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When the Question Means More Than the Answer

Question Mark

Photo Credit: theunquietlibrarian on Flickr

Next month I’m off to Indianapolis for the 2013 ACRL Conference, where I, along with my friend and partner-in-library-related-escapades April Aultman Becker, will be leading a Roundtable Discussion about research question formulation and undergraduates. Specifically, we’re focusing on ways in which librarians can help students cultivate meaningful, articulate questions throughout the research process in order to make them more successful researchers.

So many of us see students (either in classes or consultations) when they’re in the thick of their “informational retrieval” phase. They come to us at the reference desk or in consultations so that we can help them gather relevant sources to meet whatever bibliographic criteria their professors have set and start writing their paper. We see them in the classroom, usually after we’ve asked their professors to make sure that they have a topic selected so that we can get into the nitty-gritty of developing search terms and strategies. They find us the night before their paper is due, panicked because THERE IS NOTHING WRITTEN ON THIS TOPIC!!@#!%$%!@#$!!

Our focus is almost always on helping students fill an information need. In fact, I sometimes tell students that if they feel as though they should be able to find research about a topic but can’t find it themselves, that’s a good time to talk to a librarian. Yet we all know that as we are helping students find the information they need to write their paper, develop their presentation, or plan their research proposal, we are constantly asking them questions.

What population are you studying? What are some competing arguments? Who is impacted by this assumption you are making? What do you still need to know?  What kind of information will help you answer this question? Is that really what you’re asking? How is that piece relevant to your argument?

And on and on…

We ask these questions because we know they need to be answered in order for any researcher to develop a strong  question or thesis. We know that a good pointed question reveals a strong grasp of a subject, the ability to think critically about an argument or claim, and an intellectually curious approach to the research process. I once heard a colleague say that she didn’t really learn how to ask a good question until she was in grad school. Asking questions is a skill, one that develops over time through practice and guided inquiry.

At our discussion we hope that we’ll be able to learn from other librarians who have experience guiding students in developing their own research questions and encouraging students to constantly question throughout the research process. We’ll be meeting on Friday, April 11 from 11am-Noon in the exhibit hall in the Indiana Convention Center. Join us! We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

If you have questions or comments before or after the discussion our twitter hashtag is #acrlbetterquestions and I’m on Twitter @arellanover. We’ve also started a bitly bundle with related readings.

See you at ACRL!


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