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ACRL 2013: Interview with Melanie Sellar About Information Literacy Narratives

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Melanie Sellar

On the second day of the ACRL 2013 Conference, we had the great pleasure of having lunch with Melanie Sellar. Melanie is currently the Education Services Librarian at Marymount College in Los Angeles.

During the ACRL Conference, Melanie was leading a session titled, “Visible Thinking: Using Course-Integrated Research Narratives to Engage Students and Assess Learning.” We invited her to lunch so we could hear more about her session and understand the value of research narratives in information literacy instruction.

Below is the Q and A portion of our lunch with Melanie:

Project SAILS: Please introduce yourself!

Melanie: I am the Education Services Librarian at Marymount College in Los Angeles. I grew up and attended college in Canada (a BA in linguistics from McMaster University, an MA in linguistics from the University of Ottawa, and an MLIS from the University of Western Ontario.) Before being hired at Marymount College, I was the Community Outreach Librarian and later the e-Learning and Instructional Design Librarian at the University of California, Irvine. I am also very proud to say that I founded Librarians Without Borders and now serve as the Co-Executive Director.

Project SAILS: What did you cover in your session?

Melanie: The main focus of my session was to introduce the theory behind research narratives, which stems from composition scholarship, and to show the research narratives in application at two institutions (University of Louisville and Marymount College).

Project SAILS: What are research narratives?

Melanie: Research narratives, which are also often called information literacy narratives, are an assessment and pedagogical tool that allow insight into student thinking by asking students to tell the story of their research experience. These narratives are heavily focused on a student’s thinking pattern or thought process compared to knowing the right answers – which is different than most tests and citation analysis tools. Another important focus of narratives is reflection. Students are asked to provide a step-by-step account of their research process, including a reflection on the difficulties/challenges they experienced. Students then create a first-person story detailing their research which positions them as expert on that experience.

Project SAILS: What do research narratives accomplish?

Melanie: An important outcome of using research narratives is that they provide a window into student thinking, giving faculty and librarians insight into the critical thinking skills of students. Research narratives also provide the “Why” behind research papers and answer questions like:

  • Why did the student select and cite this source?
  • Did the professor tell them to use a certain source or is this something the student chose to do on their own?
  • Did the student struggle finding sources? Why?

Research narratives also allow students to select what they thought was important to include in the description of their research process, while also showing the things students didn’t think were important enough to include.

Overall, research narratives provide a powerful tool for impacting teacher and librarian practice because we can have a better understanding of a student’s research paper when paired with the research narrative. As a result of seeing into a student’s research process we are able to better understand where the students are on the information literacy skill development continuum, and where further support and instruction is needed. We should use tools like research narratives to impact the way we are teaching, instead of simply deflecting the blame on students.

Project SAILS: What are the downsides to using research narratives?

Melanie: I think it’s important to acknowledge that research narratives do require more time to assess than, for example, grading a quiz.

It’s best to read many narratives at one time in order to better understand the data in light of other students’ responses. It does take time to read through each narrative and make meaning of the data, but the time is well worth it to really understand the information literacy skills of our students.

Research narratives also require collaboration with faculty, in terms of designing a prompt and potentially creating a rubric. Faculty that include the research narrative as part of the assignment need to provide copies of the research narratives to librarians for our own assessment. This “hurdle” is getting much easier with learning management systems, like Blackboard, where faculty can simply grant access for librarians to the student research papers submitted within these programs.

Lastly, students do not expose everything about their research process, but we are learning about what is most important to them, as selected by them.

Project SAILS: How have faculty responded to using research narratives?

Melanie: Research narratives have had a significant impact on our faculty’s classroom practices because they have been able to illuminate the research skills, behaviours, and attitudes of our freshmen.  Some results include:

  • Faculty are putting themselves in the mind of a novice researcher and adjusting their teaching practices and curriculum to their level of knowledge.
  • Faculty across the disciplines are becoming more aware of the shared responsibility to teach research skills.
  • Sparked conversations about teaching information literacy skills over the course of a student’s college career, not just in a Freshman English composition course.
  • More impactful integration of librarians in courses.

For more on how faculty are seeing the value of information literacy narratives, I interviewed a faculty member of one of our Freshman Composition courses.

Project SAILS: Are there other applications of research narratives?

Melanie: Yes, another important application for research narratives is use as a longitudinal assessment across a student’s time in college. Looking longitudinally at a student’s research narratives, year after year, may allow us to see if their thinking has changed over the time and how their information literacy skills are developing.

We really enjoyed meeting Melanie and hearing how she is using research narratives at her institution. We are planning to add resources specific to research narratives to our blog in the coming months, as we see the benefit of using a multiple-choice IL assessment (like Project SAILS) along with a research narrative. Using the two in tandem will allow faculty and librarians to understand information literacy proficiencies of their students, while also understanding the thinking process students are using during research.

Melanie’s Prezi from her session at ACRL can be viewed below:

You can also connect with Melanie on LinkedIn, learn more about her work with Librarians Without Borders, follow her on Twitter, or contact her for more information about using research narratives at your institution.

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