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Integrating brain-based strategies into library research assignments.


College freshman-level research assignments and Information Literacy (IL) lessons share common goals: familiarize students with library resources, help students identify and develop effective research strategies, and provide students with skills to synthesize information into their own work. Applying brain-based learning theories to these research assignments and IL lessons can create interactions that not only achieve the identified goals, but can also mitigate some of the stress in research and composition and provide a more palatable context for library training. Specifically, modeling research strategies in assignments that tap into the strong feelings and values of college students provide the opportunity for building rapport and the context for more comfortable and animated student research.



Society and the media have not always been kind to librarians (e.g. Marinelli & Baker, 2000; Caputo, 1984; Scherdin & Beaubien, 1995). Plagued by negative stereotypes that depict stem women with even sterner hair and dagger-like fingers, librarians now find themselves battling the subtle prejudices of students sent, by professorial edict, "to the library"--a building they don't like, housing books they don't often read, to answer questions they may not always understand. In the face of such unwilling or only-grudgingly-willing customers, interactions that consist of dry lectures, unsmiling faces and tasks that seem disconnected from specific assignments and real-world events--all run the risk of turning "teachable moments" into final straws that leave students frustrated and unreachable. Therefore, handing students a set of prewriting questions, giving them a cursory tour of a library and abandoning them to see and seek connections on their own may be stressful and/or boring and is not a brain-friendly exercise, but with some work, it can be.

In an effort to engage students and bridge the growing distance between the professionals' notion of the library as a comfortable, technologically savvy tool and student notions of the library as a quiet and dull, book-infested building they get "sent to", librarians and instructors can re-frame assignments to engage students in seeing and seeking connections between the library and information in all that students do. Infusing Information Literacy instruction with an interesting and controversial real-world example, tapping into student passion and opinion, helping them ask questions and develop an "angle" and then directing them to use their passion and interest in a search for resources to prepare an argument can prove far more valuable than handing them a seemingly detached list of questions to answer. Such tactics are identified in Jensen (2000) who suggests among other things to "create a contemporary spin on a topic or subject, so that it is perceived as 'cool' and relevant" (p. 104).

One of the standard prewriting techniques used in the research and writing process is a set of prewriting questions--grounded in developmental strategies--intended to help students develop ideas about their topics, generate material and identify potential research avenues. The common strategy offers a typical set of questions that would be given to student researchers after they have decided on a topic--"Affluenza," animal rights, the inherent violence of the Three Stooges, etc. Questions include items such as "What is X?" and "How does your topic resemble something else?" Students are asked to answer the prewriting questions as they pertain to their chosen topic, and then, they are directed to library for a general "where things are" tour that assumes that students can take the newfound knowledge that "Reference books are on the main floor" and "This database offers full-text scholarly articles" and know how such things are related to their topic and any prewriting questions they may have developed. More often than not, students don't. Both my own experience and the literature support the notion that students have difficulty seeing connections between assignments and the library, and assignments and the real world (e.g. Leckie, 1996; Isbell, 1995; Roth, 1999). In "Integrating Information Literacy into the Science Curriculum" Brown & Krumholz (2002) observed that after library training sessions "students reported a better understanding of the available information retrieval systems, [but] they did not appear to use this knowledge .to enhance their information use" (p. 119). Also, an assessment project currently underway at California State University uses "information scenarios" in the hopes that "students could make the connections between theoretical knowledge learned in school and everyday life/workplace tasks" (Dunn, 2002, p. 29).

As a freshman composition instructor for thirteen years and a librarian for four, I have seen students struggle to explore various angles and search strategies as they look for materials simply because they fail to recognize the context of any topic. For instance, a student researching "guns in schools" will dismiss out-of-hand articles on the NRA, the concept of bullying, and societal trends towards disengagement because "They're not related to my topic," when in fact, there may very well be a connection between the NRA and the conference they re-scheduled after the Columbine shooting, and the increase in bullying and disengagement as a sign of "dis-ease" that may contribute to angry and violent outbursts in the public at large. Instead, students approach research quite narrowly. As the Boyer Commission (1995)--a national commission created under the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching--reported in "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities": "Many students graduate having accumulated whatever number of courses is required, but still lacking a coherent body of knowledge or any inkling as to how one sort of information might relate to others. And all too often, they graduate without knowing how to think logically" (p. 5).

Integrating Brain-Based Strategies

Brain-based learning is predicated on building connections both physically and figuratively. The learner-centered-goals theory offers that "no intelligence or ability will unfold until, or unless, it is given the appropriate model environment," and that it is "up to us [as instructors] to create the conditions whereby the brain will `choose' or `select' learning that will best enhance ... chances of survival" (Jensen, 2000, p. 5). Brain-based theory recognizes that learning "physically changes the brain" through the "development of goal-oriented neural networks" (Jensen, 2000, p. 30-31). The acquisition, elaboration and memory formation stages of the theory's "critical aspects of learning" outline the physical (and theoretical) progression of learning ensconced in the creation of new synaptic connections built on prior knowledge and experience (Jensen, 2000, p.32).

What does this mean? Learning is affected by and is a product of the physical cycles and chemical processes of the brain. Stressful situations that increase cortisol--the hormone released during times of stress that can, among other things, increase blood pressure and weaken our immune systems--inhibit learning, while "positive psychological and physical climates[s]" (Jensen, 2000, p. 55, 88) that attend to natural bio-cognitive cycles can inhibit cortisol, increase endorphins and foster neural connections. Instead, developing research assignments that incorporate brain-based learning theories grounded in relevance and communicated in a "learning environment rich with positive suggestions" (Jensen, 2000, p. 104) may prove far more effective.

One of the assets we have as teachers and librarians that can help us compete with all the speed and distractions of "real life" is the power of context. As instructors, we have the chance to place research tasks into contexts our audience may find more approachable, more entertaining, more interesting. We can help create an atmosphere of interest in research by making overt and conscious efforts to show the connections between information and research and things that our audience values. We can frame or reframe essential skills in assignments that attract their attention. We can make them student-friendly--brain-friendly--without sacrificing quality. For instance, if the goals are to acquaint students with the library, help them develop research strategies that take into account context, and begin to synthesize information; we can model it in a safe, engaging environment. Re-working Information Literacy assignments with brainfriendly strategies can tap into students' values, provide an interesting context for research and model questioning synthesis.

First, rather than handing out a research assignment in class and then taking the students to the library (a process that implies disconnection), students are taken to the library first where they will run through an interesting mock research event: Almost everyone has an opinion when they read about a grade school child who is arrested or expelled for sharing an asthma inhaler during an asthma attack or a zinc cough drop. The school board identifies the inhaler and cough drop as "drugs" and therefore the generous and heroic students are deemed "drug traffickers." The irony usually gets students talking and generates strong feelings, and as Jensen offers in Brain-Based Learning (2000), "intense emotions.., strengthen learning" (p. 37).

Next, students get the chance to interact with each other and the librarian to voice their opinions. This generates rapport and helps provide a more friendly and safe environment that will help students ask questions later when they are doing their own research. Then, students are challenged: "What could you say to help you argue on behalf of the young girl, or the school board in this particular case? What kinds of information could you find and use as "evidence"? Here, students are building on a sense of outrage or justice or merely interest and are starting to make connections with resources.

Third, students are given the set of generic prewriting questions and a set of model questions that librarians have created by applying the generic questions to the drug trafficking twelve-year-old's situation. In groups, the students discuss how and where to find the answers to the model questions, and come up with some new questions on their own. Now, students are given the "where things are" library tour for a reason and for specific questions they want to answer. The goals become much more learner-generated which is precisely the aim of brain-based theory. So, while under normal circumstances consulting a dictionary may bring tears of frustration to students' eyes, in the context of dissecting the school board's responses and/or assembling an argument in favor of the young Samaritans in the examples they have, the dictionary becomes a little less frustrating.

New Model for Brain-Friendly Library Assignments

Step 1 Students head to the library where they are given a mock/real world research event, e.g. a young girl is labeled a drag trafficker after sharing an inhaler.

Step 2 Students discuss the event with their instructor and the librarian which builds rapport. Students are challenged: "Where could you find evidence to help this girl?"

Step 3 Students are given a set of genetic prewriting questions and a set of situation-specific prewriting/pre-research questions. Students discuss the questions and generate a few of their own. Students are given the "where-things-are" tour for a reason--to find evidence to support the youngster who shared her inhaler based on the subject-specific research questions.

As these incidents are discussed, we can invoke research strategies and tasks and show how those strategies could be an integral part of an informed and persuasive response: Where could students find basic information and statistics about asthma, and why might they want to use them in a response to the school board? How can students use a newspaper database to find examples of other drug traffickers or other heroes and how can they use that information to support their own opinions? Where can they find legal statistics about typical illegal drugs? Before they know it, they are conducting animated and focused research, and they are making connections between the information they can find in the library and a real world written application. After students find some of the evidence that can help them, have them sit and discuss how they would use the information to present their case and share those ideas with the rest of the class.

Now and only now, after they have experienced some type of questioning and synthesis, they should be given their own research topics. Now, they have some easy and fun rapport with the librarian and will have an easier time asking questions. They have shared connections and research strategies with each other, and they have seen how information can be weaved into an argument. Since they have had some prior experience with the process in an interesting context, they can build on those skills in their own individual topics. What this re-worked research assignments does--I hope--is develop quick rapport and a more palatable context for research, questioning and learning. The better the rapport between students and teachers and patrons and librarians, the greater the potential for learning and growth to take place. Providing an atmosphere of "physical and emotional safety" is essential (Jensen 2000) and really demands a conscious effort to dispel any biases students may have towards libraries or librarians. As Jensen (2000) notes: "The overwhelming evidence is that teachers who influence learner biases are much more successful" (p. 116).

To be sure, there are many boring tasks in life--sitting in a waiting room, running on a treadmill, factoring quadratic equations, conjugating verbs and maybe, just maybe doing some types of library research. Incorporating elements of brain-based learning theory can help put a more positive spin on a task and help place what may be an unwelcome assignment in a more inviting, less threatening context. While some of the visual and olfactory details that brain-based proponents suggest--natural lighting, invigorating smells, conscious use of color--may not always be easily achieved, we have at our disposal creativity, passion, context, and the ability to engage hearts and minds


The Boyer Commission on Educating Graduates. (1995). Reinventing undergraduate education: A blueprint for america's research universities. [Online]. Available:$File/boyer.txt [2001, May 17].

Brown, C. & Kmmholz, L. (2002). Integrating information literacy into the science curriculum. College & Research Libraries, 63, 111-124.

Caputo, J. (1984). The Assertive Librarian. New York: Oryx Press.

Dunn, K. (2002). Assessing information literacy skills in the California State University: A progress report. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28, 26-35.

Isbell, D. (1995). Teaching writing and research as inseparable: a faculty-librarian teaching team. Reference Services Review, 23, 51-62.

Jensen, E. (2000). Brain-Based Learning. San Diego, CA: The Brain Store Publishing.

Leckie, G. (1996). Desperately seeking citations: uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 22, 201-208.

Marinelli, S & Baker, T. (2000). Image and the librarian: An exploration of a changing profession. [Online] Available: [2001, June 4].

Roth, L. (1999). Educating the cut-and-paste generation. Library Journal, 124, 42-44.

Scherdin, M.J. & Beaubien, A. (1995, July). Shattering our stereotype: Librarians' new image. Library Journal, 120, 35-38.

Marl Flynn, Keystone College, PA

Marl Flynn is the Director of the Miller Library and is an adjunct faculty member in the Humanities division where she teaches writing. She has an M.A. in English from the University of Scranton and is currently finishing her M.L.S. at the University at Albany SUNK
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Author:Flynn, Mari
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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