Undergraduate Library Courses at Christopher Newport Universityby Amy Boykin, Catherine Doyle, and Andrea Kross
Librarians at Christopher Newport University have been teaching for-credit undergraduate courses for many years. Both students and librarians benefit from these courses, as seen below. The Library Science Department currently offers two 1-credit courses: Research Skills, and Finding Information on the Internet. Syllabi for these courses are available on the Library's web site (http://www.cnu.edu/library/libinfo.html). The following is a short description of these courses.
The Research Skills course introduces students to the Library's print and electronic resources. The class meets once a week for fifty minutes. Class discussions include choosing a topic and narrowing or broadening the focus; using classification schemes, subject headings and thesauri; understanding Boolean search terms; evaluating resources; and using writing style guides. Selected reference sources, electronic databases (CD-ROMs as well as databases available through VIVA, the Virtual Library of Virginia), and print indexes are demonstrated. Emphasis during the demonstrations is placed on subject or thesaural searching rather than keyword searching, since these are areas students tend not to explore on their own.
Students are evaluated on weekly exercises and a bibliography of ten sources. For this project, students are encouraged to choose a topic that they need to research for another course. Recently, the final project was divided into three parts, each due at different times throughout the semester. The first part is the thinking stage; students define a topic, identify search terms, and formulate Boolean searches. The second part asks for a description of each search including the database and terms used, whether it was a thesaural or keyword search, and how successful it was. Part three is the bibliography, presented in APA style. Students are required to evaluate two of their sources using criteria discussed in class: accuracy, authority, currency, content, and objectivity. This revised project provides a way for the instructor to evaluate search techniques and critical thinking skills, and to give feedback as students go along.
The weekly exercises provide practical experience in using the resources or ideas presented in each class. For example, the reference sources exercise requires students to find answers to trivia by using the appropriate sources. There are several exercises on database searching with step by step instructions for each search. These searches require students to use thesauri and to print out the first citation from each search result; from this, it is usually easy to tell if the student did the search correctly. Each database exercise also includes a question which the student is free to search in any manner. However, they must describe how they searched, which prepares them for part two of the project.
This class has been well received, and it is a vital element in the librarians' tenure track process. Students in their final year often comment, "I should have taken this course in my first year!"
Finding Information on the Internet
We developed the second course, Finding Information on the Internet, for several reasons. At the time, CNU's Computer Center had a limited staff and they were unable to provide Internet instruction. It seemed logical for librarians to step in because we had the equipment, staff, and knowledge. The Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA) project was growing and needed publicizing, and the Internet course would be a good way to promote VIVA. Also, the course was an opportunity to position Smith Library as a leader in technology on campus.
The Internet course provides students with the Internet basics. The course lasts six weeks and meets for 100 minutes once a week in a lecture/lab format. During the first hour of the class, various Internet resources and tools are demonstrated and explained. After a short break, the students are given an assignment that they begin to work on in class. The assignments are designed to give them hands-on experience with what was just demonstrated.
The first class session provides a basic Netscape and Internet orientation and gets everyone acquainted with the mouse and Windows software. Experienced Internet users are asked to assist those around them who may not be as familiar with the Internet. In addition to finding resources, the students receive instruction on how to download information from the Internet (printing, downloading to a disk, and e-mailing the information to themselves). Other class sessions include electronic conferences (using mailing lists and discussion lists to get information from experts or peers), search engines and directories, library catalogs and VIVA resources, and using the campus e-mail effectively. Students are not taught how to create their own web sites, as this can be learned in other required computer classes, or in the free workshops sponsored by the student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery.
A key component in this class is the evaluation of Internet resources. An entire class session is spent discussing what can be found on the Internet and how to evaluate Internet resources (using the same five criteria used in the Research Skills course). Evaluation is a major part of the students' final project.
For the final project, students demonstrate their mastery of Internet research by locating at least eight web sites on a particular topic, which is chosen by them and approved by the instructor. Their opening paragraph describes the topic, what they found, and who would benefit from this prepared list of sites. Using the five criteria discussed in class, they evaluate each site and offer a conclusion as to its usefulness. Spelling and grammar count toward the final grade. This requirement helps students improve their writing skills, and is part of a campus-wide effort.
Benefits of this class are many. Students realize that not everything is on the Internet and that what is on the Internet should be evaluated carefully (not just "cut and pasted" into a report). The students help each other develop research skills, think of synonyms, and create Internet search strategies. The librarians involved have learned a lot about the Internet, and are more confident when helping Library patrons. The Library's involvement in teaching students to use the Internet helped meet the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) new requirements in technology. Along with the Faculty Development Lab and the Multimedia Classroom, the Internet course helps the Library contribute to the University's goals.
Both courses have garnered librarians increasing respect from the faculty and administration, with the Library seen as a packager of materials in addition to being a warehouse of information. The Library has also gained greater visibility in the registration process, where students see Library courses listed. Although some students take our courses because they need one more credit to graduate, they come to realize that the Library offers valuable instruction.
Success with these two courses has led us to envision new offerings. A course focusing on a particular subject area, such as Education, would allow for more in-depth discussions using just the databases and resources that are most appropriate for that area. The existing courses could be expanded into two or three credit courses, or they could be split into beginner and advanced sessions. We could also integrate our classes with existing orientation courses taught by other departments. Regardless of how these courses evolve, it is satisfying to know that our students will find the research skills they learned in them useful throughout their lives.
Amy Boykin, Catherine Doyle, and Andrea Kross are library faculty at Christopher Newport University.