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Does Experience Equal Research Expertise?

This July my friend and frequent collaborator, April Aultman Becker and I will be presenting at the Library Instruction West conference in amazing Portland, Oregon. We’ll be discussing the challenges and pedagogical opportunities that accompany teaching experienced or advanced researchers such as undergraduate thesis writers, graduate students, and researchers / faculty. The topic for our session was born out of the realization that research experience doesn’t always equal research expertise. Given the nature of her library and parent institution, April teaches graduate students, doctors, nurses, and medical researchers on a regular basis. Since I work at a primarily undergraduate liberal arts college, my “experienced” researchers are primarily senior students writing theses or working on guided research with faculty. Despite the obvious differences in these library user groups, they are all assumed to be at some sort of “advanced” research level, and that assumption brings with it all sorts of baggage.

We might think that experienced researchers are familiar with all of our library’s resources and how to use them. We might presume that they know how to organize their research efficiently. We take for granted that they know the primarily literature and resources in their field of study and are aware of new developments in this area. We might expect these researchers to be a “tough sell” and not be super interested in what we have to say.

Or we might flip all of those assumptions and assume, instead, that they know very little about research processes, tools, and strategies.

I work with a large number of psychology students (and some anthropology and political science students) who fall into this “experienced” researcher category. They’ve often had previous library-related research instruction in addition to a research methods course in their major area of study and frequent research assignments throughout their major coursework. They eventually work on a senior thesis or extensive seminar paper. Their skill levels VARY WILDLY. Some have never checked out a book once in their college career and only know how to use one library database. Others have an impressive grasp of their subject matter and are familiar with the library resources in their field of study. Of course, there are always those who fall somewhere in between that range.

So what happens when they all end up in the same library instruction session?

I teach 2-hour research sessions for senior thesis writers, seminar writers,  and research methods students every fall and spring semester. It is hard. They’re all working on vastly different research projects, and their levels of research expertise are kind of all over the map. It’s a strange balancing act that takes place in this kind of classroom: I try to respect students’ content expertise and research experience while still offering them much needed instruction and guidance. The approaches and activities I employ for first year students don’t work in this kind of classroom, and I’ve found greater success when I’ve relinquished control of the session and made it more about students’ research needs at that moment.

I’ve been trial-and-error-ing different activities, lessons, and approaches for the past 2 years. Sometimes they bomb, like that one time I tried to convince senior seminar students that reference materials could be a really useful tools. Their reply: What’s a reference? Like an article? I haven’t used an encyclopedia since the 6th grade. This is not helpful. Other methods have been more successful, like asking students to think about and share their research fears/problems (we shared some feelings in that class, y’all). Overall I think I’m beginning to learn that for these groups of students

  • peer-to-peer teaching works well
  • sounding like you’re trying to impart expertise is bad for business
  • letting students direct the content and pace of the class is really helpful
  • giving them CHOICES is THE THING TO DO.

April and I are still doing research on pedagogical approaches for “experienced” researchers, but I’d love to hear from others who teach similar groups of students. What’s worked for you? What do you enjoy most/least about working with this subset of users?

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