Library Services in Schools
Facilitating Research Projects: How input on the research process can benefit students, teachers, and librarians, improve research skills, and build stronger working relationships between you and your teachers.
Introduction Every day I encounter frustrated students in my library. Their teacher has handed out a research assignment, gone over a few key points, and turned them loose to process, organize, research, and turn out a finished project. Many times, they have little or no input in the selection of their topics or whether they work alone or in teams. They feel overwhelmed with the multitude of information resources available, are unsure what constitutes quality research, and simply end up googling the topic and turning out a basic fact-based paper. If they are given the chance to spend at least one class period with library instruction and guidance, and then allowed consecutive days in the library under the guidance of a teacher-librarian team, they are usually more confident, have more ownership of the project, and turn out much better results. This continued frustration of my students who were overwhelmed with the research process led me to ask probing questions of my role, the teacher’s role, and the student’s needs. These questions led to the creation of a simple online survey for students in grades 6 through 12. It is my hope that these results will foster more cooperative planning among the teachers and library instructional staff at our school. Methodology An online student survey was created and saved to a password-protected page on the library’s intranet at our school. Survey questions were drawn up by the librarian based on complaints and observations of student frustration in the library. Questions focused on the introduction of classroom research projects and included discussion of initial topic selection, beginning research, and the use of bibliography creator applications such as NoodleTools and EasyBib. Probability sampling was utilized to randomly select respondents in 6th through 12th grades. All survey answers remained anonymous. A total of 69 students took the online survey; 15 from the middle school and 54 from the high school. The online survey consisted of 19 questions, made up of 16 closed-ended and 3 open-ended responses.
Results of the survey
Category 1: Teacher-driven roles and the introduction of the research paper/project Questions 1 through 4 dealt with the teacher’s introduction of the research project and included research instructions, deadlines, and topic selection. Question 1 asks students what they consider to be the hardest part of beginning a research project. They were allowed to select as many answers as needed, including entering their own response if none of the choices represented them. Forty-three percent of the students felt that the hardest task when beginning a research project was that there were no topics on the teacher’s list that interested them. Thirty-one percent complained that there were too many instructions, which left them overwhelmed at the onset. Fifteen percent selected not understanding the assignment clearly, poor instructions, or not enough instructions to get started on their own. When asked to put in their own words what frustrated them the most, responses included not knowing where to begin, difficulty in selecting a topic, and not enough explanations from the teacher. In Question 2, students are asked what the teacher could do to help them feel less overwhelmed. Middle school students noted they needed clearer instructions, actual examples of finished projects, more personalized topic choices, and a better understanding of tasks involved. Upper school students articulated further that teachers should be sure students were familiar with the topics before assigning due dates, explain the topics on the list so they could make a more informed selection, give the students a few extra days for class discussion on the topics, set specific guidelines with due dates given in smaller increments, give more class and library time to work on the project at the beginning with teacher assistance, and clear, step-by-step instructions. One US student even suggested that perhaps before a teacher listed a topic, the teacher should be sure there would be sufficient and approved sources to do the research. Question 3 asks students how their research topics are usually assigned. Sixty-five percent said they usually had to select a topic from the teacher’s list. Only 19% said they were allowed to come up with their own topic. It was clear to me that if topic customization was offered at all, it occurred more in the high school setting. Only 9% said they were offered chances to personalize a topic on the list so that it better reflected their interests. Question 4 asks the students to comment on the typical format of research papers assigned. Fifty-seven percent said that the typical project was when the teacher wanted them to repeat facts on a subject without adding their personal opinion or reflection on the topic. Sixty-two percent of high school students selected this response and 43% of middle school students. Twenty-six percent said that the majority of projects allowed them to take a stand on an issue. Seventeen percent said that the majority of projects had allowed them to synthesize information and come up with a solution to a problem.
Category 2: Librarian-driven roles and locating information The next set of questions centered on traditional librarian-driven roles, including research time with their teachers in the library. When asked in Question 5 if their teachers usually scheduled a library review day so the librarian could show them where to located appropriate sources and create their bibliographies, 7% selected all of the time, 59% said most of the time, and 33% answered hardly ever. A mere 10% of high school students came all of the time, and 53% of middle schoolers said they hardly ever were given research instruction at the beginning of a project. Question 6 askeds the students if they are given consecutive research days in the library with their teacher present to assist them, how many days would they require to feel more confident in their work? Sixty-eight percent wanted 3 or more days. Only 11% of students felt that one day was enough. Questions 8 and 9 centers on the students’ ability to formulate effective search phrases and generate keywords on their topics. Eighty-three percent felt they were confident in their ability, but 91% said they did not know what Boolean operators were or used them on a regular basis.
Category 3: Quality of resource selection Question 7 asks students to select which resources they typically use to gather information for their research projects. Forty-three percent selected books, 46% encyclopedias, 22% used current information sources such as newspapers, newswires, and magazines, 11% used peer-reviewed journals, and 76% selected outside web pages. Both high school and middle school students selected web pages as their number one source of information. Question 10 asked them if they regularly used the index in the back of books to locate information on their topics, and 77% said they did all or most of the time. Question 11 asks students what percentage of the time they consider authority when determining what information resource to use. Sixty-five percent of the students said that either always or most of the time, authority was the determining factor in resource selection. Of that number, 67% of high school students and 60% of middle school students considered authority first. Question 12 asked if their teachers required that all of their resources have authority. Eighty-seven percent of the students selected always or most of the time, with 90% of high school and 87% of middle school students in agreement.
Category 4: Bibliographic Citation Question 13 centers on bibliographic citation and authority of information resources. Students were asked whether they had ever been required to create an Annotated Bibliography to justify, in their own words, the authority of a resource they selected. Eighty-nine percent said yes. Questions 14-15 are related to Noodle Tools, our school-approved MLA citation creator. When asked whether their teachers required they use Noodle Tools over other bibliography software, 50% selected always or most of the time. When asked if they used free bibliography software instead of the school-sponsored program, 36% said yes. 73% of the middle school students used other, non-approved, bibliography applications available free on the web. This number was high because unfortunately, most of our middle school faculty does not require the use of Noodle Tools as prescribed by the library and high school faculty. Question 16 is an open-ended question, asking students to explain what they feel is the most frustrating part of creating a bibliography. High school students showed less frustration with the mechanics of Noodle Tools. The majority of their complaints could easily be solved if they only used Noodle Tools regularly and properly with library instruction and assistance. Most of the high school comments reflected a general frustration we all feel with bibliography creation; how to decipher the MLA handbook, the time it takes, and just the fact that it is tedious work. One high school student mentioned that, “It’s not very frustrating at all to create a bibliography. Noodle Tools has greatly facilitated the process for students.” Middle school student comments reflected much greater frustration with the entire process, perhaps because they lacked the experience and instruction in creating bibliographies on a regular basis. Comments generally focused on the detail of the work and misunderstanding what and how to cite.
Category 5: Work at home versus on campus Students were asked in an open-ended question about the practice of working on research projects at home. A handful of teachers on campus require all or most of the work to be done during the school day. Upper school students felt that if you had to work on the entire project on campus, it was partly because of the school’s honor code on plagiarism. Comments also included teachers wanting to make sure the projects were completed to standard, to ensure students didn’t access web sites without authority, allowing them to view student progress, and observing how a student works in a classroom environment. Middle school students felt it was because of the honor code and ensuring time on task. Comments included being there to help the student during the project, getting students to dedicate the same amount of time to the paper, and avoiding inappropriate resources.
Observations My initial observations were divided by middle and high school responses. After analyzing the middle school data, I detected a general frustration with research projects. Students feel they lack ownership on topic selection and interest, instructions are not clearly aligned with specific tasks, there are no examples of finished projects for students to review, there is not enough research time in the library with the teacher present, and needing continued instruction in bibliographic creation. Generally, they believe that they select sources with authority, but the majority of students continue to use the internet instead of library subscription databases. They are confident in their abilities to formulate an effective search but have no idea what Boolean search operators are. They lack regular and thorough instruction in using Noodle Tools, so tend to use the free bibliography software found on the internet. High school students were much more sophisticated and articulate, but generally voiced many of the same frustrations as the middle school students. There was a greater understanding of how to create a bibliography, but when frustrations were expressed in the process, these could easily be cleared up if they only used Noodle Tools regularly and confidently. The frustrations of high school students with the research process included a lack of clearly defined tasks with staggered due dates, a continued lack of ownership over topic selection, and the need for more library research days with their teacher present. Both middle and high school students had a general confusion over what constituted authority; they were sure it mattered and they considered it, but used web sites over authoritative resources most of the time.
Conclusion Clearly, the research process is a compelling example of a learning partnership. Faculty, students, and librarians are all stakeholders and each has much to be gained from input by the other. Faculty that choose to plan well in advance of a research project, who submit their handouts to the library in time to thoroughly research the topic selection, and are willing to listen to construction commentary and amend the assignment when needed, can most likely enjoy receiving higher quality final projects. When they allowed the team of librarian, teacher, and student to work together for a period of 2 to 3 consecutive days, everyone benefits. However, when a faculty member simply assigns a research paper, does not allow for cooperative planning and input, and does not have clear bibliographic requirements, they more than likely will receive a fact-based project with little synthesis and evaluation on the part of the student. When I started this survey, I only wanted to receive input on how we as teaching librarians could better help our students. I had no idea that they could so clearly articulate where the problem was, and ask for better guidance and coordination between their teacher and us. Am I happy with the results? Of course, the results of the survey give credence to what we tell teachers every year as we seek more cooperative planning and teaching. However, I now feel more frustrated than ever that our students are clearly being left out of the equation, and they know it. I suppose it is back to the drawing board for the library, as we seek to implement new and better ways to bring teachers around. Dianne E. Johnston
Moving from Fixed to Flex Scheduling
I am the head librarian at a PK-12 college preparatory school with a busy library of over 27,000 materials. Information instruction is a vital part of our services as we prepared our students for college. Over the years, and under several different head librarians, our library fell into the practice of offering a PK-5 fixed schedule and a flexible schedule for 6-12 grades. We tried for many years, via accredidation self-study, to upgrade the PK-5 program to flex-scheduling. In 2011, instead of just repeating the same recommendations, I decided to take action, came up with a new program that wouldn’t scare our teachers with too much change, and sought and received permission from administration to make the change. Here are our accredidation recommendations:
- While weekly check out and story time should continue on a fixed schedule, a flexible library research schedule should be created for lower School students, modeled after the middle and upper school. Library research time would be scheduled to meet the needs of each class, facilitated by the librarian, as required to support an actual project. This would include library availability for class research, book reports, curriculum-based units, and any other special classroom requests.
- There should be no special area grading criteria/designation of the library, except for grade 5. The library needs to return to a focus of providing research and literary assistance, and fostering a love of reading. It should not be looked upon as a “special area” where students must participate in weekly lessons taught outside of actual classroom projects. The special area designation, which began many years ago to justify a separate LS library program, is outdated and contrary to our school’s library mission and flexible open-door policies.
Here is the final program we will institute in 2011-2012, which gives teachers who are afraid of change a “fall back” of both fixed/flex scheduling. Hopefully, are new program will encourage lower school teachers to visit more instead of less!
Library Changes beginning August 2011: 1. PK Program: 4 year olds will have a weekly literature/check out time and 3 year olds a monthly time. Parents will be encouraged to come in to check out books at any time. Parent involvement will be fostered with a library resources session for PK families every 9 weeks facilitated by the Head Librarian. No special area designation/grading criteria 2. K-3rd grade Program: Weekly library literature/check out time of 25 minutes. Additionally, teachers will be encouraged to set up library research days when they have projects. All project-based learning units will be facilitated by the Head Librarian. No special area designation/grading criteria 3. 4th grade: Weekly skills/check out time of 30 minutes. One hour monthly research skills set scheduled at the convenience of the teacher. Additionally, teachers will be encouraged to set up library research days when they have projects. No special area designation/grading criteria 4. 5th grade: Weekly 45 minute library class in the traditional sense. This class will continue to be graded. Additional research/flex time as required by teachers.
Great Ideas for School Library Lessons
These are some examples of "Best Practices Lessons" from Rhode Island's Educational Media Association:
(Place your lessons here.)
Here are some districts that have their own "Best Practices" wikis:
Anaheim Union High School District, CA 
Hi, I am Michelle Luhtala, Library Department Chair at New Canaan High School in New Canaan, CT. We were recipients of the AASL National School Library Program of the Year Award in 2010, and I was named Outstanding Librarian by the Connecticut Library Association in 2010. We attribute our program's success to three factors: 1. We deliver our library program in a hybrid online/face-to-face format 2. Our practice is evidence-based 3. We use social media & collaborative technologies to embed 21st century and right-brain skills/senses into our program
If you'd like to learn more, please join my FREE online webinar series, Using Emerging Technology to Improve Your School Library Program, at edWeb.net. It runs for 12 months, starting in July 2010. All webinars are archived and available for asynchronous viewing. Continuing Professional Education credit is available.
Hi, I'm part of a group of media specialists in a Minnesota school district looking for great sources on best practices. We are searchiing internet and publishers' offerings. If you have suggestions for books or articles that we absolutely should not miss, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe this is an inappropriate use of a wiki. Haven't tried creating a wiki yet but will be bringing it up at our next district tech meeting. Very interested in setting up a high school forum.
Hi back from Iowa. I am a media specialist in an Iowa school district looking for a way that teens, young adults, and adults can share great books together. Check this new wiki out: http://booktalk.pbwiki.com/ Better yet, Minnesota and the rest of the world, add your two cents worth at the wiki. The password is booktalk. Please share where you are from at the Optional login. We need to get the ball rolling with good book ideas. If you wish to improve on the wiki, that is fine, too. My address is: email@example.com.
I'm Donald Maclean, used to be a school librarian based in Scotland, UK. I've just finished a blog which looks at best practice (my viewpoint, obviously!), which lives here:  I now work in Higher Education and am based at Perth College, Scotland . I very much enjoyed my time as a school librarian, and wanted to create a resource which might be useful for newly qualified librarians, or those with a passing interest in web 2.0 and new technologies. Hope this might be of some use. Nice wiki, fine idea!
Hi, My name is Amy Marquez. I will be a new school librarian this year. I have taught elementary and middle school in Texas for the past 8 years. I am currently working on my Master's degree at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas. I am maintaining a blog (http://southtexaslibrarian.blogspot.com) tracking what has and hasn't worked for me, as well what I am learning through my experiences in the library. I am also completing the 23 Things program. If you are a new librarian this might be helpful for you. I would love to hear your comments or suggestions on my blog. I hope some of you might find it useful.
Sincerely, Amy Marquez
HI, I'm Wouter Laleman elementary librarian at the American School in Japan. Some successful programs we are running in our library are Storysports, a combination of improv writing and improv theater invented by New Zealand author Brian Falkner, Picture This! a program where students are invited to write their own stories and I have them illustrated by illustrators who are members of the SCBWI Tokyo chapter, the Sakura Medal, our equivalent to the Newbery and Caldecott for kids in International Schools in Japan and the accompanying Brainbowl. Have a look at the my website for more details on all of these.