Freshman Research Paper - The Courtship Rituals of College Students

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Learning Outcomes

Students should gain familiarity with the following elements of information literacy and specific information resources.

Information Literacy:

  • The need to narrow a research topic to manageable size.
  • The bewildering disorganization and quantity of information available on the Internet.
  • How to evaluating Internet sources.
  • How to frame a research question.
  • The relative advantages of scholarly, popular, and professional content types.
  • How to use controlled vocabulary, Boolean operators, filters, etc.


  • The Internet.
  • Sources of background or editorial information like specialized encyclopedias.
  • A journal aggregator or article database.
  • The library catalog.


"You have to write a paper by Friday and you have to find and use ten different books or articles for it. Your professor doesn't care what you write about, but you almost wish that she'd just assign a topic because you can't think of anything. Then your roommate keeps you up all night telling you all the twists and turns of their love life and asking your advice. While they drone on and on your attention wanders to that paper you have to write. Suddenly it hits you: if you're going to be everyone's love guru you might as well get credit for it--you'll write a paper on the courtship rituals of college students."

A major difficulty in applying the case method to teaching first-year or general education students is in finding a scenario sufficiently relevant to capture their interest. In this case, while the topic may not be relevant to individual students' educational objectives, it may generate interest on a personal level, especially if presented in a humorous light.

As an attention grabber the librarian may run humorous clips from movies like Disney's WALL-E[1] or Hitch with Will Smith and Kevin James[2] during the minutes before the session officially starts.

Before introducing the topic the librarian might also ask the students to share some of the funniest pick-up lines they've ever heard.

Preliminary Discussion

The librarian can ask students where they turn to when they need to find information. Typical answers will include the Internet, Google, and Wikipedia. Students should be invited to perform an Internet search on "dating." The librarian can then introduce principles of Internet literacy (such as accuracy, authority, currency, and bias) by asking questions about the kinds of results students find and their potential as sources for a paper. This also provides an opportunity to demonstrate the vast quantities of information available and the need to narrow the topic to something more specific.

Narrowing the Topic

After demonstrating the need to narrow the topic the librarian can recommend a variety of credible resources that may provide introductory or background information, providing just enough familiarity with the subject that students can decide which direction to follow with this topic. Possible sources include Internet sites like Wikipedia, or specialized reference titles like Dating and Sexuality in America (2003) by Jeffrey S. Turner, part of ABC-CLIO's Contemporary World Issues series. Databases providing content at this level are another good source, such as CQ Researcher or Gale's Opposing Viewpoints Research Center.

If the librarian demonstrates an online resource that multiple users can access, students should be invited to spend several minutes using the resource to explore the topic of dating. Several volunteers can be invited to point out items they found interesting and explain which aspect of dating it might lead them to focus on.

Framing a Research Question

The librarian should select an idea from one of the volunteers and use it to re-frame the research problem. For example, rather than just the courtship rituals of college students, the narrowed topic might be dating and academic performance among college students. Students may find it helpful to couch the topic as a question: "Does college students' dating activity level impact their academic performance?" Students can then think of their research process as the quest to find an answer to this question, and the resulting paper or presentation as an expression of that answer.

Scholarly Resources

The librarian can now focus students' attention on resources that will help them delve further into the narrowed topic. This is a good opportunity to discuss the differences between scholarly and non-scholarly resources, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of books, newspaper articles, magazine articles, and peer-reviewed articles.

Either Google Scholar or an index or full-text database containing scholarly journals with relevant content should be demonstrated, preferably one that allows the demonstration of controlled vocabulary, Boolean operators, filters, and other tools. Students should then be given time to explore the database, with the purpose of finding articles that would help provide an answer to the research question. Several should be invited to share their discoveries.

Non-Scholarly Resources (Optional)

If appropriate to the students' needs, a resource for non-scholarly articles could also be demonstrated. Students could be given time to explore this resource, with the task of finding articles that demonstrate the strengths of such sources, such as currency or coverage of tightly focused topics.

Depending on the resources used, this section could be combined with the previous section.


The librarian should also demonstrate how to identify relevant books, find them in the library, and determine whether they are scholarly and whether other issues, such as bias, may affect the content.

Wrap Up

To conclude the librarian should rehearse the progress made in narrowing the topic and framing it as a research question. While doing so the librarian should reiterate the principles of information literacy discovered, using the examples provided by student volunteers as evidence when possible. Students should be reminded that different approaches or strategies may be more appropriate for other topics, but that those principles of information literacy still apply. Finally, students should be pointed to handouts or library web pages where they can find additional resources similar to those explored in class, including subject-specific resources.

Ideally there will be significant time remaining for students to begin pursuing their individual research interests, practicing the techniques taught during the session. This will solidify their learning and make it more personally relevant.


Because it can be difficult to apply the case method for students who may not yet have developed a keen research interest in any particular field, the librarian must be sufficiently prepared to accommodate the students' in whichever direction their ideas and participation takes the session. This, and good humor, provides the best hope for maintaining student engagement, without which the opportunity to impart principles of information literacy will be lost.

Submitted By

Andy Spackman (with thanks to Kimball Benson for his advice)
Business and Economics Librarian
Brigham Young University

Originally Submitted: October 8, 2009