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Case 3
The Use of Reflective Research Journals in a 1st Year Information Literacy Module


Dr. Claire McGuinness






School of Information and Library Studies, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.

3.1 Context

This method was used as part of the assessment protocol for a new 1st year module, which was offered for the first time in September 2005 by the School of Information and Library Studies (SILS) in University College Dublin (UCD), Belfield. The course, entitled Introduction to Information Literacy, constitutes a compulsory, core module for students majoring in Information Studies in the undergraduate Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Social Science (BSocSc) and BA (Computer Science) degree programmes, and is also available as an elective module for 1st year students on other degree programmes, as per the new UCD Horizons modularisation structure. The duration of the course is 12 weeks, with two hours of contact class time per week. Students of the module are also required to attend a one-hour tutorial every second week, equalling five in total for the entire module. As the student enrolment for the course is 100+, the primary teaching method is lectures, with one hands-on searching session in a computer laboratory.

Introduction to Information Literacy aims to foster and develop basic information skills among 1st year students, with the overall objective of enabling them to complete information tasks successfully in the academic context and beyond. The module was developed in response to concerns expressed, both in the research literature and by colleagues, about the preparedness of incoming 1st year students with regard to researching and writing academic essays, particularly from an information-seeking perspective. It was felt that the essay-writing assignments undertaken in secondary school require a different form of research, and that consequently, students were arriving in university unequipped with the information skills required to complete an academic essay of acceptable quality. Students’ unfamiliarity with the structures of scholarly communication, their lack of knowledge of citation and referencing conventions, unintentional (or intentional) plagiarism, and an inability to approach information from a critical-analytic perspective were just some of the issues causing concern, particularly in a world where the use of the unregulated World Wide Web to satisfy information needs has become commonplace. Similarly, more basic literacy issues such as, poor spelling, syntax and grammar were also felt to be causing problems.

The module is essentially task-based, and structured around the process of information problem-solving in a step-by-step sequence, including recognizing and articulating information needs, evaluating potential information sources, choosing appropriate sources from the available range, searching and manipulating a variety of information media to access and retrieve required information, assessing the retrieved information for bias and relevance, and synthesizing the gathered information to complete the information task and produce an acceptable final product.

Introduction to Information Literacy is unique in that it represents a full collaboration between academic staff from SILS, and information professionals from UCD library, who designed and delivered a number of the information-seeking and library-oriented sessions for the module.

3.2 Learning Outcomes being Assessed

On completion of this module students should be able to:

3.3 Assessment Procedures/Details

Three forms of assessment were used for the module:

Students were asked to keep the journal for 10 weeks, starting in the third week of the term. Weekly entries, which were in the region of 100 words, covered five categories:

  1. goals: what the student intended to cover that week;
  2. activities: what the student actually accomplished that week;
  3. readings: any information sources referred to during the week;
  4. problems: students were asked to outline honestly any difficulties encountered with the research process; and
  5. reflection: this category provided space for students to reflect on the experience of research, and how they believed they were coping with the task. This was a creative category, designed to tap into the students’ awareness of themselves as researchers.

The journals were completed outside of class time, to allow the students the requisite time and space to engage in focused reflection, and to adequately convey their thoughts in writing. The students were also asked to include any interesting appendices that they felt were appropriate, such as concept maps, newspapers articles, print-outs of search strategies, etc. The final week’s entry consisted of a series of evaluative questions, designed to uncover the students’ feelings about the research process and the journal itself, and the extent to which they believed the latter had been useful to them (or not).

3.4 Strengths and Limitations

3.4.1 Strengths

3.4.2 Limitations

3.5 Contributor’s Reflections on the Assessment

Despite the logistical problems it generated, the research journal provided wonderful insight into how students cope with researching and writing academic essays. Motivated students responded to the task with immense creativity, producing deeply personal and honest accounts of their experiences. The journal demonstrated the iterative, and often frustrating, process of searching for relevant information, and using it to develop strong arguments.

The main problem, however, concerned students who appeared unmotivated and resistant towards the journal concept. Despite the instructor’s emphasis that this was ultimately a creative exercise, several students complained about the lack of precise guidelines, and expressed the wish to be told exactly how to go about it. Students also observed that they found it difficult to update the journal weekly, due to workload pressures and because they felt they had nothing to write about in the weeks where there was very little research activity. Other students simply lacked the confidence to express themselves openly in the journals.

A proposed change for the forthcoming academic year will see the students submitting sections of the journal on a two- or three-weekly basis, in order to ensure sustained effort, and to spread the workload for those grading the journals. This will also have the effect of changing the assessment from summative to formative, which should ideally highlight areas requiring further attention in class.

3.6 Bibliography