Enhancing research skills and information literacy in community college science students.
Abstract: Community college science majors were assigned a team-based research project in a course sequence of General Biology I and II and were followed over a two-semester sequence during three academic years. The project was intended to introduce key General Education principles such as global citizenship, scientific reasoning, communication skills, information literacy, and stewardship. Conducted in partnership with library faculty, the assignment used course-integrated workshops and one-on-one reference instruction to help students produce research papers, learn the mechanics of online library research, and practice public speaking. Assignments were designed to emphasize and refine skills such as information literacy, critical thinking, and writing, while supplementing course content with current global events. Pre- and post-surveys were conducted to analyze assimilation of skills during General Biology I and mastering of those skills the following semester.

Key Words: Collaborative work; information literacy; online research skills.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Biology (Study and teaching)
Community colleges (Curricula)
Information literacy (Usage)
Information literacy (Analysis)
Education (Methods)
Sciences education
Authors: Henderson, Flor
Nunez-Rodriquez, Nelson
Casari, William
Pub Date: 05/01/2011
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: May, 2011 Source Volume: 73 Source Issue: 5
Product: Product Code: 8522100 Biology; 8222000 Junior Colleges NAICS Code: 54171 Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences; 61121 Junior Colleges SIC Code: 8222 Junior colleges
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 265291889
Full Text: Todays society challenges educators to create pedagogical methods that are attuned to current demands and expectations for student learning. Instilling in students the ability to think and act creatively is required in today's higher education system. Instructors have observed that entering freshmen are inadequately prepared for college-level work. McCluskey (2005) stated that large percentages of instructors felt that the public high schools are failing to adequately develop students' abilities to "read and comprehend complex materials" (70%), "think analytically" (66%), and "do research" (59%), all skills necessary to succeed in higher education. Students that enroll at Hostos Community College (HCC) exhibit some of these national trends. In addition, HCC serves students from diverse ethnic, racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds (90% Hispanics and African Americans). Eighty percent of enrolling freshmen require developmental instruction; others are unfamiliar with technology and college-level skills.

Faster technology, access to online information, and exponential growth of knowledge trigger the need to explore new pedagogical approaches for helping students navigate and select sources of reliable information. Thus, the need to instill college-level skills is imperative. Among those skills, information literacy is becoming one of the most needed in the contemporary environment. The Association of College and Research Libraries (2004) emphasized the need to enable students to master content and become self-directed learners. Implementing college-level skills creates new opportunities to develop teamwork and apply acquired knowledge across a wider sphere. The practice of collaboration, a necessity in the current culture of globalization, connects the educational force of peer influence to course content (Brufee, 1984). Students' acquisition of collegelevel skills transforms the classroom experience into a bridge to advanced knowledge rather than a dead end. The General Education principles in the curriculum (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007; Whittaker, 2007; O'Brien et al., 2008) embody the multidisciplinary skills required by the current generation.

This article focuses on a learner-oriented collaborative assignment devised for science students in a biology course sequence. The assignments in both courses were crafted using different approaches to team-based learning, and faculty interaction with student groups followed criteria established by various authors (Spence, 2005; Border, 2007; Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008; Oliveira & Sadler, 2008; Carmichael, 2009; Wood, 2009). In addition, a methodical information-literacy approach was explored to achieve college-level literacy. The aim is to enhance students' cognitive abilities and research skills in science by targeting GenEd core competencies such as global citizenship, scientific reasoning, communication skills, and information literacy while connecting course content with current global events (Figure 1).

** Methodology

Participating Courses

General Biology I (BIO210) is the first course of a biological sciences sequence intended for science majors. Lecture topics include characteristics of living organisms and principles of cellular and molecular biology. General Biology II (BIO220) is the second course in the sequence and includes evolution, taxonomy and systematics, and ecology. Both courses include 3-hour lecture and 3-hour laboratory. Student enrollment varies between 25 and 30 in the first course and between 15 and 20 in the second course.


Selection of Research Theme

"Effects of Climate Change on Living Organisms" was selected as the unifying theme. The intrinsic natural, human, and social components embedded in the topic provide ways to make connections between biological concepts and the real world. The relevance of the theme was reinforced when the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that will require setting limits on pollution, a major cause of global warming; as a result, Congress will be able to modify the way Americans produce and use energy (Associated Press, 2009). This measure demonstrates that educating citizens about climate change concerns not only the government of the United States, but its citizens as well. Students will acquire scientific knowledge and will use this knowledge to make educated decisions.

Assignment Design

The assignment consisted of group formation, selection of a research theme within the framework of climate change and living organisms, acquisition of information-literacy skills through two workshops (searching for articles, database search, plagiarism) and a course-related workshop (designed in coordination with a library liaison); writing of a final narrative and research log; and an oral presentation at a college event. Instructors provided guidance throughout the development of the research paper, revising and providing feedback for final narratives and PowerPoint presentations.

Research themes were distributed among group members. Each member took responsibility for a portion and contributed to the final narrative. Research logs were individual; these included chronological entries of consulted sources. PowerPoints were presented during an Earth Day celebration in the spring semester and during the Natural Sciences Department open house in the fall semester (Figure 2).

Pre- & Post-Surveys

Anonymous surveys were conducted three times: a pre-survey at the beginning of BIO210 (n = 54 students), a post-survey at the end BIO210 (n = 44), and a final survey at the end BIO220 (n = 48). Students ranked their answers on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 representing a low skill level and 5 the highest). Data were analyzed using Excel 2007 to calculate mean, standard deviation (SD), and Student's t-test to avoid problems associated with inference based on small sample sizes when evaluating skill assimilation.

Information Literacy Skills

Current scientific events offer an array of complex themes that need to be regarded methodically by using literacy skills to conduct a productive resource search while developing the ability to think critically and to select, use, and cite appropriate resources (Jacob & Heisel, 2008). Incorporating information literacy across curricula requires the collaborative efforts of faculty, librarians, and administrators (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2004).


The assignment was conducted in collaboration with library faculty to help navigate the wide range of searchable information. As a baseline, students were required to take two library workshops. The choices were "Keys to Database Searching," "How to Avoid Plagiarism," and "Finding Articles." In addition, a course-related workshop tailored to fit the needs of the groups was scheduled during class hours. BIO210 students received an overview to the various databases and were trained to search key sites for their topics as well as to identify different types of sources available through the college library. The course-related workshops for BIO220 were more advanced, in the sense that students attended the workshop with a prepared list of selected articles they needed to find. Students were trained in using key-word search strategies to locate their selected articles.

** Results

Course Content & Current Global Events

A comparison between pre- and post-surveys show that at the beginning of the experience (pre-survey) background knowledge on the main topic was limited among students in both groups. Six percent of students in BIO210 and 7% in BIO220 acknowledged having a certain level of knowledge on the topic, but the great majority were unfamiliar with or unaware of the theme. Twenty-nine percent in BIO210 thought the theme was manageable, in contrast with 75% of students in BIO220. The theme of global warming proved to be relevant to the lives and roles as future citizens of 69% of students in BIO210 and 82% in BIO220 (Table 1).

When the students were introduced to their research topics in BIO210, their answers on the 1-5 scale on the pre-survey produced a mean ([+ or -] SD) of 2.38 [+ or -] 1.05 (n = 54); the mean for the post-survey was 1.79 [+ or -] 1.07 (n = 44); and the mean at the end of BIO220 was 1.97 [+ or -] 1.24 (n = 48). The analysis shows a decline in the level of confidence from 2.38 to 1.07. These results indicate that students' perception of the extent and implication of the assignment was very basic at the beginning of the exercise, but they seemed confident and unaware of their limitations. However, their confidence levels were diminished when they faced the real level of demand of the research. The level of confidence built slightly at the end of BIO220, from 1.07 to 1.24. When comparing the pre- and post-surveys in BIO210 and BIO220, the results of the Student's t-test, 0.003 and 0.027, shows that the gap between what students know and what they think they know is significant.

The importance of selecting adequate research topics cannot be emphasized enough. The topic has to be engaging, current, and wideranging to allow connections with biological concepts discussed in class. When the students were asked about the relevance of their topic, the mean for the pre-survey in BIO210 was 3.7 [+ or -] 1.3, the mean for the post-survey was 4.36 [+ or -] 0.7, and that for the survey at the end of BIO220 was 4.11 [+ or -] 1.02. These results show a steady progress during BIO210, and a slight decline by the end of BIO220. Student's t-test values are statistically significant in the pre- and post-survey of BIO210 (0.004). The pairing of the pre-survey in BIO210 and the post-survey in BIO220 shows a significant t-test value (0.86), which demonstrates progress in students' appreciation of the relevance of the topic to their lives.

One student wrote: "I was not as much informed about global warming when I was growing up, but I know now after researching this project." Another wrote: "This assignment really helped me a lot in my understanding of global warming. I was one of the many people out there that just repeat the same thing--global warming is bad--without knowing the importance of it."

Information Literacy

Course-related workshops allowed the students to find articles associated with their topics and work independently or with the guidance of a librarian. The degree of confidence in seeking information increased from 27% of students ranking high in the 1-5 scale for familiarity with information literacy in BIO210 to 74% in BIO220. The level of confidence in navigating library resources and using them increased from 17% in BIO210 to 88% in BIO220. These results show the efficacy of instilling and refining information-literacy skills over an extended period of time. There is also an increase in the use of peer-reviewed articles, a good indication of the relevance of library workshops as a tool in helping students select appropriate sources (Table 2).

There is evidence of use of an ample array of available formats. The use of printed books was diminished in BIO220 by 50%. In both groups, 40% of the citations corresponded to scientific articles and peer-reviewed sites, and 30% of the sources were nonpeer-reviewed or difficult to categorize because of incomplete citations.

Students' familiarity with library resources are reflected in the BIO210 pre-survey mean of 2.89 [+ or -] 1.19; the post-survey mean was 3.63 [+ or -] 1.2; and that for the survey in BIO220 was 4.12 [+ or -] 0.81. These values indicate progress in students' awareness and familiarity with available resources. Student's t-test values are statistically significant, 0.001 in BIO210 and 8.87-09 in BIO220. These results demonstrate that by the second semester of using information literacy with a purpose, the skill is well embedded.

Critical Thinking & Research Skills

When new concepts are presented, there is an uncertainty about students' background knowledge of the subject and how they are going to approach the task. Once a group received the assignment, they shared their thoughts on the work ahead of them. The pre-survey in BIO210 shows an initial mean of 4.32 [+ or -] 0.74, a significantly high value that shows the student disposition to do the task. The postsurvey shows an increase, with a mean of 4.70 [+ or -] 0.50. At the end of BIO220, the values fall below those of the pre-survey, with a mean of 4.21 [+ or -] 0.7. This trend could indicate that students become more aware of the complexity of the task and the extent of their capabilities once they have practiced the skills for an extended period of time. Student's t-test is highly significant in BIO210 (0.001), and it declines in BIO220 (0.22), supporting the statement that the students become critical thinkers and begin to understand global issues.

Preparedness to take on a task has been addressed with questions focused on reading as the means of information gathering. In BIO210, the mean was 3.0 [+ or -] 1.03; the mean of the post-survey was 3.81 [+ or -] 0.78; and the mean at the end of BIO220 was 3.92 [+ or -] 1.06. This shows steady progress as students advanced from one semester to the other. The degree of progress between initial survey and final survey in BIO210 is highly significant in a Student's t-test, with 1.08-05, a value that diminished slightly in BIO220, 1.35-05. These values show that reading and research skills developed.

Students' perception of the amount of work and the level of demand of their topic was evaluated. In BIO210, the pre-survey mean was 3.09 [+ or -] 1.52 and the post-survey mean was 3.79 [+ or -] 0.91; the final survey at the end of BIO220 showed a mean of 4.04 [+ or -] 0.82. These values reflect a certain degree of confidence in their abilities to manage workload and an increase in their level of comfort by the end of BIO220. Student's t-test values are statistically significant in Bio210, (0.0007 and 2.43-06) and in BIO220.

Acquired & Retained Skills

Knowledge acquisition was measured in terms of students' expectations at the beginning of the project compared with their reflections on the experience by the end. At the beginning of BIO210, 82% of students were confident in their ability to acquire a significant amount of new information. At the end of BIO220, 91% of students acknowledged they had learned a significant amount (Table 3).

In addition, 86% recognized the impact of the experience on the acquisition and/or improvement of their General Education skills (Table 3). The following are excerpts on skills development: "This project taught me that the most important qualities that a person should have to learn something is motivation, we also need the skills to learn, we need language skills, thinking skills and knowledge, we also need discipline and the belief that we can do anything we want."

** Conclusions & Recommendations

General biology content is extensive, covering an average of 21 to 23 chapters per semester; therefore, adding a large-scale research project increases the challenge for both students and instructors. Nevertheless, the increasing need to prepare students to face the constant state of flux in the modern work environment makes it imperative for individuals to reshape their professional habits and adjust their abilities to a demanding new century. The results we have presented here show that students require more than one semester to acquire and retain General Education concepts and skills.

Merging study skills and abilities within the curriculum can be successful through a long-term collaborative assignment. According to Nixon and Fishback (2009), content-driven science courses can be taught in a nontraditional manner using active-learning and criticalthinking strategies, resulting in an overall benefit for the students. Thus, an extended opportunity to adopt those skills is a necessity. The assignments in our classes have been designed to provide plenty of opportunities for writing in various ways, including group narratives, individual research logs, and PowerPoint presentations, all of which are instilled and reinforced during a two-semester period. Although writing remains a challenge, the quality of work improves notably by the end of the course sequence. For example, accurate use of a bibliography was evident, but even so, the skill to select scientific articles still needed refining.

Pedicino (2008), in addressing the need for students to use caution when selecting information, discussed the importance of teaching students about the standards to which academic sources are held before they are made public. The escalating complexity of information sources in all disciplines is a reality that will be faced at all levels of education. In addressing this, colleges can help their students succeed not only in their academic studies but in their workplaces and personal lives (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2004). Thus, information literacy needs to be reinforced across disciplines. Once students began using library resources with a specific purpose, the initial urge to search Google changed gradually. With guidance from a librarian, the skills needed to search online library subscription databases were understood. Students realized that they could find reliable scientific articles online, and the course-integrated workshop helped them learn citation rules. However, the critical process of polishing key words remains in development. Overall, the use of sources from Google and other popular Internet search engines declined noticeably as an indication of students' reliance on their skills in accessing online database sources.

Some skills require additional exposure and further practice. For example, selecting a topic was a difficult task for BIO220 students, who were asked to use the skills acquired in BIO210 to select a research topic within the main theme. In addition, oral presentations were not easy for some students in the initial stage; however, in BIO220, the more self-confident student represented the group and therefore was more comfortable in taking responsibility while peers were ready to answer questions. PowerPoint animation schemes remain overused, even though instructors suggest focusing on key information and avoiding distracting animations. In this regard, a workshop on PowerPoint preparation seems a necessity.

In general, our students were appreciative of the experience, the novelty of the project, and the new challenges they faced: "The whole process of putting together this project was an enlightening one. It took me from a position of being inactive and got me moving." Students also realized that constancy was required to bring the project to completion: "There was an issue with one of our teammates not participating to his fullest potential. I originally thought that it may prove problematic, but the rest of the team pulled together." Even though oral presentations were dreaded, the experience of presenting to a wide campus audience and a faculty evaluation committee had a positive effect on group strength and determination: "Also it was a great experience because we shared our thoughts with the audience, the judges, and the students in the upper level."

Other course sequences can adopt this practice to enhance and reinforce acquired skills. It is a responsibility of the higher education system to prepare students to succeed in a job market that requires multiple skills. It is the job of educators to guide students in finding answers, help them use critical thinking to select reliable information, and clarify misconceptions that may be rooted in their minds.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2011.73.5.5

** Acknowledgments

Our gratitude to Lucinda Zoe for her input on the initial stages of the project and her vision on the literacy component; to our colleagues Francisco Fernandez, Olga Steinberg, Zvi Ostrin, Julie Trachman, Vladimir Ovtcharenko, Debasish Roy, Yoel Rodriguez, and Dennis Bates for serving as faculty evaluation committee. We also thank Hostos library personnel for their assistance to instructors and students and to Drs. Victor DeLeon, Brahmadeo Dewprashad, William Baker, and Kate Lyons for providing insightful comments on the manuscript.


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FLOR HENDERSON (fhenderson@hostos.cuny.edu) is Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, 500 Grand Concourse A-507N, Bronx, NY 10451, where NELSON

NUNEZ-RODRIGUEZ (nnrodriguez@hostos.cuny.edu) is Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences and WILLIAM CASARI (wcasari@hostos.cuny.edu) is Library Assistant Professor.
Table 1. Survey on students' awareness of current events (percentage
of respondents who selected 5 as their level of confidence; see text).

Question                                  BIO210 (%)     BIO220 (%)
Before you started your research,           6               7
how much did you know about your
research theme?

By reading the title of your group         29              75
theme, do you think you will be
able to understand the topic and
deal with it?

How much of the accumulated knowledge      69              82
do you consider relevant in your role a

Table 2. Survey on acquisition of information-literacy skills in an
introductory biology course sequence (percentage of respondents
who selected 5 as their level of confidence; see text).

Question                                 BIO210 (%)    BIO220 (%)
How well prepared do you feel for           27            74
seeking information and reading
on your topic?

How familiar are you with the               17            88
resources offered by the library?
Do you feel well prepared to
navigate the resources offered
by the library?

Consulted sources  Books                    22.4          12.7
                   Scientific articles      18.2          18.3
                   Peer-reviewed websites   27.3          35.0
                   Incorrect citation of    33.8          33.7
                    Scientific peer-
                   websites or
                    nonscientific peer-
                     reviewed websites

Table 3. Survey on students' awareness of skills acquisition
(percentage of respondents who selected 5 as
their level of confidence; see text).

Question                                    BIO210 (%)      BIO220 (%)
What are your expectations for the end         82            No data
of the experience? Do you think you will                    collected
learn a good deal?
(Question asked at the beginning of the
first course in the sequence)

After completing an academic year             No data           91
performing research in science, how         collected
much do think you have learned?
(Question asked at the end of the
second course in the sequence)

Do you think your experience in this          No data            86
course sequence improved your General        collected
Education skills and competencies?
(Question asked at the end of the
second course in the sequence)
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