asking (and answering) the “why?” reference question

Yesterday at the reference desk I had a great deal of students coming with great research questions, which was really exciting this early in the quarter.  The first wave of big assignment due dates is approaching.

2 student questions in particular gave me pause:  1 who needed to find clinical research articles on drug treatments for hypertension and 1 who needed a variety of sources on controversial topics in PK-5 education.   It wasn’t the “where?” or “how?” questions that made me think.  It was the “why?” question — particularly “why is my professor making me do this?”

The first student had actually gotten started and found some related articles in Academic Search Complete, but they weren’t long enough for the prof, who required the articles to be 6+ pages.  “Why can I only use articles that are at least 6 pages?”

Why?  The prof probably wanted them to be 6+ pages because she wanted articles reporting clinical research in scholarly journals, not just short review or summary articles from magazines.  Once I suggested this she seemed more willing to search again.

The second student needed opinion articles from web, newspaper and journal sources on controversial topics in early education.  In the assignment she would review each source then give her opinion on the topic or “debate” the article author.  Her “why” question:  “Why does my prof want me to write my opinion?”

Knowing she was in a pro-tech (Early Childhood Education) program and that she was there as part of a Worker Retraining initiative I gave her a scenario to consider:

Imagine that you are in a job interview at a preschool and they ask for your professional opinion about inclusive education [her topic].  What would you say?  How will you show them that you’ve thought about it and are intelligently expressing your opinion?

Once she saw that the paper was an exercise to help her research, form and articulate her opinion, she changed her topic to something that she cared more about.

One of my favorite parts about being a community college librarian is reviewing assignments with students and showing them how to understand what’s expected of them from an assignment.  This means answering the “why?” question.

Maybe the professor explained why, maybe s/he didn’t.  Maybe it got lost in translation, or the explanation was divorced from the requirements.  Many students here are very literal — they zero in on the particular requirements of an assignment, sometimes at the hazard of missing the big picture.  Who can blame them?  They pull out the quantifiable parts of the assignment and check those off first before asking how this assignment might help them in the long run.

It’s always nice, though, to have a prof tell you why he is assigning this project, and what you’ll get out of it — the outcomes.  When I see that’s not happening smoothly with my colleagues, I reflect on my own instruction.  Often I’ll ask students to collaboratively brainstorm keywords for their topics, and after they’ve generated some terms I show how they help searching in databases.  But more often I should make it clear up front why they need to come up with different keywords and how this will help them move forward with their searches.

“Why?” needs to come before “How?”


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