Sunday, September 18, 2016

Student Research Habits, Social Justice in Information, and Balancing Concepts and Skills

In my INFO 254 Information Literacy and Learning course, we were given a menu of discussion board prompts to respond to this week, and I was immediately drawn to one regarding a 2010 Inside Higher Ed article "Searching for Better Research Habits" by Steve Kolowich. The discussion in this article resonated with thoughts I have been considering lately regarding research instruction.

For instance, the initial portion of the article mentions how students do not understand the way a Google search functions and how they practically suggest that it works like “magic.” This reminds me of a session that I attended during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference. The UCLA professor Safiya Umoja Noble spoke on the topic: Toward an Ethic of Social Justice in Information. In her remarks, she brought up how people commonly and falsely assume that Google searches are unbiased. She provided a number of examples that shed light on how we might critically regard the search results that we are returned (to read more, check out Noble’s dissertation “Searching for Black Girls: Old Traditions in the New Media”), and challenged the assumptions and stereotypes that are perpetuated through corporate algorithms.

In a Research Toolkit resource that my Teacher Librarian colleagues and I have created (and plan to continue to refine), we feature a Searching Google Smartly page that includes technical tips about how to use search filters and an advanced search. However, we also include a section on “Understanding How Google Works,” which links to two resources that I have found to be interesting and helpful: an infographic Learn How Google Works: In Gory Detail and video How Search Works.

Along the lines of trying to help students focus more on concepts, I also developed an infographic regarding looking at types of information. Here is the toolkit page on it and the standalone infographic. The reason I was prompted to create this was because I had a difficult time finding resources that did more than look at information in terms of A) primary, secondary, tertiary or B) book, magazine, newspaper, journal, etc. While I may show students the technical skills of filtering search results in an online database by book, magazine, newspaper, journal, etc. - I feel that they also need this conceptual context.

Overall, though, my personal approach to instruction and the level of conceptual background that I delve into with students is not something that I consider to be a rigid formula. To me, it depends on their specific learning need, the scope of the assignment, the proficiency level of students, and the amount of time that I have with them. I hope to include conceptual information to some minimal degree no matter what, but sometimes I think that hard skills in terms of “click here” is necessary for them to experience success.

The end of the Kolowich article is a bit dismaying - although relatable - with some scholars determining that we are unlikely to change student search behaviors and need to work instead on improving our interfaces. While I think there is some truth to that, I still hope to influence my students to be skeptical and open to the information that they encounter (I love the idea of “skeptical and open” from our previous readings). Furthermore, acknowledging concerns raised by Noble, I believe we all must be vigilant when developing and using interfaces so that we may not only improve search effectiveness, but do so with mindfulness to identify and address biases in our systems.


  1. We like to start class with to stay sharp. Great post! Love the reflection.

    1. Thanks for reading and for your reply! It's great to hear that you're embedding daily practice!