We live in the Information Age, and "information" is increasing at a rapid pace. We have the Internet, television, radio, and other information resources available to us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Because of resources like the Internet, finding high-quality information is now harder than ever, not easier! Finding the good stuff is not always quick!
(California Academic and Research Libraries Task Force, 1997)
And the good stuff does not always come cheaply, either! In short, to make it in today's Information Age, you have to be even smarter-- not dumber--than your typewriter-schlepping predecessors! To make matters worse, just because you know how to use a particular information technology today does not mean that there is not another one right behind it that you will have to learn how to use tomorrow!
Once seemingly exotic technologies like "word processing" and "electronic mail" are now commonplace, but at one time, they were amazing and revolutionary. Although the results of these previous studies provided some indication of what our study would reveal, we felt that the uniqueness of the prefocus essay assignment, which targets just the topic-formulation component of the research process, might shed new light on the approach to research and the challenges encountered by Colgate students in particular.
During the fall semester, student prefocus essays were solicited from faculty who had assigned it.
From the 90 students essays collected, an anonymized, stratified random sampling yielded a final set of 40 essays from eight different courses in the Arts and Social Sciences. Additionally, the researchers gathered copies of the assignment prompts from each of the participating course instructors, since there was some variation among faculty regarding how they set up this assignment for their students.
All classes received a library instruction session, although not always by the same librarian. The student sample breakdown was as follows: 15 first years, 18 sophomores, 1 junior, and 6 seniors.
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While we were fairly unfamiliar with the software, it was recommended by campus faculty who were engaged in qualitative analysis in their own research and teaching. With the assistance of two sociology professors, 4 we acquired familiarity with the functionality of this tool and, and after doing some practice coding on sample student essays written in prior semesters, we dived in, developing a coding scheme and testing intercoder reliability. One frequent problem was the inability to narrow their topic from a broad, overarching topic to something more specific. Of those surveyed, The reasons for this issue were confusion and mismanagement of time.
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Forty-three percent of those who were unsuccessful thought they had narrowed their topic but, in reality, still had a very broad topic. Students are not spending enough time with the search tools to learn how to use them well. Instead, they made decisions about their results based on quick and superficial ways of searching. In terms of keyword choice, the prefocus essays had examples of repeating the same limited terms in multiple databases or of students using very complex or focused initial search terms.
These ineffective search strategies were perceived by students as paucity of information on a topic rather than any weakness in their search skills.
This often quickly led them to turn to Google as an alternative search tool. Looking back on whether this high-effort assessment generated correspondingly valuable results, our thoughts are predominantly positive. Our study yielded many benefits, including direct insight into student research practices, as well as baseline data upon which to build possible future replications of the study. Retrospectively, we recognize some weaknesses in our study, such as small sample size, unequal representation across the first-year to senior spectrum, and no control group.
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Nevertheless, the results gave us a number of things to consider regarding how we conduct our library instruction sessions:. For anyone considering using content analysis of student work for their information literacy assessment, we would recommend a less-is-more approach.
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The scale of our original vision was much too large given the amount of time it takes to develop a coding scheme, read each student artifact at least twice, do the actual coding in a thoughtful manner, and then compile the results. If we opt to replicate this assessment effort, we will use fewer codes and tighten our focus, perhaps targeting only problems that students encounter when conducting research.
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It is also important to stay organized in terms of labels, files versions, etc. Our assessment would have benefitted from more practice with MAXQDA and the methodology prior to beginning the formal analysis. We now better understand how to mitigate our ambitiousness and structure the schema to address specific issues. Even if results echo earlier studies, the value of this project was that it exposed unique issues that impact our student body. Colgate librarians will use these results to inform future assessment initiatives and to structure discussions around our pedagogy. Jesi Buell and Lynne Kvinnesland Exploring information literacy assessment Content analysis of student prefocus essays Jesi Buell is instructional design and web librarian, email: jbuell colgate.
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