an ever-changing information landscape.

The individual goals and means of library instruction programs may vary, but some form of teaching happens at most academic libraries. Librarians’ teaching takes the form of hosting workshops, teaching courses, and being there for students when and where they need us, from reference desks to chat rooms. And our teaching efforts are driven by goals for student learning, with the hope that we can play an active role in graduating information literate students–eyes wide open in the fish bowl.

But this is a lot to accomplish in a never-ending stream of one-shot library workshops. At this collective realization a few years ago, the librarians at my library decided to face it head on. Not that we thought one-shots weren’t effective, just that we weren’t sure what they were accomplishing, exactly. Plus we were spending a lot of time teaching freshman how to find a book and an article and releasing them into the research paper abyss, and we wanted to consider other forms of teaching.

I know we’re not alone in grappling with this conundrum and I hope to hear how you and your library are working to address our shared challenge: how to design an instruction program that meets our learning goals for students.

A bit of background

To begin addressing the learning goals we had for students, we first looked to the first-year writing courses that streamed through the library, English 101 and English 102. As is most likely the case in academic libraries across the country, we had been actively trying to reach as many students with foundational information literacy know-how in their first years of academic work. No matter how tailored our instruction was to a given assignment, we still felt a bit like broken records; each workshop needed to cover the “basics” and we rarely got past the book-and-article routine. We were left unsure of the impact of our efforts. Like ducks in a pond, we appeared calm atop while our feet below paddled furiously to keep up.  So we began dreaming up our ideal instructional opportunity: a foundational information literacy course that gave students the time and space to meet the learning goals we set for them.

Though Boise State University’s library has been teaching a one-credit library research skills class for the past decade or so, it had yet to reach its potential. Titled University 106: Library research, it has historically been a self-paced course that has students complete a series of question-and-answer worksheets, for instance: “go to the Library of Congress Subject headings and find a narrower term for sports accidents.” More recently it has evolved into a project-based course where students continuously work towards several small or one more substantial culminating paper, bibliography or presentation.

In the past two years, we’ve thrown the course into perpetual beta, ever evolving the curriculum, and have been testing the waters by experimenting with how the course is taught: in-person, online, and as a themed course (for example, one semester we “themed” two courses by focusing on Business Resources and Diversity). We’ve also continuously expanded our offerings of Univ106 from one large section to 23 sections this spring semester, taught by 13 librarians.

The in-person sections of Univ106 typically meet once a week for an hour in one of the computer classrooms in the library. There is also variation in how the online sections are offered. We have one large stand-alone, self-paced course that is capped at 150 students and team-taught by two librarians. We host this online course through Blackboard, our campus course management system, in order to use the time-saving features such as automatic grading for quizzes. We also offer smaller sections online, capped at 25 students, that make use of a variety of tools, including wikis, blogs, Google Sites and Blackboard.

While all Univ106 courses share standard learning outcomes, librarians have free rein to design experiences, activities and assignments that map how students get there. This freedom has led to a lot of creativity and experimentation with teaching techniques–from active learning to building video tutorials. Here’s an example of a typical weekly assignment in the revamped University 106. A student is first asked to find a newspaper article that mentions research on their topic. As a next step, the student is asked to track down the original research article mentioned in the newspaper article. The student then answer a series of questions about the authorship, audience and kind of information they find in each article. This exercise would be supported with how-to instructional videos, step-by-step directions, and worksheets that scaffold the process. As an instructional team, Boise State librarians have shared with one another while developing their own course content. I’ve learned a great amount from my colleagues as we’ve rolled up our sleeves and mucked around in the messy art of teaching.

Student learning has been the focus throughout all of this experimentation. The first semester I taught Univ106 I had my 25 students work towards creating or editing a Wikipedia entry of their choice. They were to add significant content with the support of at least 10  information sources–their justified “top 10” resources on a topic. A lot of things went well that semester: students showed up for our hour of class each week, performed the research-related tasks I asked of them, and even seemed to get excited when it came time to edit Wikipedia live. But at the end of the semester I was left with a sinking hunch that students weren’t making connections between what they learned in Univ106 and the research they would need to do for future courses; a hunch I’ve yet to confirm, but about which I am still curious. We’ll get to more on assessment in a bit.

The problem was I spent much of that first semester fabricating a reason for my students to do academic research. By choosing Wikipedia as the genre for their final project, I’d tried to create a context that was meaningful for them (beyond, “because I said so”), but I still felt as if a majority of the students were a bit too complacent about the work. I was left wondering how to better tap into their innate curiosity; I wanted my students to have genuine questions, an authentic information need to satisfy. But was I asking too much? University 106 is a one-credit pass/fail class, after all. That’s a lot of enthusiasm and engagement to expect for one credit.

Pairing University 106 with English 102

Armed with a renewed enthusiasm for teaching, and with our eyes on the prize–laying a foundation of information literacy in the first years at Boise State –we looked to trends and best practices in the profession. Embedded librarianship has received a lot of interest in recent years, and seems to have had some success as a method of teaching information literacy skills to students at the point of need (Bowler & Street, 2008). The basic idea is to teach more than a one-time workshop in support of a project. Instead, the embedded librarian has an ongoing  instructional presence in a course or project-based situation, either online or in person through a series of tailored workshops. With embedded librarianship in mind, we embarked on a series of conversations with the First Year Writing Program to explore possibilities.

As in many academic libraries, our instruction program had for several years been targeting our teaching efforts towards English 102: Research Writing for a variety of reasons. As the course title indicates, the focus of course is to develop research-based writing abilities, and so is a good fit for library research instruction. Engl102 is also a course all students are required to take and usually take in their first year at Boise State, which opens to the door to the possibility of reaching most incoming students with meaningful information literacy instruction. So librarians set out to proactively explore how to partner with Engl102 faculty in the development of our instructional offerings so that we could identify and meet student needs.

Targeting collaborations with Engl102 also made sense because of existing partnerships with faculty in the First Year Writing Program. Thomas Peele, First Year Writing Program Assistant Director, had already been leading a curricular change to emphasize research (Peele & Phipps, 2007). Based on annual assessments of student work, the First Year Writing Program had identified students’ limited research skills as needing additional instruction. When I started at Boise State University I had assumed that building relationships with key campus partners would take years, but instead I was able to hit the ground running. Within a year of my arrival, we were already discussing possibilities for co-teaching courses or pairing English 102 with University 106 as co-requisites, and the more we talked, the more the doors kept opening wider. It’s been an instruction librarian’s dream come true; a collaboration and mutual goal to support student learning.

So, we’d found our match. The next step was to align the work librarians had been doing to redesign Univ106 with the instructional needs presented in Engl102.


In spring 2009 Kim Leeder and I embarked on teaching four sections of linked Univ106/Engl102 courses, taking two each. Students co-enrolled in paired courses of Engl102 and Univ106. Of course, we needed to come up with a catchy way for students to recognize this new offering, and so it became Project Writing and Research (PoWeR). We pitched it to students as a combined four-credit experience that would strengthen their research-writing skills. University 106 would act as a research lab for writing assignments in English 102 and the curricula would align so that the courses would be mutually supportive at the day-to-day level. Kim and I met individually with our English faculty counterparts and designed a series of weekly activities and developed shared assignments that directly supported the research-based papers and projects students were working towards in Engl102.

Right away I felt a different level of engagement from my students. I didn’t have to spend as much time introducing the “why” for research; the context existed in the paper writing of English 102. I could instead spend more time helping students explore and refine a topic and make it interesting for themselves and their intended audience. Through their reflections and performance on assignments, it was clear students were seeing the applicability of the research side of things. I often received comments from a student who expressed in amazement that they were able to find articles for a biology assignment and other coursework. It was working! Students were becoming better researchers and beginning to understand how these skills could be applied beyond University 106.

Since then we’ve expanded PoWeR course offerings from 4 to 20 sections. This growth has been supported by a state funded grant aimed to integrate technology into teaching in higher education. We’ve spent the past fall leading a series of collaborative institutes in which librarians and English faculty worked together to build the combined English 102/University 106 curriculum and content. The institutes resulted in a series of University 106 modules of research instruction, including content, activities and assessment. The modules currently number 22 in all and cover topics from image and video searching to field research to crafting search terms. Librarians and English faculty also worked to create a combined course schedule in order to ensure the Univ106 modules directly supported the weekly writing and research expectations for Engl102.

This push towards offering 20 sections has been quite an effort for everyone involved. Collaborating closely with English faculty has made our course design that much richer and, well, more fun–certainly for us, and we hope for students as well.

Photo by Flickr user Nathan deGargoyle (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

But, did they really get it?

Assessment has been a key tool to aid our decision-making processes, from deciding on course offerings to how we deliver and design course content. It was clear early on that if we were to put intensive efforts towards Engl102 instruction, we needed to know if students were actually learning what we intended.

At the end of each semester we’ve collected portfolios of student work from PoWeR sections. The portfolios typically consist of final drafts of their major papers and a reflective letter in response to prompts on both their growth as a research and a writer. Librarians and English faculty developed a rubric to assess the quality of student work in terms of source variety, source appropriateness, citation use, and research strategies employed. The assessment of student work has proven to be an insightful lens into what they’re learning and what they’re not, and this has directly informed the development of course content. It’s also forced us to articulate what proficient research looks like.

The spring 2009 assessment made clear that PoWeR students were using a wider variety of higher quality sources in their work. They were also significantly more able to discuss their research strategies. Students in both PoWeR and non-PoWeR sections of English 102 struggled with citations. In response, we created an annotated bibliography assignment for use during the fall 2009 semester in order to provide formative feedback for students on citations prior to submitting a final draft. The upcoming portfolio assessment this spring will show us whether the added assignment improves student performance.

Course evaluations have also proven useful when considering course delivery and activities. Students made it clear the first semester we taught PoWeR that they would prefer a combined course schedule and course site. This seems like a logical consideration now, but it was reflective of librarians and English faculty still thinking of the courses as separate in that first semester. I think the steps we’ve taken in the last semester to build on our collaborative efforts with English faculty while growing the PoWeR program has helped to create a one-course experience for students.

Opportunities & challenges

Although I’m hopeful heading into the spring semester, I’m also aware of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

First and foremost teaching Univ106, in all of its many forms, has proven a wonderful opportunity for librarians to grow as educators. We have learned to see through the water along with our students, and will continue to learn how to teach in a way that students learn. It’s felt like a cultural shift in librarian identity; my colleagues and I have truly seen ourselves as responsible for students becoming information literate, and therefore had to fully embrace our role as campus educators. Having instructional partners in the English Department, and seeing our teaching from their perspective, has also positively influenced the way we see ourselves as educators.

But with the ultimate goal of reaching all incoming freshman, the task is a bit daunting with finite resources; good teaching takes time and effort. I’m not sure that we’ll ever be able to match Univ106 with all 70 sections of Engl102, but the challenge is there. We would need to develop a scaleable model of course design and delivery that doesn’t take us backwards when it comes to student learning.

Some librarians have expressed interest in matching a Univ106-like-course to key courses in their disciplines. This is a wonderful idea, one that would tier the library instruction program to reach our goal of graduating information literate students. But we can’t be everywhere and do everything, so our course offerings will need to grow and balance over time. The ultimate goal is to have the academic library remain at the heart of teaching and learning on campus to ensure our relevancy as an academic unit and support student success in meaningful ways.

As a next step, we’ll begin an assessment project this spring to follow Univ106 students into future courses and beyond. We’ll be curious to see if students are able to transfer the foundational information literacy skills into their upper division coursework. The hope is to be better informed about what research abilities they’re expected to have in future courses, and we’ll use this insight to inform our course learning outcomes. We’ll see if they’re in fact able to see the water.

Instruction librarians are faced with the challenge of how to design and deliver an instructional program that meets information literacy learning goals. I’d like to hear about the efforts librarians are making at your own institution to address the information literacy needs of your students. I look forward to learning from your comments.

I’d like to thank Ellie Dworak, Emily Ford, Kim Leeder, Ellie Collier and Derik Badman for their insightful comments and helpful suggestions for this post.  And a special thanks to Kim Leeder for offering the opportunity to reflect on our work.