Monday, October 25, 2010

Phrase and Proximity Searching

Last week on the information literacy and instruction listserv, someone asked about changes to EBSCOhost's search function. When searching for a phrase, she surrounded the phrase with quotation marks: Ex. "reality tv." Results highlighted these words even when they appeared separate from each other. Only results that include the phrase itself will be returned; however, wherever either of the words appear it will be highlighted.

Changes to their software make it so that any terms entered into their search are defaulted as both a phrase and a proximity search. In the past the searcher needed to enter w/5 to specify a proximity search. Now the proximity search takes place simultaneously with the phrase search. Another contributor to the listserv suggested the following kind of search: geoffrey chaucer not "geoffrey chaucer". Within the Academic Search Complete database, 348 results came back today. "geoffrey chaucer" brought back 702 results, but geoffrey chaucer without any quotes returned 1050, the sum of the other two results.

It seems that most searchers rarely use proximity search commands, but in many instances it may yield more relevant results that just a plain keyword search. Personally, the help section on proximity searching contains some cool, though probably arcane search tips. A search for child* w/3 obesity would return results with the words child, children, childhood, etc. within three words of obesity, but child would always come before obesity.

EBSCOhost's help page gives a great example of the near command. tax n5 reform* would bring back results where the words "tax reform" appear as well as "reform of income tax," because they are within five words of each other.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Narrowing Down a Topic

Students must choose a topic before they begin their research. At this stage, students can do many things. Some find it helpful to talk to their friends or family for ideas. They might ask others what they know about a particular topic, which can elicit a wide range of responses. These conversations might even be useful in discovering aspects of the topic which might be useful to avoid or aspects that would narrow the topic to a more manageable size.

Let me echo others. Students should choose a topic that interests them. They will engage more readily with the material, likely spend more time researching and writing, and deliver a more-polished paper to their instructor, who may have delight in reading their final work.

Reference resources, such as encyclopedias, Wikipedia, or CQ Researcher, can also be valuable to students, since they offer basic background information that their instructor may already expect them to know beforehand. Reference articles, like a trusted friend, can identify specific aspects of a topic which might be even more interesting than the general topic. A bibliography or list of references at the end of a reference article can also launch them into their research immediately. At any rate, students should aim for a specific topic, especially if their paper can only be a few pages long.

Creating a concept map, a spider graph, or other brainstorming activities can guide students to discover what interests them the most, as well as make a better decision about how they want to specifically narrow down their topic.

My supervisor has identified three ways in which a researcher can narrow down their topic:
Three Ways to Narrow a Topic
  1. Population
  2. Location
  3. Time

A person interested in the obesity epidemic can narrow down that huge topic by selecting a population group, such as children, teenagers, Generation X, middle-aged, whites, Hispanics, lower income, etc. Likewise, they could also limit even further to a geographic location: rural, urban, a specific state (Idaho, Utah, South Carolina, etc.), or a region (Western U.S., the Midwest, the South, etc.). Last, a time limitation can shrink the scope of the research quickly: last 3-5 years, the 90s, the 19th century, and so on. True, there probably was no obesity epidemic in the 19th century, unless it occurred among the nouveau riche, fat cats, or the robber barons as many called them.

If you are interested in a multimedia screen cast that discusses this same idea of narrowing down a topic, take a look at a Prezi presentation I created not long ago: Narrowing A Topic.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Embedded Librarian: Working in the Course Management System

For the first time, I am working as an embedded librarian this semester. I met the class on the second day they met. I have given them instruction in the Library. Now I am offering assistance with research by monitoring a discussion forum with their course management system (CMS). (We use Moodle.) My first post alerted them to recent multimedia tutorials I had created, as well as some older ones. In checking the forum today, no student had asked me any questions about research or asked for help, so I decided to offer a quick search tip, which appears below; this post.

Students tend to wait until the last few days before an assignment is due, before they really begin their research and writing. When this happens they do not have time to ask for assistance, or they might be embarrassed. Sometimes librarians have gone home for the day or the reference desk has closed already by the time they think to ask for help. Perhaps some of these tutorials and tips can be useful for them, since they can be accessed at any time. As long as they think to look at some of these resources, it could be useful for them.

Like other CMS software programs, Moodle allows the instructor to send a mass email to everyone in the class. Perhaps I should take advantage of this function to alert students to the resources they have available to them. Who know? Maybe they will be appreciative of a reminder to conduct their research and actually get an earlier start on it.

Do you have time-tested techniques for reaching students at their point of need? What do you do?

Tip: Did you know you could expand your results with an asterisk or a question mark? This can be helpful if you need more results.

For example, if I were searching for information on prescription drug abuse, I could "truncate" each word to get more results. Ex: prescri* and drug* and abus*. This tells the database to search for variations of the different words: prescribing, prescribe(s), prescription, drug(s), druggie, abuse(s), abusing, abusive, etc. When your search returns many results, this strategy is not recommended, but when you are getting too few results, then it may be helpful.

Note: the asterisk (*) is the truncation code used in the majority of databases (Ebscohost, LexisNexis, ProQuest, etc.). The question mark (?) serves as the truncation code in the Library catalog. Therefore, pigment? would return records with the following words: pigment(s), pigmented, pigmentation, pigmenting, etc. Truncating back to "pig*" would not be so helpful, since it would return results about "pigs" the animal, about humans acting like pigs, about guinea pigs, about skin pigments, etc. in addition to painting with pigments, etc.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Teaching Undergraduate Students--Attitudes

Before a recent class I asked the students what their instructors do to make their classes more interesting. One student at the back of the class piped up: "They let us out early." Perhaps I should have laughed and joked along, but this answer deflated me a bit and did not seem to help improve my attitude regarding teaching on that day.

Admittedly, in the last month I have felt more pressure and taught more classes, which may have contributed to my too-serious attitude. Yet, classroom experience is not always positive for one reason or another. Following is a list of possible reasons why library instruction sessions may not always be so wonderful:
  • Library instructor is not adequately prepared.

  • Librarian feels overworked = not enough librarians or staff.

  • Library instructor is trying out some new activities or methods.

  • Students evince negative attitudes regarding library instruction.

  • Student(s) have already received instruction in the library and know all there is to know already.

  • Students have not chosen a topic for their research project.

  • Students and/or instructors have not had enough sleep.

  • Class takes place at a time when many are low on blood sugar = lunchtime.

  • Class period occurs when many are drowsy (afternoon) or just waking up for the day.

  • Students do not like reading, researching, and school in general. They may not value education or understand why they are still going to school.

  • Students may only be around to get the degree, rather than learn.

  • Student may be experiencing personal or family problems.

It seems that focusing on the negative really breeds a downward spiral as far as performance and attitude goes. Sometimes I sense negative feelings from individuals in the classroom, and I let it get to me more than I ought to do. What should a teacher do? Should they ignore negative comments? Students can and sometimes do sabotage instruction.

Last weekend I heard someone talking about teaching--that teachers need to have positive attitudes. I needed to hear this, because I had begun to focus on students and all of their perceived faults. While some students may have less than desirable attitudes, that does not mean instruction should suffer. Consider some of the following suggestions to remain positive during the class:
  • Smile. : )

  • Look around the classroom and make eye contact with as many as you can.

  • Move around the classroom. This helps students pay attention more easily and show you are not afraid of them. Don't hide behind a podium or lectern.

  • Insert some appropriate humor periodically.

  • Ask students to explain to their neighbor something you have taught. Let them ask questions afterward.

  • Find a friendly face or two and feed off of their positive energy.

  • Share examples of how the content can be applied to life or various situations.

  • Tell students how the content will be useful to them in their lives. This sounds the same as the previous point, but I believe it's slightly different. Telling students what they will learn at the beginning of class can sometimes be useful--just make sure you teach them what you said you would. Sharing examples throughout the class can make it come alive.

  • Do something you like during the class. If you like music, literature, or sports, maybe you can find opportunities to demonstrate a search on a topic of your interest if that is what you are doing.

Anyway, in my office I have a whiteboard with Post-it notes on it. It adds some variety with the different colors, but that is beside the point. In workshops I have taught on active learning or teaching-related issues, sometimes I like to ask participants to write down descriptors of their favorite teacher. Invariably, one or more participants (usually the majority) says their best instructor was enthusiastic about the material. Sometimes they use the word "passionate" or some other variation of the idea.

Other students will say the teacher that impacted their lives the most cared about them. All instructors, including library instructors, need to remember these things once in a while, especially if they intend to make a difference in student lives. Yes, I definitely need a reminder once in a while.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New Tutorials Created with Jing!

Take a look at some tutorials I recently created to help students become familiar with our databases, so they can find articles more easily and know how to take advantage of the search interface as best they can.

Database Features (4:06)

The following tutorial shows the steps Idaho State University students, faculty or staff might take for finding scholarly articles with resources available to them through the Library's resources:

Finding Scholarly Articles at ISU (2:23)

Ever wondered how to narrow down your topic to a more manageable size? Writing on global warming, gun control, abortion, or any other huge issue can be daunting. This tutorial covers some general tips to help narrow down just about any topic, including by population, time, and location/geography. This tutorial used Prezi--The Zooming Presentation free software to create the presentation. Jing allowed me to add audio.

Narrowing a Topic (4:59)

Do you have an opinion about any of these tutorials? Let me know what you like about them and what could be improved.

If you are interested in viewing other tutorials I have created, take a look at my Google Sites page: Eli M. Oboler Library Tutorials.