Let Us Inquire Together

students working together

Image by Lower Columbia College on Flickr

What if instead of coming into an information literacy session planning to teach students how to evaluate a website or explain searching the databases or catalog you came into class planning to explore an interesting information literacy question with your students? This would be a really interesting or important question that affects not just college research but our everyday lives. These would be questions interesting to us as librarians, but also likely interesting to anyone living in this information age. I thought through an example of a question and session below.

How do I know what information to trust?

In this session, you could ask students to think of a person that they trust and then write down 3 reasons why they trust them. You could then begin to discuss what makes something or someone trustworthy. They might say they trust a person because he or she is smart (you could bring in the idea of expertise or authority). They might say they trust someone because they have earned it and have given them good information in the past (you could bring in the idea of reliability).

You could then transition into having groups of students finding the most trustworthy information they can in 15 minutes about different questions. One question could be “you want to have an informed opinion about the Trayvon Martin case; what information source in your opinion is most trustworthy?” In this instance a book or database likely wouldn’t be the best option and you could bring up ideas about currency, bias and perhaps primary sources.

Another question could be “You want to understand the scientific theory of evolution; what information source in your opinion is the most trustworthy?” The Google results for “theory of evolution” are to put it mildly, all over the place. They may choose a book or science magazine article and you could discuss the nature of the publishing process and again discuss bias. They could also come up with the Wikipedia entry and you could talk about the references and citations at the bottom and a different type of editorial process. In addition you could discuss how knowledge (just like research) is constructed as opposed to simply finding the answer.

Instead of simply deciding to teach about primary sources or bias, by focusing on an interesting question you are able to bring those concepts and others in while putting them in their proper context and highlighting their importance. Primary sources (for example the police report or audio recordings of 911 calls in the Trayvon Martin case) are really helpful in piecing together what actually happened. News media may bias things in the way they present the events, who they choose to interview, or even the pictures they choose to show of the parties involved.

You give up control in a session like this. You may not hit all your points and students may take you on tangents or places you didn’t even think about. This can make the session a little scarier. But it could also be really fun, and it makes the learning that much more meaningful to the students.

Some other possible interesting questions I thought of were:

What would these lessons look like? What are other interesting questions that you would ask? Would you like doing a session like this?


The title for this post came from, among other places, the book Teaching With Your Mouth Shut and from Marilee Goldberg Adams.


Andy Burkhardt


  1. Your suggestion is a creative way to present research in a more holistic and organic manner. What’s often a challenge for me is that undergrads say they want step-by-step procedures but then they often respond with greater engagement to an approach like the one you are outlining.

  2. Steven, thank for your comment. I agree that undergrads can sometimes say one thing and then often often their actions say another. Perhaps some of that too has to do with point of need. If undergrads are working on a specific assignment then maybe some step-by-step procedures are necessary in teaching. Or perhaps the step-by-step stuff and hand-holding should come at the reference desk when students are actually trying to work on their assignment.

    It also gets down to what we are trying to do in the classroom. Are we trying to help them do well in their assignment or are we trying to help them develop the habit of asking deep and important questions of the information they come across? Can we do some of both?

  3. I wonder if we couldn’t do both. I like the idea of introducing an IL session in this way. Scale the lesson plan above into something a bit shorter, and then find a way to have the students apply that theory/idea/new knowledge to the assignment at hand.

    Then the faculty and students feel like they’re getting “guided work time” while we feel like we’ve imparted some skill or knowledge bigger than the step-by-step.

  4. Becky, so you’re talking about exploring a bigger question first and then applying the concept and seeing how it works in real life (on an actual assignment). I like this! It seems like the concept will be much more memorable too if they can actually use it in a hands-on situation where they are finding their own information.

  5. Nice post Andy, I really like this idea.

    There are times when I think students get so more more out of these kind of sessions where you “give up control” rather than a thoroughly structured, step-by-step, session. Maybe it’s the engagement factor that Stephen mentioned.

  6. Andy, that’s exactly what I was thinking. I like the idea of learn and apply in context.

  7. Thank you Andy for this very interesting post. It gives us food for thought as we re-evaluate the content of our IL sessions. I agree, we need to do a bit less of the “How to search a database” and more of the exploring concepts of trust and relevancy. More important is the development of good research habits that will carry them throughout their lives.

  8. Nicole, I was just talking with faculty about this this morning. I think sometimes we as librarians and professors get so focused on answers and giving students knowledge as opposed to being facilitators in constructing their own knowledge. If we are doing a workshop we might be teaching students tips, tricks, and techniques, but if we’re teaching information literacy sessions we should really be focused on habits of mind and helping them realize that they construct knowledge, not find it (this is exactly what the research process is about: creating answers not finding them). I appreciate the comment.

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