A Mentor/Research Model to Teach Library Skills: An Introduction to Database Searching

KAREN R. NISSEN, Assistant Librarian and DR. BARBARA A. ROSS, Instructor, and Director of Nursing Programs Indiana University Purdue University Columbus, Ind. Problem: How can we instruct students on using databases for finding information without confusing the search process with the writing process (topic formulation, etc.)? Question: Can database searching skills be taught independent of the writing assignment? Project: To teach database searching skills, students in the Nursing Research class were assigned to do a literature search for a faculty member or health care professional in the community. They were then asked to write up the results of the literature search process for their instructor and give the results of the search to their research mentor. Background on the Project This project has been an exploration in combining subject content, critical-thinking skills, library skills and interpersonal communication. It is common for students to experience confusion, doubt and uncertainty when confronted with a research and writing assignment. From extensive sampling of students' experiences in using the library, Mellon concluded that "when confronted with the need to gather information in the library for their first research paper, many students become so anxious that they are unable to approach the problem logically or effectively."[1] Oberman comments that the addition of electronic access "may indeed serve to magnify students' anxieties."[2] With remote (off site) access, students may often be trying to tackle the information-gathering aspect of research without the aid of librarians or instructors nearby to advise or make suggestions for appropriate databases and search strategies. Blandy & Libutti suggest an "apprentice-journeyman-master" approach to teaching library skills in this age of electronic scholarship. "In the apprenticeship-journeyman-master culture, students at every level need opportunities to apply concepts learned in class; they need to practice with the materials and methods of the discipline. The very crush of information available gives librarians new opportunities to work with faculty to build research assignments into every course, assignments not necessarily expressed as 5-7 pages on any topic."[3] The project described here is one of those attempts at providing an "apprenticeship" opportunity, where the students are given a "research assistant" assignment. The Assignment At the beginning of the spring semester the instructor invited faculty members and selected community professionals to participate in the program, which paired a student in the course with each volunteer, in a research "mentoring" relationship. This allowed the students to learn how to search databases with a structure that made the research technique and the database design more visible. The faculty and community mentors each had an area of research (related to health issues) that the student was to use in order to learn about database searching. Students each met with their assigned "researcher" to learn about the kind of information the person was interested in finding. Some of the research requests included: funding for free clinics, historical aspects of the 1918 Mexican influenza outbreak, clinical enhancement programs, atrial fibrillation, community health profiles, kidney disease and caffeine, and acetaminophen toxicity. During the initial meeting with their research mentor students were to ask about the research, what search terms the researcher suggested and what kinds of questions they could use to focus the search. Students also had a one-hour library overview session with a librarian, which covered the broad range of resources available including the online catalog and various online and CD-ROM databases. The online catalogs and indices were not demonstrated, nor were mechanics of the electronic resources emphasized. Rather, the emphasis was on finding the appropriate subject terms, developing a list of terms and ways to limit the search. Students were encouraged to use the Library of Congress' Subject Headings indexes and subject encyclopedias to find subject headings, subject subdivisions and various descriptors used in their area of assigned research. Use of the World Wide Web was discussed to give students background information on how the structure and information on the Web differs from commercial databases and research tools. The students used the information from the research mentor and the information from the library overview to begin searching various databases. Because the students did not have to formulate the questions, or decide on the initial search terms they were able to concentrate on the search process. The end result of the research project was to write about which databases they used, what they found, how they manipulated the search terms, and what they learned in the process of being "research assistants." In many ways, just the act of searching a database and interacting with some form of information organization was part of the goal. Reporting on unsuccessful searches was as important as finding a lot of information as this was also an effort to introduce students to "real world" research. As Martin comments, "It would be useful for students to comprehend a research model that accurately describes the gap between the rational model seen in their texts and the anarchic model subject to dead-ends, serendipity, and hunches that more often prevails."[4] What were the results of this format of library research instruction? For many of the students, this was an initial exposure to how working professionals use information and what kind of information they need. In summary comments, students indicated that they had learned about "doing research," about "computer skills," about "composing a search strategy," about "how to expand or narrow the topic" and about "identifying research problems." The Process Students were able to use terms from the research mentors and combine them in different strategies. Databases the students used most often were Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), InfoTrac Expanded Academic Index, Health Reference InfoTrac, and Medline. The written papers indicated that several students found that they needed to add qualifying terms to one or two basic terms in order to find pertinent information. Some students returned to their research mentors with preliminary results and were then able to refine the search based on additional conversations. One student dismissed her first search strategy as too broad and began limiting her search to very specific terms only to conclude that the articles she found in her earlier search were actually better: "In the future, it will be important to remember to be less specific, and to investigate some of the general terms even though on first glance they may seem too broad. It could be, as in this search process, that these will be the very terms that point the searcher in the correct direction." Another student concluded that "it may be easy to sit at a computer and type in words but to make them meaningful and your search worthwhile was very difficult. I had to quit and try again at a different time because I felt stuck and could not think of anymore new key terms." One student returned to the library to do an additional search after talking with another student about using CINAHL and on her return visit she "sought assistance from the library staff." As Bandy & Libutti note, "Although finding relevant information is likely to be speeded up by automation, the necessary conditions of reflection, making sense, and building mental constructs take time." In response to the confusion, doubt and apprehension that students often experience, Kuhlthau proposes that "once students understand that research is not a linear process, they can proceed with reassurance and security. By understanding the process, students will be better prepared to be successful."[5] The actions and strategies identified by Kuhlthau to overcome the feelings of uncertainty include finding and reading additional information, identifying relevant subject terms and taking notes about the information found. One student's comment on the written paper indicates this process, "... even though this was stressful it was also fun and interesting reading some of the articles." The Results Excerpts from the students' written reports tell us about their learning experience, reinforcing the need for librarians and faculty to continue to collaborate on providing opportunities to promote the skills of inquiry and the traditions of scholarship, as these "two layers form the most permanent competencies and those that best teach and require levels of formal reasoning."[3] Some students commented that when they went to talk to their researcher they had "no idea" what the researcher was talking about. In more than one instance, by the end of the project, the students' comments indicated that they found the topic interesting and they appreciated being able to talk with their research mentors who were ordinary people in need of information: "We got to sit down and discuss the real parts of research and how important it is to humankind." This project has been an example of active learning, implementing critical-thinking skills, communication skills and library skills. It models the spirit of the statement of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Standards for Accreditation: "Each institution should foster optimal use of its learning resources through strategies designed to help students develop information literacy. It should encourage the use of a wide range of non-classroom resources for teaching and learning. It is essential to have an active and continuing program of library orientation and instruction in accessing information, developed collaboratively and supported actively by faculty, librarians, academic deans, and other information providers."[6] And it supports the central tenet of information literacy, that "ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn." Karen Nissen has a Masters in Library Science from Indiana University, and is Assistant Librarian at the IUPU campus. She is responsible for reference, bibliographic instruction and computer resources in the library. She also provides electronic mail and World Wide Web instruction for students, faculty, and staff and is responsible for creating and managing documents on the IUPU Columbus' Web site. E-mail: knissen@indyvax.iupui.edu Barbara Ann Ross' education includes an Ed.D. from University of Cincinnati (Curriculum & Instruction), and an MSN degree from University of California, San Francisco (as a Neurological Clinical Specialist). She is currently the Director of Nursing Programs for Indiana University School of Nursing in Columbus and teaches nursing students in the ASN and BSN programs at IUPU Columbus. In the course described in the article (Nursing Research), her focus is on fostering critical thinking through written assignments that require problem identification, literature searching and decision making with support for proposed resolution. E-mail: baross@indyvax.iupui.edu References: 1.Mellon, C. A. (1986), "Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development," College & Research Libraries, 47(2), pp. 160-165 2.Oberman, C. (1991), "Avoiding the Cereal Syndrome, Or Critical Thinking in the Electronic Environment," Library Trends, 39(3), pp. 189-202 3.Blandy, S. G. & Libutti, P.O. (1995), "As the Cursor Blinks: Electronic Scholarship and Undergraduates in the Library," Library Trends, 44(2), pp. 279-305 4.Martin, J. (1981), "A Garbage Can Model Of The Psychological Research Process," American Behavioral Scientist, 25(2), pp. 131-151 5.Kuhlthau, C. C. (1988), "Developing a Model of the Library Search Process: Cognitive and Affective Aspects," RQ, 28(2), pp. 232-242 6.Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. Commission on Higher Education (1994), Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education. Standards for Accreditation, Philadelphia, PA: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. Companies or products mentioned: Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), a database; Cinahl Information Systems, Glendale, Calif., (800) 959-7167, http://www.cinahl.com/COROM.html InfoTrac Expanded Academic Index, Health Reference Center, Information Access Co., Foster City, Calif., (800) 227-8431, http://www.iacnet.com Medline; National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Md., (800) 638-8580, http://www.nlm.nih.gov Additional References: American Library Association (1989), Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Final report. Chicago, IL: American Library Association. Library Instruction Round Table, American Library Association (1995), Information for a New Age: Redefining the Librarian, Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc. Kuhlthau, C. (1991), "Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User's Perspective," Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), pp. 361-371. Niles, N. & Jacobson, T.E. (1991), "Teaching Critical Thinking in Libraries: A Continuing Education Course," Research Strategies, 9(Fall), pp. 198-201. Rader, H. B. (1995), "Information Literacy and the Undergraduate Curriculum," Library Trends, 44(2), pp. 270-278. Rubens, D. (1991), "Formulation Rules for Posing Good Subject Questions: Empowerment for the End-user," Library Trends, 39(3), pp. 271-298.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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