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Faculty and librarians spice-up instruction.


in a general science education course, Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants, taught at a research university, librarians and the professor worked to incorporate information literacy (library research skills) tips, resources, assignments and evaluative criteria into the class material. This article details the collaboration process employed between the faculty member and the librarians to enhance the learning process. A specific example of a collaborative effort and a framework for replicating the learning model used are also outlined.


Promoting information literacy is an important step in fostering the critical thinking skills and advancing the research level of students. An effective way to do this is for faculty and librarians to work together to tie these standards to concrete course objectives and to involve librarians in the research assignments and even in the week-to-week assignments of subject specific courses. By introducing library information literacy skills early in their college career students will be able to build on those skills throughout their college career and subsequent life's work.

Description of the Course and Students

Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants (HSMP) is a general education science class offered through the Plant and Soil Sciences Department at our institution. This introductory course on the production, history, and use of medicinal and aromatic plants involves the use of the library by class members. Students do in-depth research on the myth, tradition, and science associated with the plants; examining old herbals, modern scientific journals, and current lay periodicals, books, and websites for information on specific herbs and groups of herbs. In the class, students learn to raise herbs from the seed to harvest including the history, botany, and chemistry of the plants. Students have readings provided by the professor, which are augmented by research. They learn to identify approximately 50 herbs plus how these are used or misused, the post-harvest products made from the herbs and how to advertise, present, package and market products made with the herbs. As part of the class assignment, each student does library research to support a project to be presented in a class-sponsored, community-wide HerbFest each spring. During HerbFest, the student, using the information learned and gathered from library resources, displays a final project to the University community and the public, ranging from elementary school children to senior citizens. Projects require considerable library research. Students are required to produce brochures about their herbs including bibliographies, recipes, and historical information, growing information, and/or instructions for use of cosmetic or medicinal products.

Why Integrate Library Skills Into A General Science Class?

During conversations with students and faculty, our librarians often hear the fallacy that all information is provided in class, that students have previously learned how to search for, evaluate and retrieve information or that libraries only contain books. However, once faculty and students work with librarians they see the gaps in student knowledge. By working together, librarians and faculty members can enhance a course in a variety of ways, such as by altering assignments to incorporate critical thinking elements, evaluative questions and use of additional resources not found in the textbook or class.

Several definitions for information literacy are available. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) section of the American Library Association indicates that information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information " (American Library Association, 1989). Standards and criteria have also been developed for information literacy (Association of College & Research Libraries, 2000). These standards have been interpreted as follows: The information literate person is someone who has learned how to learn. "Learning (is) a process that culminates in the ability):

* To ask the right questions and frame good problems

* To acquire information and evaluate sources of information

* To critically investigate and solve problems

* To make choices among many alternatives

* To explain concepts to others (both verbally and in writing) and

* To generalize to new situations" (Ganter & Kinder, 1998).

Goals for the Science Student

Valuable Information Literacy Skills. Successful faculty/librarian collaborations help students become familiar with library resources and library services. Kaip (2001) provides examples of integrating information literacy skills into a class to assist students in solving a personal problem using information gathered throughout the course. The learning process in searching for information and being able to explain the method by which the problem was solved or could not be solved was the important element of the exercise. This approach extended information literacy beyond the academic research environment into the daily life of the student. Other literature devoted to the integration of library literacy in science curriculums by teams of faculty and librarians is available (Brown, 1999; Brown & Krumholz, 2002, and Leckie & Fullerton, 1990).

What Resources do Students" Need to Explore? Many resources that librarians discuss with faculty and students are on the "invisible" web, not available freely in searching the Internet and not readily accessible with an Internet search (even though these databases are accessed through a web browser). For example, this university's library subscribes to over 200 research/journal databases that are only available to the university and its affiliates. Unless students are guided through these non-obvious sources, they may miss vital databases that libraries provide for scholarly research.

What Library Skills Should Science Students Know? There are basics library skills that every student should know. Each library may have a different way of getting to these materials, but students need to know these basics so that they can apply them at any institution or in any future search. The following objectives were developed by librarians at this university to use when working with faculty and their students.


* Search the library catalog for books and government documents and refine/modify the search to get desired results

* Recall books that are currently checked-out of the library

* Access library reserves (either electronic or paper)

* Submit requests for unavailable library materials through interlibrary loan

* Submit requests for library material through the document delivery services of the library

* Understand the differences between primary and secondary resources and when each of these resources may be appropriate

* Recognize and define scientific journals as compared with magazines

* Understand the variety of available databases (including content and options for searching) and identify the proper database to search for information

* Search through journal indexes subscribed to by the library on a specific topic and refine/modify the search to get the desired results

* Understand and define a citation and write citations according to the citation style required by the professor

* Evaluate information and information sources, regardless of the medium, to ascertain credibility, appropriateness, and accuracy * Locate scholarly published material on the web

* Locate tutorials to help in searches for specific subject information

* Locate librarians and ask for help in person or online


Four steps were used to develop library enhancements: the Collaborative Process, Librarian Enhancements to the Course (divided into 5 areas), the Pilot Project and the Assessment.

Step One: The Collaborative Process

The first step in a collaborative project is for a librarian and professor to agree to work together on a project. Obviously, the degree to which faculty and librarians work together to modify a course depends on the comfort level of the collaborators, but generally librarians are very willing to assist in any way possible and faculty are glad to receive help. Our project began with a "brainstorming" session on short-term and long-term possibilities for increasing library use in class assignments. Quickly apparent were four ways in which the librarians could add information literacy components to the Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants course: updating the laboratory session bibliographies, providing call numbers and URLs to bibliographic sources, adding an introductory glimpse to an online journal index through the addition of a database exercise to the weekly laboratory assignment, and by creating an online library research tutorial. The work was done during the summer so that the student laboratory manual could be reprinted to accommodate the changes before the start of the next semester.

Step Two: Librarian Enhancements to the Course

1. Adding to the lab manual bibliographies: The librarians added and updated resources to the bibliographies in the existing laboratory manual for HSMP. The librarians added references and call/class numbers and online links to books or journal articles available through the campus libraries.

2. Adding weekly database exercises to the laboratory manual: The librarians enhanced the laboratory manual for HSMP by adding descriptions and exercises for use of online journal databases subscribed to by the library. Because the laboratory manual leads students in the study of herbs throughout the semester, modifications and enhancements in the laboratory assignments directly reach each student. The online journal indexes were matched to the general topic covered in that subject matter of the laboratory each week. For example, the exercises created for the week's topic "propagation of herbs" included searching and using the Agricola database and comparing the results to a search done in Biological Abstracts. Librarians selected 19 specific databases of the 200 databases representing the arts, business, health, history, legal and the sciences to be used in the assignments. The assignments followed a pattern of listing and describing a database, assigning search exercises, providing a search exercise, and asking questions about the experience of searching the database. Following is an example of an assignment:

Laboratory 2: Propagation of Herbs. Database Search Exercise. Biological Abstracts. This database (containing citations and abstracts) is the electronic version of the more recent years, 1980 to present, of an index started in 1926 (older information was covered in Zoological Record (1865-) and Botanisches Zentralblatt (1880-1945).

* Choose Biological Abstracts from the list of databases under "Databases" on the Libraries' website.

* Search Exercise: Find one article about each of the following: propagating plants by seeds, propagating plants by division, propagating plants by cuttings, and propagating plants by tissue culture. Find one article about one of the "herbs of the week."

* Repeat the search using the Agricola database. (Used in Lab 1, see description there.)

* Answer these questions: Did you find more articles on "herbs of the week" in this database or in Agricola? Why might that be? Which database was easier to use, Biological Abstracts or Agricola? Why?

3. Examples of laboratory assignments in database exploration: The database exercises enhanced critical thinking, including comparing and contrasting, searching, evaluating, reflecting, and making decisions. The faculty member can introduce the process of becoming a better researcher by asking a question related to a search and subsequently encouraging the student to think about the exercise, not just "do" the assignment.

4. Faculty examples of laboratory assignments in database exploration: As an alternative assessment and learning tool, the professor developed a series of assignments which replaced the regularly assigned "herb paper". Following is one faculty example: Library-based herb paper #3 LegalTrac. Citations to articles from law reviews and law-related journals, 1980 to present. Subjects covered: government and law, social sciences.

* Using the library homepage, access the LegalTrac database. Search the database for "herbal medicine." What herbal medicine-related issues are listed in the LegalTrac database?

* What specific plants are the subject of articles in LegalTrac?

* Explore the article citations or try new subject searches to find three other search terms that will lead to information on herbal medicine or medicinal plants.

5. Information Literacy Tutorial To further assist students, the librarians of the Library's Instructional Services Department developed a self-paced tutorial that covers the basics of searching and evaluating information listed earlier in this article. The tutorial resides at:

Step Three: Pilot Project

For the pilot of the library-enhanced course, the faculty member used a control group of 16 students during the spring 2003 semester to help assess the value of the enhancements. The other class consisted of 26 students. Although both classes taking this course used the same course manual with the newly revised enhanced bibliographies, only the control group was instructed to do the weekly library database assignments and the alternative faculty assignments.

Step Four: Assessment

Pilot Project Assessment Survey Results A nine question open ended survey at the end of the semester attempted to assess whether the students who used the assignments showed an improvement in their HerbFest projects or indicated that the library research requirements helped them to improve their research skills. The survey results were tabulated for both groups and generally indicated that those who had the library assignments incorporated throughout the semester gained more awareness of the value of using library subscription databases rather than solely materials from class or the "free web". Some of the responses from the control group follow: I learned how to work the computers; how to use databases I hadn't used before; how to use the library databases; ... the inner-workings and format of UMASS library databases; I learned from the databases and even used the databases in some of my other subjects in other departments; that there are useful databases and journals; where to find information.

Additional Assessment The faculty member teaching the course mentioned that librarian presence and library-enhanced assignments were critical to assisting students in learning of the methodology for getting the information needed for developing their projects for HerbFest. In addition to learning about herbs, spices and medicinal plants and the use of these plants within their life as a profession or hobby, each student knew that additional information on the science, myth and tradition associated with herbs could be located using the resources of the library and librarians. As an evaluation of student learning to use available library resources, a pre-announced final exam question was supplied to students one week before the end of class. Students who learned to use the library resources effectively could easily locate the answer to the question and answer correctly on the final exam. For the spring 2004 semester we revised the individual database searching lessons so that they were more closely related to the weekly class assignments. Future plans include redesigning the survey to include more specific questions of how to find, locate and evaluate information. We will again use a control group and monitor progress of both classes to determine if the integrated library assignments enhance the students' final project and learning experience.


Incorporating information literacy skills into the curriculum provided the control group an opportunity to become more aware of the research concepts and skills in one specific area, but also gave those students valuable experience in learning how to get to material. The survey results indicated that students valued learning about the library databases, and saw databases as useful in other classes as well as the Herbs Spices and Medicinal Plants class. The time needed to modify a course varies depending upon the goals and objectives of the faculty member and the time the librarian can give to these modifications. Some modifications can be as simple as adding a database requirement to a course. Collaborations with a librarian may start with letting the librarian know of the research assignments being done in the class and allowing the librarian to look over the assignment to see if it can be modified to include critical thinking skills (such as a comparison, or a reflective question). Other possibilities include setting up a session with a librarian to go over the research skills students will need for this class. Once a relationship has started with the faculty and librarian, it can be built upon to improve the student learning experience.


American Library Association, Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Final Report. Chicago: ALA; 1989.

Association of College & Research Libraries. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago: ACRL; 2000. Available online from

Brown CA. Information literacy of physical science graduate students in the information age. College & Research Libraries 1999 spring;60: 426-38.

Brown CA., Krumholz, L.R. Integrating information literacy into the science curriculum. College & Research Libraries 2002 March; 63:111-123.

Craker LE, Dinda KM. Exercises in Herb Science. Amherst, MA: HSMP Press; 2001. 193p.

Ganter, S.L. Kinder, J.S., eds. Targeting institutional change: Quality undergraduate science education for all students. Targeting Curricular Change: Reform in Undergraduate Education in Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology. American Association of Higher Education, 1998.

Kaip S. It's not just for term papers: Solving real-life problems in an information literacy course. College & Research Libraries 2000 May;62:496-8.

Leckie G J, Fullerton A. Information literacy in science and engineering undergraduate education: Faculty attitudes and pedagogical practices. College & Research Libraries 1990 January; 60:9-29.

Lori S. Mestre, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Selma Etter, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Lyle Craker, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Mestre, Ed.D., is the Head of Research and Instructional Services at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, Etter is a recently retired Science Reference Librarian, and Craker, Ph.D. is professor of Plant and Soil Sciences.
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Author:Craker, Lyle
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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