Reframing Instruction: Get Messy

By Tasha Maddison
Librarian, Saskatchewan Polytechnic

As an instructor, I endeavour to incorporate active learning techniques and rely on the constructivist theory for my pedagogy; yet inevitably I find myself devoting the first 5-10 minutes of any class period to live demonstrations. Before class, I spend a significant amount of time carefully developing search strategies. These perfect search strings are then used to illustrate how databases work or the features and benefits of a particular tool.  I am careful to include points from the students’ upcoming class assignment, along with the advanced search techniques that I feel are appropriate for their level.  Developing and trialing these searches provides me an opportunity to prep as I develop knowledge of my subject area and discover how the tools for that discipline work. Yet this seamless, rehearsed demonstration of search tools fails to acknowledge to students that library research is an interactive process, one that involves many stops and starts, and which may result in unsuccessful searches.  Sure, I always throw in a joke about librarians being magicians, but is this enough?

I recently came across a powerful article that has challenged the way that I think about information literacy instruction and, in particular, demonstration vs. the development of critical thinking skills.  The article suggests that instead of performing a perfectly crafted search, librarians should demonstrate the “messy process of research as exploration” which reveals to the student “some of the key dispositions required of novice (and experienced) researchers: resilience, curiosity, and persistence” (p. 4).  This idea is based upon the new ACRL Framework which reinforces the principles of lifelong learning and reiterates that successful information literacy instruction cannot be accomplished in a single transaction with students.  Burgess’ ‘messy research process’ and the Framework tie together well, but what happens when librarians only have one opportunity to work with a class and feel pressured to ‘cover it all’?

Recently, I had an opportunity to test out this process of exploration.  I had a structured lesson plan with a search example in mind, but I let my students decide what we were going to search for and how we were going to conduct the search.  Together we built a search string with multiple concepts and a variety of potential synonyms.  We decided on a database and which limiters we would apply.  The result: success through failure?  We found nothing.  This failure provided me with a great opportunity to discuss the research process, as well as the necessity of tweaking ideas and concepts to ensure that search results are meaningful and relevant.  I even mentioned Burgess’ theory.  One of my students piped up, “nice save”—and indeed it was!  More, it helped me to communicate that everyone—even advanced searchers—need to process information and adjust our methodology to accomplish a successful search.

When discussing the Framework, Burgess (2015) encourages librarians to “evolv[e] instruction from a point-and-click database demo style to an engaged and interactive IL discussion with students. The instructor occupies the role of coach, animator, or advisor leading the discussion, while encouraging students to become active agents in their own learning” (p, 2).  Librarians can integrate the principles of the Framework into their teaching by fostering open dialogue within their classrooms.  We can create safe environments that allow for questions but also nurture peer learning.  One great example that comes to mind is when a student presents a challenging question to the class.  The instructor can respond with, “that is an interesting situation, has anyone else come across that?” and “how did you resolve that issue?”  Rather than inspiring panic in the library instructor, such questions can instead offer rich opportunities for experiential learning experiences!


Burgess, C. (2015). Teaching students, not standards: The new ACRL information literacy framework and threshold crossings for instructors. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 10(1), 1-6.  doi:10.21083/partnership.v10i1.3440

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

In The End, It All Starts With Really Good Questions!

by Angie Gerrard, Student Learning Services, University of Saskatchewan

While attending an experiential learning showcase on my campus a few weeks ago, I was struck by a common theme mentioned by several faculty presenters. Faculty who work with students undertaking original research projects noted that a common challenge for students was identifying a research question. A particular faculty member surveyed her students on their experiences with the course research project and students reported that articulating a research question was the most difficult part of the entire research project. An interesting side note is that students reported that analyzing their data was the most valuable part of the process.

The challenge of formulating research questions piqued my interest as a librarian as we are often on the front lines assisting students with the evolution of their topic as the research process unfolds. We often help students navigate the iterative processes of exploring a topic, brainstorming potential avenues of research, asking different questions, undertaking initial searches in the literature, narrowing the scope of a question or alternatively broadening the scope, all the while tweaking the research question and trying to avoid the dreaded ‘maybe I should just switch my topic’.  I often wonder if there is an understanding of the time commitment and perseverance required for these initial, complex processes in the research cycle.  Clearly, students are struggling with this, as shown above; this challenge was echoed in Project Information Literacy’s findings where they asked students what was most difficult about research; 84% reported that getting started was the most challenging (Project Information Literacy, n.d.).

We know that students struggle with these initial stages of the research process, so what can librarians and faculty do to help students get past the hurdle of formulating good research questions? Here are a few suggestions.

Be explicit about the process. Research is iterative, messy, and time-consuming and often students who are new to academic research may arrive with a more linear mental model of the research process. To illustrate that research is a process, it is powerful to show students how to take broad course-related research topics, break them down into potential research questions, discuss how the questions evolve once one gets a taste of the literature and how further refinement of the question takes place as the process continues. By being explicit about the process, students have a better understanding that the broad topic they start with often evolves into something much more meaningful, unexpected, or interesting.

Encourage curiosity in the research process. At the campus event I alluded to, when I asked faculty how they dealt with students’ struggles with identifying research questions, they all reported the importance of students picking something that interests them, something they are curious about.  Anne-Marie Deitering and Hannah Gascho Rempel (2017), librarians at Oregon State University, recognized the overwhelming lack of curiosity expressed by students in their study, when these students were asked to reflect on their own research process. In response, the authors recommend “that as instruction librarians we needed to enter the process earlier, at the topic selection stage, and that we needed to think more intentionally about how to create an environment that encourages curiosity” (pg 3). In their awesome paper, the authors discuss different strategies they used with first-year students to encourage curiosity-driven research.

Start with a juicy source or artifact! Chat with faculty and ask them to recommend a subject-specific editorial, news article, blog posting, etc. that is controversial and/or thought provoking.  These sources can be old or new; the point is that students start with intriguing sources, not a pre-determined list of research topics. Students examine the sources then begin to develop various lines of inquiry, which evolve into research questions.

Use the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). Although this technique was developed for the K-12 environment, the approach can be adapted to higher education and beyond.  The QFT has six steps, as summarized in the Harvard Education Letter:

  • Step 1: Teachers Design a Question Focus. This question focus is a prompt in any form (visual, print, oral) that is meant to pique students’ interests and stimulate various questions.
  • Step 2: Students Produce Questions. Students note questions following a set of four rules: ask as many questions as you can; do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; write down every question exactly as it was stated; and change any statements into questions.
  • Step 3: Students Improve Their Questions. Students identify their questions are either open- or closed-ended and flip the questions into the alternative form.
  • Step 4: Students Prioritize Their Questions. With the assistance of the teacher, students sort and identify their top questions. Students move from divergent thinking (brainstorming) to convergent thinking (categorizing and prioritizing).
  • Step 5: Students and Teachers Decide on Next Steps. This stage is context specific where students and teachers discuss how they are going to use the identified questions.
  • Step 6: Students Reflect on What They Have Learned. This final step allows for students to develop their metacognitive / reflective thinking (Rothstein & Santana, 2011).

Rothstein and Santana (2011) note that “(w)hen students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school. Typically, questions are seen as the province of teachers, who spend years figuring out how to craft questions and fine-tune them to stimulate students’ curiosity or engage them more effectively. We have found that teaching students to ask their own questions can accomplish these same goals while teaching a critical lifelong skill” (para. 3).

We know that formulating research questions can be a challenge for students. Being honest, explicit and transparent about this process may help students in tackling this challenge. I think we could all agree that encouraging curiosity in research and asking meaningful questions is not something that is confined to academia but rather are characteristics seen in lifelong learners.

In the end, it all starts with really good questions!


Deitering, A.-M., & Rempel, H. G. (2017, February 22). Sparking curiosity – librarians’ role in encouraging exploration. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Retrieved from

Project Information Literacy. (n.d.). Project Information Literacy: A national study about college students’ research habits [Infographic].  Retrieved from

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Teaching students to ask their own questions. Harvard Education Letter, 27(5). Retrieved from

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

The Library Researcher Series: A Team Approach to Planning and Teaching

by Tasha Maddison
Engineering Library, University of Saskatchewan

During the summer of 2012, a chance meeting of two science liaison librarians led to the creation and development of the initial Library Workshop Series for Scientists and Engineers. DeDe Dawson was eager to address the needs of graduate students and faculty – often these two groups do not receive library instruction and could benefit from sessions on literature searching and research productivity skills. I had just started as a liaison librarian and was eager to begin providing instruction and expand my contacts within the College of Engineering. The idea of providing a series sounded like a perfect opportunity for both of us. Although we acknowledged that the initial course offerings might appeal to a broader audience, we focused our pilot project on our primary areas of liaison work and targeted these graduate students and faculty members specifically in all promotion and marketing initiatives of the series. The series was launched that fall with an initial offering of four classes. All sessions were taught collaboratively and the series was repeated with two additional classes in the winter semester.

Building upon the initial success of the fall semester, the Library Instruction Interest Group piloted a concurrent series that offered RefWorks training in the winter semester of 2013. Based on the initial pilot project, the collaboration with the Library Instruction Interest Group, a planning team was formed and the Library Researcher Series was born. DeDe Dawson, Carolyn Doi, Vicky Duncan, Angie Gerrard, Maha Kumaran and Tasha Maddison are the founding and current members of the planning team. The team members represent five of the seven library branches which includes discipline coverage in the Sciences, Social Sciences, Education and Fine Arts. Due to the interdisciplinary approach to planning, the team is able to offer a series with a broader scope, as well as an expanded breadth and depth than the original pilot project. The team continues to utilize a collaborative approach to teaching, reaching out to librarians and other instructors in the university community to offer sessions as part of the series.

A core element of each series since the beginning has been the collection of statistics and feedback associated with each session. This evidence has shown us which sessions are popular and should be offered again, what additional sessions could be developed based on comments received, and how best to market our series. The data collected has also allowed us to document our successes! Since the fall semester of 2012, we have seen an increase in attendance each subsequent semester. Most recently, in the winter of 2014, we averaged 13 participants per session. We also worked hard to brand our series last year, creating a logo and consistent promotional materials such as posters and advertisements in On Campus News, the University of Saskatchewan’s newspaper. Our most successful marketing tool remains the direct emails which are sent to faculty and graduate students from liaison librarians.

Planning is currently underway for the fall of 2014 with a roster of approximately 21 classes being offered with topics such as: Comprehensive Literature Review (Part A – Subject Searching, Part B – Keyword Searching), Plagiarism, Scholarly Identity, Making the most of Google and Managing Citations Series (RefWorks, EndNote, Mendeley and Zotero). We are also exploring live streaming and recording some sessions. Part of each planning meeting is dedicated to a review of existing classes, deciding which ones to keep and when is the most suitable time for them to be offered again. We have generated a list of new topics which are added to the series when appropriate. Expressions of interest are also requested from our colleagues and instructors within our University community. Some classes are favourites and are offered every term, while others come and go from the series.

For more information, please see:

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.