[Skip!] [Why?]

Case 12
Learning to Do by Doing: Understanding Observation Methods through Participation


Dr. Crystal Fulton






UCD School of Information & Library Studies (SILS), University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.

12.1 Context

Librarians and Information Seeking in the 21st Century Workplace is an advanced seminar module, open to postgraduate and 3rd year students and offered through the University College Dublin (UCD) School of Information and Library Studies. The module trains librarians and information professionals to understand and, thereby, to act as intermediaries in the information worlds of a variety of work groups, in particular, professionals, such as, medical professionals, engineers, lawyers, etc., who work in both traditional and flexible work environments. The students explore theories of information behaviour and landmark and current information behaviour research and then apply this knowledge to information services in different work contexts and to their research into the information behaviour of these groups. By understanding the information behaviour of a given clientele, information professionals are better prepared to respond to the information needs of that group.

The main teaching and learning method involves seminar meetings, which are discussion-based, with the students and the instructor reading widely and then meeting to explore the readings together. The assessment for the module involves a first-hand, small piece of research where the student implements an observation method, as explored in class and in readings, with a particular group. The students are expected to frame their observational research in one or more theories of information behaviour from the field of Library and Information Science. The project prepares students to explore the information behaviour of a group, so that they can implement a similar exploration in the workplace in such activities as needs assessments of clientele.

12.2 Learning Outcomes being Assessed

Whether students continue their studies as a researcher or enter the workforce as an information professional, they will, at some point, find themselves conducting research firsthand. The purpose of this assignment is to provide students with the opportunity to explore the information behaviour of a particular group in an alternative workplace or information environment and to analyze that information behaviour using theoretical frameworks from the field of Library and Information Science, fulfilling the following learning outcomes for the overall module:

12.3 Assessment Procedures/Details

12.3.1 Class preparation for the assessment

In preparation for the assessment, the students read about observation and discuss these readings together in class. Different forms and approaches to observation as a research method are reviewed (e.g., unobtrusive observation, participant observation); the students identify and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. The students then put the lesson into practice. The instructor and the students, as a group, enter a predetermined space and try out their observational skills together and as individuals. After this practice session, the class meets to review lessons learned from the field and to consider best practices for observation on theoretical and practical levels. As the assessment continues and the students move to the individual assessment phase (outlined below), the assessment is discussed periodically in class to review their progress. This discussion allows the instructor to assist individuals and encourages the students to share their experiences with each other.

12.3.2 Individual assessment

Students are given the following instructions to complete the assignment:

Assessment instructions

Select a theory or framework for study from the module text: Theories of Information Behavior. Eds. K.E. Fisher, S. Erdelez, and E.F. McKechnie. ASIS&T Monograph Series. Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc., 2005.

Select a user group and a context in which to study this group, e.g., staff in a hospital waiting room, lawyers in a courtroom, taxi drivers, dog racers, delivery people on bicycles, etc. Be creative!

Using your selected means of observation, visit your user group in context and explore their information behaviour. Be sure to read about the different means of observing people and plan your approach carefully before you enter the field. Observation for this project may be conducted in one or multiple visits, but the overall observation time must be at least six hours long.

Write a research report in which you address the following questions:

Structure of final report Your finished report should take the form of a formal research report (maximum 20 pages, 1” margins, 12pt font, typed, double spaced), including title page, references, and appendices.

Oral presentation of research Each person will have 10 minutes in the final class to present her/his research project to the class. No overheads are necessary; however, you should consider this a “Research Forum,” in which other researchers will comment on your approach and findings.

Grading 80% Written Report; 20% Presentation of Research Project.

12.4 Strengths and Limitations

12.4.1 Strengths

The assessment transcends the traditional essay. First-hand observation enables the students to participate actively in their learning and to deepen their commitment as stakeholders in their education and research activities. Implementing observation techniques enables the students to put ideas about theory and methodologies into practice. The assessment provides opportunities for continuous informal and formal feedback throughout the learning process. Learned research skills help to build a foundation for the students’ ongoing thesis research in our programme, as well as, for research work after graduation. Students, in particular those enrolled in programmes with a thesis component, are encouraged to consider the assessment as a pilot or exploratory piece of research for a thesis project.

12.4.2 Limitations

This is a time-intensive assessment, which works best with small groups. That is not to say that the assessment cannot work in larger classes; however, some reorganization is necessary with larger classes. For example, larger classes might be broken into small groups that may then co-ordinate their research work and report back to the class.

12.5 Contributor’s Reflections on the Assessment

12.5.1 Student reactions

Students have responded very positively and enthusiastically to this assessment. They have found the assessment exciting, because it offered them a change from the traditional essay-style assessment. By enabling students to take an active role in their learning, they have taken control of their learning. Their first-hand experience with observational techniques has enabled them to identify applications for this research approach in their future work.

12.5.2 Transferring to other contexts

This form of assessment is likely to work well in a variety of other educational contexts, including sociology, medicine, natural science, education, etc., wherever observation is an important part of research and professional training. This assessment will not only help researchers to use observation techniques, but will also help prepare professionals to provide better service in their workplaces through improved observational skills.

12.5.3 Advice to instructors

Success with this assessment depends on treating the assessment as part of the wider learning process in a given module. It is essential to prepare the students with an understanding of observation, techniques, ethical considerations, and data collection and analysis before the assessment begins and on an ongoing basis throughout the assessment. Critically, the students must feel confident to explore and to learn by doing. As a result, ongoing discussion of the observations completed, challenges encountered, and data gathered are all essential to encouraging the students to continue to achieve to their maximum potential throughout the exercise.

12.5.4 Validity/reliability issues

Using a hands-on approach to understanding a research approach reinforced the students’ learning. By offering the students the opportunity to put classroom learning into action, the students gained confidence and were empowered to conduct their own research. The learning in this assessment promises to have a far-reaching impact, laying a strong foundation for students’ future research work in our school’s programme and in their own future research endeavours.

12.5.5 Resource implications

The main requirement for this assessment is time. Instructors should plan adequate time to discuss observation as a group before the class embarks on the assessment, but also time to touch base with students as they progress through the process of collecting observational data and analyzing their findings. The assessment requires a few texts. A sample list is provided below; however, this list could be lengthened or modified to suit the specific needs of a particular discipline (e.g., Fisher et al. might be replaced with another text related to a given discipline).

12.6 Bibliography