Beyond beyond search and cite

A long while ago (3 years) I wrote a post about the fact that we needed to look beyond “search and cite” in teaching information literacy and look at the threshold concepts of research, and a presentation I’d given on the theme. I remember at the time seeing half the audience (of librarians) eyes glazing over and thinking, “oh no, this isn’t going to work if it’s not something librarians get and relate to – and how on earth would students buy in?” I still believe that understanding threshold concepts in any discipline and for us librarians in research / information literacy is crucial in diagnosing misunderstandings and structuring our teaching. But then yesterday I had another insight on how this could be approached in a far better way.

studentIn my current position I’m considered to be part of the school wide coaching team, and as a group it was suggested we read “Student-Centered Coaching” by Diane Sweeney. I’ve been enjoying the fact that it’s a pretty practical book and one where you start to think that by taking the focus off the coach or even the teacher, you can actually take a lot of the emotion out of the coaching / teaching equation.

The book emphasises the use of data, but not necessarily the data provided by testing, but rather from the usual formative and summative assessment that is going on anyway.  One example used DRA testing – the equivalent of which occurs all over regularly anyway, and another a rubric from a writing program using a writing prompt. The idea is to select pieces of writing and score them on writing conventions and then group students into bands of “exceeding, experienced, competent, developing, emerging or below emerging” conventions. One then tries to move those groups / cluster using differentiated instruction up the scale.

I immediately thought of a lost opportunity last term, I’d had to teach citation to groups of students prior to their final assessment of a unit. It had been hectic both on my side and the teacher / classes and I’d been beating myself up a bit about it. Then my son (a different grade) came home and showed me an I&S assessment task (ungraded) he’d done and asked me what I thought of it. That’s a tough call. Because,  there was a lot going on there and not all of it was pretty.

And then I realised it was the perfect way to do a “backwards by design” session on searching and citing.

What if the “works cited list” and in-text citations of an assessment task of a whole class or grade were to be critically looked at?  It is a few lines that reveal so much of what’s going on in research. And then based on that one could group students according to where they were and what needed to be worked on and then individualise that part of the rubric in order to see if there was progress in understanding (and if they were approaching the thresholds!).

A quick reminder of the IL threshold concepts – research is/has:

  • Authority – Is constructed and contextual
  • Format – the creation, production and dissemination of research is not equivalent to its delivery or how it is experienced
  • Information goods – research has a cost and a value
  • Information structure (searching as strategic exploration) – an ability to look “under the hood” of databases and search engines (including more and more as we use things like Google scholar – the algorithms that spit out the results)
  • Research process – as iterative, difficult and building on the those who came before
  • Scholarly discourse – citation is a point of access into this discourse
  • (Research as inquiry – ongoing nature of research this is used by some but not all researchers)

Some of the things I noticed when looking at my son’s paper were –

Evidence (just two examples as an example): Not understanding that “Et al.” means “and others” – encountered in the in-text citation and works cited. The in-text citation followed the format (author, date) while the works cited was MLA8. Kind of.

Indication of not understanding:  

  • authorship = authority. But behind that was an understanding of the research process that included groups of people working on a topic
  • Format – since he’d used google scholar as a delivery point for the search. And from there had got to the database article without realising that it was an article in a database.  And didn’t understand the format or
    Screen Shot 2018-10-14 at 19.21.28information structure.
    This is something, if MLA8 is correctly taught and deployed, including its emphasis of a Russian Doll like structure of containers, should become obvious.  There is another – more simple aspect of formatthat of the format of citing and where that can be found. I showed him the  ”  marks in google scholar and how that led to the citation that could be copied into NoodleTools as is… a revelation
    for him. I also showed him in the original journal article of two other sources how he could find the citations and just copy and paste them – let’s consider small steps here!

Indication of understanding:

  • Scholarly discourse – here is where my own prejudice to APA versus MLA8 for the humanities come in – the date is probably a better indication of the point of scholarly discourse and understanding that something more recent would encompass prior research

The Scott (2017) article listed below is a particularly good one – because it asks students to rank their understanding of the concepts and to explain them. And this is where you can see the metacognitive value of “knowing what you don’t know” (please read Errol Morris’  series of articles on the anosognosics dilemma – the best ever on this, if you haven’t already) comes into play

“One mentioned domain knowledge as a barrier: “You have to have some type of familiarity with the topic to ‘enter the conversation.’” (Scott, 2017, p. 295)

To reign this back, we’re talking about middle and high school. So wading straight into threshold concepts may be going in too deep for the average student. But it may be a useful diagnostic tool.

Getting back to the coaching bit – doing an autopsy on in-text citations and the works cited list would reveal where the gaps and issues both in searching and citing were. The humanities teacher is probably looking at the assessment using a different lens – that of understanding and using the information and the ability to write it up in an academically acceptable manner using some kind of scaffolding (e.g. point, evidence). And at the end of the assessment, once a grade has been given and the focus has moved onto the next unit / assessment, the gaps in the ATL “research” may not have been identified, recognised, nor addressed in the teaching or assessment rubric for the next unit.

I believe in rubrics as a way of shaping teaching and focusing attention in student effort. If in a year, the teacher in conjunction with the librarian, moves through perhaps four iterative cycles of research, I’m sure we’d see real progress in both the practical ability and metacognition of students as they approach research and the threshold concepts.


Here are some articles that explore further information literacy as a threshold concept in an interesting way:

Further reading:

Corrall, S. (2017). Crossing the threshold: reflective practice in information literacy development. Journal of Information Literacy, 11(1), 23.
Hofer, A. R., Townsend, L., & Brunetti, K. (2012). Troublesome concepts and information literacy: Investigating threshold concepts for IL instruction. Portal: Libraries & The Academy, 12(4), 387-405.
Hofer, A., Brunetti, K., Townsend, L., & Portland State University. (2013). A threshold concepts approach to the standards revision. Comminfolit, 7(2), 108.
Morris, E. (2010, June 20). The anosognosic’s dilemma: Something’s wrong but you’ll never know what it is (Part 1). Retrieved 4 February 2014, from
Scott, R. (2017). Transformative? Integrative? Troublesome? Undergraduate student reflections on information literacy threshold concepts. Communications in Information Literacy, 11(2), 283–301.
Stinnett, J., & Rapchak, M. (2018). Research, writing, and writer/reader exigence: Literate practice as the overlap of information literacy and writing studies threshold concepts. Literacy in Composition Studies, 6(1), 62–80. Retrieved from
Townsend, L., Hofer, A. R., Lin Hanick, S., & Brunetti, K. (2016). Identifying threshold concepts for information literacy: A Delphi Study. Communications in Information Literacy, 10 (1), 23-49.

3 thoughts on “Beyond beyond search and cite

  1. Yessssss!

    I’m totally with you here, Nadine. When we look at (and assess) reference lists, we need to look beyond the formatting, the consistency of the punctuation and the order of the elements etc etc – we need, teachers need, to be looking more deeply at the references. The choice of references, that helps us consider the WHYs of referencing, how they help the reader, how they help the writer, how they help us consider the authority of the sources used, whether the student/writer has a real appreciation of the topic and the key players…

    It is not about academic honesty, it is (almost) all about academic writing and credibility and worthiness to take part in that academic conversation, knowing what has gone before (the literature of the subject), knowing the academic conventions, bringing new thoughts to bear.

    I like the notion of starting at the end (the reference list) and working from there. It takes citation and referencing out of the realm of jumping through the hoops the teacher demands and giving it meaning and purpose.

    Thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really appreciate this, Nadine, and your comment, too, John. You are elucidating on something that I have been feeling but unable to name.
    The constant refrain, :teach them MLA Citations” as the end all be all answer to students’ academic integrity nags at me. In fact, it is more their lack of confidence in their own abilities to write, their lack of skill in summarizing and paraphrasing, their poor note taking skills, and their lack of relationship to the texts they use — how do you skim, scan? Use the index to ferret out the nuggets? Why/how do different types of documents – books vs articles vs websites, or encyclopedias vs books, for example – these are the real concerns, and the skills that need to be taught. The technicalities of citation are just that. Technicalities.


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