Q: Part of your teaching philosophy is to “work to improve [students] ability to critically evaluate the information [they] receive, assessing both the legitimacy and accuracy of that information.” I’m interested in whether you consider that integral or peripheral to the content that you’re covering?

A: I’m a pretty firm believer in the fact that we are a liberal arts college and we’re educating people to be good thinkers. While I would be very disappointed if the students coming through this department didn’t end up with a solid know-how of geology and how to do different geologic analyses, I would be even more disappointed if they didn’t write or speak well or know how to find and vet reliable information. In this department we work with a lot of students who are not just Geology majors. I’m trying to give them a sense that using the library is something scientists do, too. It might be a little bit different than other disciplines in terms of the types of resources, but there is still a process of research that involves understanding information and where it comes from. I’ve been thrilled so far to have the interactions I’ve had at Lafayette with librarians. There’s been really good support for anything that I’ve wanted to do.

Q: Do you think it’s easier to integrate information literacy skill-building in courses with controversial topics like your VAST course on climate change? Does that provide a ready-made body of literature that students can grapple with or does it give them a false sense that there’s only good and bad information on a subject?

A: In my VAST class, I open up the final projects to a much broader scope than in my other classes. The students can select topics that have anything to do with climate change. They can take an economics or scientific approach or they can explore what it would take for an individual to significantly reduce his/her carbon footprint. I might have only three scientists out of eighteen students, so I get projects that stretch my knowledge of where to look for good information. Librarians are more adept than I am at locating materials outside their area of particular expertise, finding keywords, and following the trail to the next good source. So I lean more heavily on librarians to help my VAST students find reliable resources.

There is certainly a lot of grey area with some of these VAST projects. There can be great information from websites. If you’re researching California’s climate change policy, for example, then having the government website from California is going to be one of your primary sources. Even articles from the L.A. Times or the San Francisco Chronicle about how the public is responding to this legislation can be great. But some students will find six short web pages that are relevant to their topic and think they’re all done. Lijuan and I try to dissuade them from including not enough information or including information from ambiguous sources. For example, do the numbers come from someone who has actually done the statistics or is somebody else cherry-picking the data? That’s the sort of question we try to get students to think about, but we’re not always successful. I don’t have a pre-disposition about what is a good or a bad website, but I do like to make sure that they have some teeth to their sources. There needs to be sufficient legitimate information for them to develop a broad and deep enough scope of knowledge to be able to talk intelligently about their topic. For some of them, that’s no problem. For others, it’s a real struggle.

Q: You bring many of your upper-level classes to the library for instruction sessions. Do you see students benefiting from these interactions beyond their required FYS library instruction?

A: I remember my first scientific research project as a freshmen in college. I was completely clueless and too intimidated and proud to ask a librarian for help. By adding a library component to every one of my classes, I’m creating a formal way for students to ask for help. In my VAST class, students are required to meet with a librarian after they’ve received feedback from me on their proposal and list of sources. The librarian helps them refine their topics and find additional sources. The first time I taught VAST, I had a proposal step but it was less formalized and I didn’t require the students to meet with a librarian. Those were steps I added because I felt like the students were rushing to do their projects. They ended up with not enough sources and the quality of their projects was not great because they’d done it a few days before. So now they can’t really hide from the fact that they’re clueless, if they are. Students think – we all think – that we know more than we do about how to find information. It’s great that when I bring students to the library, there are often these quizzes that demonstrate to the students at the start of the session that they don’t know everything and should, perhaps, pay attention.

The upper-level students have a better sense of how to use the library for their needs, but I always think that they can improve their literacy and their knowledge. Some of them may be sitting through something they’ve already heard, but I bet that they probably don’t remember the differences among WorldCat, Web of Science, and GeoRef. If they’ve already heard it at the FYS or VAST level, then this is reinforcement and also a focusing towards science-specific information literacy. If you’re going to be a geologist, you should know how to find information that is relevant to a particular geologic topic. The library session also gives students time to move forward with their research during class with the help of somebody who has information literacy know-how.

Q: What do you perceive as common problems that students run into as they get involved in extensive library research projects?

A: I find that students have trouble picking a topic, especially in my 200-level classes. Either they’re not sure what grabs their interest or they have a topic that is a mile wide and an inch deep or one that is much too focused. I try to give them a list of broad topical ideas, and I mention during class what would make a good final project topic. So I’ll say, if you’re interested in An Inconvenient Truth, it would be interesting to look at court cases related to An Inconvenient Truth. Still, in my VAST course this Spring I had a student who wanted to look at climate change and water. The oceans? Freshwater? Lakes? Water availability in California or in the desert southwest of the U.S. – that might be a better, more focused topic. In contrast, I had a young woman who wanted to look at climate change and the Dead Sea. Well, there might be significant climatic impacts on the Dead Sea, but there are approximately two papers in English on the subject.

The 300-level class that I teach is focused on primary literature. We read a lot of peer-reviewed Science, Nature and Geology papers. For their final projects, I ask them to take a topic that we’ve covered in the course and expand from there. So the boundaries are more finite. They already have a starting place because we’ve read at least two papers on each topic. If you teach them how to use the citation index in Web of Science to go up or down using the references section, then they have a mountain of sources already. So they don’t have as hard a time as my 200-level students, who I give free rein to do what they want. I have students who struggle with trying to define a research topic, but I think it’s a good lesson for them, especially if they’re going to eventually do a senior thesis. They might know they want to work with a certain professor and be broadly interested in a field, but how are they going to pick a particular topic? They probably need to do a primary literature review and begin to understand what unique contribution they might make to the broader field of science. So it’s good practice.

Q: Last semester, you presented with Rebekah Pite during a brownbag in Skillman Library about your use of rubrics. Can you talk more about what value they provide?

A: When I was a student, one of my pet peeves was not having an explanation for why I earned the grade that I did. In science, often it’s transparent if it’s an exam with a finite answer. But with writing, you can read it, write a few comments, and then put a grade on the paper and the students don’t really have a sense of why they earned a B-. My first year, I tried to articulate my high expectations, but I don’t think the students believed me out of the gate. So I got good comments about my VAST class overall, but the students really didn’t like how I evaluated them. They thought my grading was harsh and my expectations unclear. I felt like I was embodying the exact thing that I didn’t like when I was a student. So I got a template from my friend Lisa Gabel in Psychology and I started from that initial template to develop a rubric for each of my writing assignments. Every year, I write myself notes as I’m grading on that rubric so that I can revise it, e.g. this doesn’t quite match up with my expectations or my expectations have evolved. I distribute the rubric with the assignment, so the front is the assignment and the back is the rubric. And I tell the students, this is how I’m going to evaluate you, so you should definitely look at the rubric and look at the assignment when you’re writing your paper to have a sense of my expectations. I don’t think a rubric makes for perfect evaluation of student work, but I think it really helps clarify my expectations for the student. It’s also a little bit easier for me when I’m grading because it makes me more objective and actually stick to what I think an A, B, and C are in each category. I think it makes me less lenient, which to be honest, is a good thing. Because if a student is continuing to not have good transitions in their paper or their grammar is not good, letting those things slide doesn’t benefit them at the end of the day. Having the rubric which reminds me to explicitly assess the coherency and the style of the paper ensures that I make note of those specific difficulties in the feedback I provide. I have actually noticed in my evaluations that, while the students still think I’m a tough grader, I don’t get as many comments about unclear expectations and my scores in the grading categories have significantly improved.

Q: I know you also require your students to peer review each other’s presentations and papers. I’m interested if the students ever comment on each other’s source material and evidence, or just on the writing?

A: I don’t do peer review in all of my classes, though talking and working with Rebekah Pite has made me think about doing more of it. When I have students peer review each other, I basically show them what I have to do when I review a journal article or a proposal for the National Science Foundation: I read the paper, explain to the editor that I actually got what it was about, and then give my feedback. What works? What doesn’t work? Should the paper be published? The evaluation sheet I provide them with is a simplified version, but I want to give students some sense of that experience. So I always do peer review at the introductory level because, for me, it is not just about them getting feedback on their work but also about them understanding the process by which science is vetted. It’s not arbitrary what is published in scientific journals. There are people with expertise who critically evaluate the work and render an opinion to the editor, who ultimately takes those opinions into account when providing feedback to the authors and deciding whether or not to publish the paper. So my introductory level class is about having students understand the scientific method and how science gets done as much as it is about the content.

My 300-level class is not what you would imagine a normal 300-level science class being. Mostly what we do is read scientific papers and talk about them. I assign the students to write critical reviews, the equivalent of “News and Views” in Nature or “Perspectives” in Science, which distil what I call the essence of the paper down into terms that a smart lay person could understand. They have to do that several times during the semester and their final project is a culmination of these “critical reviews.” In the past I’ve been the only one to evaluate their critical reviews. But one of the things that I’m planning to do (and this is a fantastic idea I got from talking to Rebekah Pite and Bianca Falbo) is to have the students review each other’s papers. I think it could be a learning experience for both parties. The student who’s written the critical review can get feedback on their paper, but the student who’s evaluating it can also have another opportunity to assess that particular piece of scientific work.

* * * An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 23, no. 2).