WHYs before the event

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I have long suggested that students will more readily understand the conventions of citing and referencing if they understand WHY we do it, WHY they are asked, expected and required to do it.  HOW to do it is necessary, but knowing WHY we do it gives purpose, can even make it fun.

When I “crowd-source” the reasons WHY we cite and reference, in classrooms and in workshops, the group usually comes up with the main reasons between them. That is good. But there is no guarantee that any one individual in the room appreciates all of those reasons – as evidenced perhaps by my questioner in Qatar, a story I relate in Lighten the load, “Is referencing taken as seriously at university as it is in this school?”

Trouble is, for many students, the notions of building on what has gone before, showing the trail which has led to our present thinking or contributing to an academic conversation are just too abstract to appreciate. This is so, even at university level, as suggested by David Brent’s paper (see It takes time) on 4th year students’ understanding of the purposes of academic writing and research.

Now, Susan Merrick has pointed me to a paper Teaching information literacy through “un-research” by Allison Hosier which makes me rethink my approach (thank you, Susan).  Hosier describes a unit she used with a group of first-year university students.  Faculty felt that, in their research projects, many students often seemed to treat all information as equal; the quality or credibility of the source was not a factor in deciding whether or not to use information or ideas found.

This came across in an annotated bibliography exercise,  where “Essentially meaningless comments such as, “This source is good for my research because it relates to my topic,” and “This is a good source because it comes from the library,” were common” (127). These students seemed to have little appreciation of how the information or ideas affected the student’s own thinking or might be used in furthering arguments or conversation.

Hosier’s approach was to ask students to undertake an un-research project.  Students were first asked to write a short essay on any subject but

  • They were not to do any research, checking, looking up;
  • They were not to cite any sources (because they were not using sources);
  • They were not to quote anything (again because they were not using sources);
  • They were not to worry about or check for accuracy (130).

They had to use what they already knew, and were permitted to throw in ideas they were only half-sure of, or even to make up information if they needed to.

Then came an annotated bibliography exercise, but with a difference. They had to

  • Select a source supporting a point made in the un-research essay and explain how that source supported the point;
  • Select a source adding something new, again explaining how this information affected the essay;
  • Select a source which contradicted information or which offered a different opinion, this time explaining how this source could be brought into the essay;
  • Select a quotation from any of the sources which would add further support to the point/s being made (130-131).

This transformed the exercise. No longer were students just looking for information, they were looking for information with intent, looking for relevant information.  They were beginning to appreciate how to build on what was already known or thought and that they might need to engage in conversation (or argument) in support of their own thoughts.  They appreciated that, without citations, the information and ideas given in their original essays was of little value because the accuracy of the content could not be directly trusted or verified.

Hosier’s project was small-scale, only 7 students took part, but it was useful. For me, it was illuminating.  It is starting where many students are, it has point, and it gets beyond the wisdom of the crowd and gives each individual students added opportunity to understand.

It is worth noting that there is not a single use of the P-word in the whole paper, no mention of academic honesty.  It is all about academic writing and scholarship, about the purpose of academic writing.  Academic writing is not about showing off what we know. It’s about contributing to the conversation.

I would like to try this activity in the classroom or in an academic writing workshop. It could lead into a discussion of “Scholarship as Conversation” and make the notion less abstract, more meaningful.

I am tempted to get students to read each other’s essays, get them asking each other the “How do you know this?” and “Do you have evidence for that?” type-questions. Would this detract from their self-reflection?  Possibly. I’ll ponder this, and discuss with other teachers too. (If you, gentle reader, have opinions, please voice them as comment at the end of this piece.)

One other activity I’d like to try, perhaps after doing this activity and as another form of reflection: I would ask students to draw a picture to illustrate the notion “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  I think this too could lead to fruitful discussion and again make the concept less abstract.

As I write this, I become more and more aware of my own education. Essays were expected of us and we were expected to read beyond the textbook. The only requirement by way of attribution was to include, at the end, a list of all the sources we had used. There was no expectation to cite, in the text at point-of-use, what bit of information came from where.  When I tell this to workshop participants, teachers much younger than me, many will nod in recognition, this is how they too were taught. Some will say that this is still the practice in their own schools, at least until grade 11 and the IB years.  And this, alas, is not academic writing. It is not preparation for academic writing either, is it?

Understanding WHY – it’s a springboard to learning HOW.


Hosier, A, (2015). Teaching information literacy through “un-research,”  Communications in Information Literacy 9 (2), 126-135. Downloaded from http://www.comminfolit.org/index.php?journal=cil&page=article&op=view&path%5B%5D=v9i2p126

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