Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Information Literacy in Introductory Biology

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Information Literacy in Introductory Biology

Article excerpt

Byline: Fardad Firooznia and Debra K. Andreadis

"Everybody trusts an unidentified source" -Nessen (1977)

Incorporating information literacy exercises into the science curriculum will help students to navigate through the myriad of information available in different formats, and to become better scientific thinkers and writers. Here we describe how we incorporated such exercises in introductory biology and evaluate their effectiveness in achieving our goals.

Many science instructors have noted the poor quality of scientific writing produced by undergraduate science majors in their classroom (see Jerde and Taper 2004, for example). Although basic writing skills of students tend to improve through general writing instruction in the overall college curriculum during the first one or two years, skills in scientific writing have to be developed within the science curriculum. Jerde and Taper (2004) found that scientific writing abilities in their upper level students did not correlate with their year of study, the number of writing courses they had taken (outside the sciences), or their use of the college writing center. All that mattered was the scientific writing practice they had received in earlier science courses. This finding emphasizes the need to incorporate instruction in the steps involved in scientific writing as early as possible into the introductory science curriculum.

Two common forms of writing in a science classroom are the scientific lab report (with or without references to external literature sources) and the research paper. In the case of either the lab report with references to literature sources or the research paper, students may need various kinds of help in honing their skills to research the question, determine when they need information, find and evaluate the necessary information, and effectively use it; all of these steps require critical-thinking skills.

Teaching our students such information literacy skills (as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries 2000) is an important part of preparing them for writing in the sciences. As we face an ever-growing myriad of databases in our libraries as well as data sources on the web, it is incumbent upon us to teach our students how to navigate their way through these potential mines of information that will help them develop their thoughts and arguments as they prepare to write in the science classroom. These skills will be perhaps most useful to our students as they navigate their way through the unfiltered information they will deal with as citizens after they leave our classrooms.

Incorporating information literacy training in the introductory core takes time away from other potential activities that may be more in line with the traditional views of what scientific inquiry entails and should be taught to introductory science students. However, as discussed by Harwood (2004, p. 33) "lessons focusing on developing a research question or improving information-gathering skills (such as webquests, library research, and talking with experts) are aspects of scientific inquiry. That is, such lessons are part of doing science."

Here we describe one attempt to incorporate information literacy competency into an introductory biology class in the first tier core curriculum of the biology program at Denison University. The exercises were designed to help our students become familiar with what is available to them through the library system and on the web; develop basic search strategies; distinguish between the different types of sources available; evaluate the credibility of the sources, especially web-generated sources; and practice incorporating and citing sources in their own writing as expected in scientific writing. Incorporation of the information literacy competency exercises in the introductory core will provide students with the skills they will need in upper level courses as they will be required to write lab reports with literature reviews and research papers, and for some, senior theses that include a review of the relevant literature. …

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