Research for a Position Paper - Globalization
Students should gain familiarity with the following elements of information literacy and specific information resources.
- 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.
- Sources of background or editorial information like specialized encyclopedias.
- A journal aggregator or article database.
- The library catalog.
Darla has to write a position paper for her Freshman English course. She needs to pick a controversial topic and investigate the arguments on both sides, then write a paper explaining her own position on the issue, supported by a variety of secondary sources. Darla isn't sure what she wants to write her paper about, but she's heard a lot about globalization in the news and figures that's a good place to start. (The librarian may want to use a news story or video about protests over globalization at a recent WTO or G8 summit in order to capture students' attention.)
This is a common scenario in undergraduate education: Darla needs help researching and writing a paper on a topic she doesn't know much about and which may have little to do with her major. What's more, she may have little understanding of the types of information resources available to her and how to apply them to her project.
Asking students where they turn when they need to know something about anything usually results in answers like the Internet, Google, or Wikipedia. A Google search on "globalization" produces over 16 million results. This provides an opportunity to demonstrate the vast quantities of information available and the need to narrow the topic to something more specific. The opportunity may also be taken to demonstrate principles of information literacy relevant to the Internet, such as timeliness, credibility, bias, etc.
Narrowing the Topic
During the preliminary discussion it should be made clear that the first question Darla must ask herself is "What about globalization?" - which aspect of this vast topic does she want to focus on?
The librarian can discuss a variety of resources (including the aforementioned Internet sources) that will provide introductory or background information about globalization, giving Darla enough general knowledge to determine in which direction she wants to take her paper. Possibilities include specialized encyclopedias like Globalization: Encyclopedia of Trade, Labor, and Politics, edited by Ashish K. Vaidya and published by ABC-CLIO in 2006. 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 globalization. Putting themselves in Darla's shoes, several volunteers can be invited to point out items they found interesting and explain which aspect of globalization it might lead them to focus on.
Framing a Research Question
The librarian can select an idea from one of the volunteers and use it to re-frame the research problem. For example, rather than just globalization, the narrowed topic may be globalization and child labor. Students may find it helpful to couch the topic as a question: "Does globalization cause suffering by promoting child labor?" 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 their answer.
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.
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.
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 may 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.
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.
Experience has shown that freshmen with a general assignment like this may be better engaged if the librarian solicits a topic from them rather than using a "canned" topic like globalization. The outline of the case above can easily be adapted to any topic students might volunteer, though this will require greater confidence from the librarian in her ability to adequately cover resources appropriate to volunteered topics. Alternatively, during each "hands-on" portion of instruction students could be encouraged to use the tools to research their own topics. For instance, after giving students time to explore background resources the librarian can then ask for volunteers to say what their original topic was, what tool they used to learn more, what their narrowed topic will be, and how they will phrase it as a question. Then, after being given time to explore scholarly resources, students can volunteer to share their research question and samples of data or article titles they discovered that would be relevant. In this way different topics will be addressed at each step, but the overall process will remain relevant to all.
Originally Submitted: September 28, 2009