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Information Literacy Through Entrepreneurial Thinking: Activities for Teaching Across the Disciplines

Learning activities to support students in developing information literacy and research skills through entrepreneurial thinking

1. Examining and Preparing for the Research Process

Objectives: Students will be able to:

  • Identify common successes and challenges of the research process.
  • Construct analogies, memes, or storyboards that communicate both affective and procedural aspects of complex research goals.
  • Recognize research as an interactive and exploratory process that requires experimentation, persistence, and trial and error.
  • Identify mindsets which help to generate potential and researchable topics.

Activity: Animal Comparisons

This activity can be done by individuals or in small groups. Explain that the purpose of the activity is to envision essential elements and steps of any research process, as well as mindsets that can help with responding constructively to the challenges of research. Students will discuss how those elements contribute to a successful inquiry process. Since students have varying backgrounds and experiences in performing source-based research, the class will use this activity to elicit these ideas and practice essential skills.

Ask students to create or find an animal image that functions as a metaphor for the research process. Ask students to also consider the limitations of their metaphors (i.e., what the metaphors don’t accurately represent about the research process). They may generate their metaphors by drawing, writing, or locating an image online or in print form. One way to do this is to distribute several pieces of blank paper and markers, either to individuals or to small groups. Students can then use the paper and markers to illustrate their metaphors, whether through drawing, text, or a combination of both. You may also create and share your own image.

After students have created their metaphors, discussion should ensue. Individuals may wish to share their images with small groups before reporting out to the larger group. Small groups may discuss which images to select for “show and tell” to the larger group. (After discussion, groups may even want to “re-draw” some of their initial ideas. But no professional artists are necessary! The simpler the illustration, the better.).

Spokespersons for the group should explain how the animal’s actions or challenges can be metaphors for approaching research, or how viewing the research process from the animal’s perspective informs their behaviors or responses to the research process, including its challenges.

Ask for comments from the class on how well each animal concept illustrates aspects of the research process. Add your own positive feedback about overcoming obstacles along the way and persisting when encountering unfamiliar content. Ask students what other thoughts or questions arose for them as they created their images. Determine if any groups used the same animals as others, or if they agree on or can elaborate on the animal metaphors provided by other groups. The class can then create a master list of “soft skills” or mindsets necessary to employ when pursuing a research project. This discussion could be extended further by having students generate a list of encouraging memes to propel them through a complex inquiry.

Instructor’s Notes:

Since not all students will feel comfortable in their drawing abilities or their abilities to create metaphors, some may initially find this activity stressful. You can adjust the basic activity in order to make the activity more approachable and fun. Some instructors find it helpful to use one or more of these strategies: provide only one color of marker to all, suggest a particular animal, provide a list of animals from which a group can choose and/or require at least 3 different animals among each group’s drawings, or set a visible countdown timer.

Possible Activity Prompts

  • One way to start this activity is to introduce one or more metaphor examples. Here are some options:
    • Show the class a sample drawing, such as a line of ducks paddling their feet quickly under water to get to the shore. Explain that the artist said that doing research made them feel like they worked so hard to finish their project, but other students made it look so easy. All of them are paddling toward the goal, just at what appear to be different rates. In reality, however, research is not always a neat, linear process in which one simply moves forward along a predetermined path and at a constant rate. Some ducks may also decide to swim in the reverse direction, not because they are regressing, but because they find that they passed something interesting earlier and that is important to pay attention to. As they learn not only how to swim but also where they choose to go, they become more skilled. We can also take this metaphor further by considering the limitations of staying with the flock of ducks: sometimes you need to veer off in a different direction from other researchers and explore something different.
    • Another option would be to model what to say about an image. For example, a polar bear (“the researcher”) is climbing a mountain (“finally answering the research question”) to get to the safety of his cave (“paper done, now time to rest!”). Provide your own explanations of the metaphor for research as well: Like the polar bear, researchers must persevere through difficult or unknown conditions, even if they slide back down the hill at times; some terrain (topics or sources) will be more challenging than others; often the routes (to reach your goal to obtain certain information or to answer a research question) are not as clear at the outset. Ask students to offer their own interpretations.
  • Students might consider common actions that a certain animal performs and describe how that image is a metaphor or an analogy for research. Offer assistance to increase the level of detail in their explanations and to address negative patterns of thinking which might get in the way of success.
  • Ask students to complete the sentence “Research is like…(your animal’s actions, because…).”  
  • Ask students to choose an animal and to consider which features reflect its essential behaviors (presumably to achieve its various goals for survival).
  • Ask students to offer answers to the question “How do animals do research?”
  • Alternately, students don’t have to use animals at all when they create their metaphors. Instead, they might draw the research process as a one-frame cartoon without words. For example, students may draw someone bringing a wheelbarrow of bricks from the quarry to build a house. This may also work well as a homework or flipped classroom assignment if students need more time to generate ideas. If doing the activity outside of class, students might also want to think bigger (e.g., proposing a series of posters for an advertising campaign promoting research around campus).
  • For flipped classrooms, have students locate images of Internet memes online and share their links. The memes can then prompt online or in-class discussion. (Meme examples can include the “This Is Fine” dog or Grumpy Cat). As students think about these affective experiences of research and articulate them to the group, they might even create their own memes by finding images of animals of their choice and then adding clever captions.

As students think about these affective experiences of research and articulate them to the group, they might even create their own research memes by finding images of animals of their choice and then adding clever captions.

2. Generating Keywords

Objectives:  Students will be able to:

  • Identify effective search terms.
  • Explore possible research topics.
  • Articulate search strategies and terms that help to broaden or narrow a topic.
  • Recognize the iterative process of research and the value of experimentation and revision in that process.

Activity Part 1: Concept Mapping

Since academic sources are indexed in databases in various ways, learning about ways that information is organized and structured is a key component of successful research. Brainstorming relevant search terms on a topic prior to searching often reduces frustration and increases the potential for accessing a wider range of relevant sources.

  1. Synonym brainstorm: Ask students, “What are some other words for “sneakers?” On a white board, online document, or easel pads, have students list synonyms and related words, including broader and narrower terms (e.g., trainers, tennis shoes, gym shoes, running shoes). Students can use a search engine for assistance if needed. Since ideas may be generated quickly, one or two student volunteers might record the class’s responses, while the instructor calls on students to help with the pace of recording everyone’s ideas.
  2. Categorizing terms: Soon the class will realize that they have suggested words that can be organized into different categories. This might include types of shoes (e.g., loafers, high heels); brand names which function as nouns (e.g., Nikes, Crocs, Timberlands); or even words that reflect regional differences (e.g., flip-flops in New England, slippahs in Hawaii, thongs or zoris in other regions or at other times in history).
  3. Create a visual map of relationships among terms: Ask students to form smaller groups and to create a visual map that illustrates the relationships among the different topics. Suggest that students use visually meaningful elements such as color, shape, and position. For example, different shapes (circles, squares, triangles) might denote certain types of concepts; the placement of shapes might indicate their generality or specificity; dotted or solid lines might reflect certain types of relationships; and different sized shapes might indicate a term’s level of importance in relation to the original topic. Identifying and visualizing relationships among terms will help students to think about different dimensions of their research topics and possible ways to search and to refine their topics.

Activity Part 2: Testing and Evaluating the Generated Search Terms

After creating a first draft of their concept map, assign students to search on the main topic by using different keyword combinations. This searching can be done with a variety of resources (e.g., different search engines, various library databases, freely accessible digital collections).

After students have time to experiment with searching, ask them to report back on what types of information the keywords led them to and to comment on the scope, specificity, and relevance of the items found. It may be helpful for students to also describe their evaluation process. For example, what information from their search results informed their evaluation (e.g., the titles or descriptions of individual information records, the publication source or type, information that the search system provided about their overall results). In small groups or as a class, students can compare their results or make suggestions to other groups. Ask students how they might revise their search terms, as well as why they might consider a variety of terms instead of just one.

Activity Part 3: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Terms & Revising Search Strategy

After generating keywords, categorizing terms, and testing search terms through trial searches, students can apply what they have learned from these techniques to generating a research topic. Ask students to write down additional and more specific topic-related questions that they might investigate. Request that they add to or revise their concept maps as they generate ideas. After students brainstorm, ask them to place an asterisk beside the most useful or compelling keywords, categories, or questions. Request that students reflect on what it is about their prioritized questions that makes them important, and why they believe certain terms will help them with further investigation of the topic. 

At the conclusion of each of the activities listed in this “Generating Keywords” section, students will hopefully feel that they have many new strategies for collecting information for various types of topics, and that they can extend their search terms beyond the obvious, in order to find more relevant and interesting content.

Instructor’s Notes: 
Ideally, students will practice this sequence of activities on more than one topic (e.g., a potential research paper topic, a common research topic in the field, or a current event). Remember to request that students generate the list of all possible keywords first, without judgment. This will ensure that students consider words that others might use to discuss the topic, but which students themselves might not otherwise think of.

Moving through the entire keyword generation process with additional examples will help students increase their understanding of how to refine or extend their options and transfer and internalize the skills they’ve just practiced. Additional topics can be used to generate synonyms and adjacent terms.

Before or while creating a concept map, it sometimes helps to read background information and/or to do an initial search for information on a topic. This can help students identify key concepts and effective search terms that may inform a research topic. Therefore, some instructors may want to pair the in-class activities with research assignments and exploratory brainstorming. This could be done, for example, through online posts and replies, partner response critique, various discussions or assignments (anything from a free-wheeling whole-class discussion to a focused disciplinary investigation in preparation for a formal research proposal), or other methods of conversation and feedback outside of class or in flipped classroom mode.

Encourage students to extend their search and use alternate sources, such as alternative privacy-focused search engines like DuckDuckGo or those from other countries (Google’s UK or India versions, for example). They might observe how search results are similar or different across these different platforms. Stress that no single search platform will provide access to all of the relevant information available on a topic. Even if two search platforms index mostly the same information, their relevance rankings or retention of your past search history will differ and influence what students see or don’t see.

Note: If students hit a paywall, emphasize that they should NOT pay for content. Instead, they can check whether Rowan University Libraries (or your local library) has access to the source. If it does not, the source can probably be obtained through interlibrary loan.

In library databases, as well as in many other search platforms (e.g., Google), the following advanced search strategies allow for a more precise search:

Use the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT with your keyword combinations. Use AND for keywords that should be found together, OR for keywords that are synonyms, and NOT for words that should be excluded. 
Place quotation marks around exact phrases.
Place parentheses for operations that should be done before additional operations.
Use asterisks * to search for similar words with the same word stem
“information literacy” OR “library research”
“information literacy” AND entrepreneurship
(“information literacy” OR “library research”) AND (entrep* OR “entrepreneurial mindset”)

Contact a librarian for more information on using Boolean operators, or to request a demonstration for your class.

3. Identifying an Information Need and Relevant Source Types and Locations

Objectives: Students will be able to:

  • Locate and access appropriate sources for a task.
  • Evaluate source relevance in relation to a specific task, while considering the task’s purpose, complexity, and audience.
  • Identify qualities of different source types (e.g., intended audience and purpose, means of distributing information) Recognize value in seeking help from others in order to expand one’s own thinking and skills.

Activity: Neighborhoods of Sources

The metaphor of neighborhoods can be helpful for contextualizing sources and evaluating their potential usefulness for a particular information need. Just as different geographical neighborhoods provide access to different information sources, so too do different areas of the web (e.g., social media, news outlets, professional and community organizations, academic publications, personal blogs). Some “neighborhoods” will have more information about a topic than others, though it’s often helpful to visit multiple neighborhoods in order to get a fuller perspective on a research topic. Considering who is interacting in these different neighborhoods and the practices and norms among group members can also help a researcher evaluate if/how they might use the available information. 

After introducing the metaphor of information source “neighborhoods,” ask students to reflect on what kind of information is needed for their information need or research question. More specific questions to consider include: 

  • What various people, groups, or organizations might have this information? How might information from these different sources contribute to my understanding of my research topic? 
  • What online or printed locations may have this information? What steps might I need to take in order to find these items?
  • How do the various qualities of these information “neighborhoods” help me evaluate if/how I might use the information that individuals or groups in these neighborhoods provide (e.g., experience or expertise, shared or differing interests or concerns, shared or differing expectations/practices)?

As students reflect on these questions, instructors might also request that students draw a visual map of these neighborhoods and their characteristics. In some cases, neighborhoods may overlap, or people might move among many neighborhoods. These drawings may look like concept maps, Venn diagrams, or word webs, or students may take a different approach. 

Instructor’s Notes:
Instructors may want to start this activity in class, and then provide more time outside of class for students to do background research and to generate ideas by consulting with other people and sources.

Encourage students to evaluate the credibility and accuracy of all information, and to reflect on reasons for using or not using a particular resource. For a variation, or as a follow-up activity after introducing the metaphor neighborhoods of sources, students might play a specific role, such as a news reporter, as they seek information for the news or for an interview. They might simply brainstorm how to approach this task, or they might begin the information gathering process.

4. Developing a Research Topic

Objectives: Students will be able to:

  • Generate questions about a topic.
  • Distinguish between open and closed questions.
  • Refine the scope and direction of possible researchable questions.
  • Prioritize questions according to their significance and purpose.

Activity: Question Formulation Technique

Use the Question Formulation Technique (or QFT, from the Right Question Institute) to brainstorm and refine research questions about a particular topic. This technique begins with brainstorming as many questions related to a topic as possible and writing them down. Any statements that are generated should be changed to questions. (Many instructors use easel pads for this activity, but it can also be done with analog tools like index cards or sticky notes, or with digital tools like Google Docs or Padlet.) Then students identify which questions are closed-ended (have yes/no answers) and which are open-ended (require a more complex response).

Next the class discusses the value of these different question types and of the particular questions that they generated. The instructor can extend the activity by asking students to try changing closed-ended questions to open-ended questions and vice-versa. This process can help students prioritize their questions in order of importance and consider possible ways to improve even the best questions.

Instructor’s Notes:
The aim of this activity is to brainstorm possible questions without judgement first, and after that to explore what makes research meaningful. Exploration of what makes a question meaningful will hopefully begin to unfold organically, as students prioritize questions. Later in the activity, instructors may wish to provide guidance on additional topics or issues that students could investigate, or on aspects of a question’s significance. Possible prompts to present to individuals, small groups, and/or the entire class might include, “Why might you write about this issue? Why should others care?” A group might also discuss if certain aspects of the given topic or issue, or certain perspectives on it, are missing and need to be considered.

In some cases, instructors might suggest that the class focus on a particular course topic or a current event. Small groups might work on the same topic, or the instructor might assign each small group a different topic. The latter approach can provide more opportunities for guided practice, as small groups share about their process and as the larger class analyzes each small group’s list of questions. Fun or easy topics might be used initially, in order to have students focus on the process first. In this way, a lack of background knowledge might democratize the question-generating experience for all students.

In using this activity throughout the semester for different topics, students can practice asking quality questions without feeling that they need to immediately know the answers. That is what often leads to good research! Sometimes questions that on the surface seem simplistic, irrelevant to the area of study, or relevant only to students’ personal lives than to the course focus, may ultimately lead to making important connections between students’ experiences and the area of study. Meaningful questions that reflect an individual’s personal interest may have a different tone from those focused on societal problems, so be mindful not to dismiss students’ offerings as being too simple or unimportant. Rather, point out the different purposes for various questions, and which among them might evolve into academic research assignments or even business ideas. Allowing time early in the QFT process for generating questions without judgment will facilitate this process of discovering unexpected and meaningful connections.

5. Putting Sources “In Conversation” and Exploring the “Scholarly Conversation”

Objectives: Students will be able to:

  • Articulate how the metaphor of conversation can be applied to research, scholarship, and intellectual thought.
  • Characterize the essence of a source’s message or argument without taking it out of context.
  • Compare sources which represent a range of ideas on a topic.

Activity Option 1: Burke’s Parlor

Introduce and discuss Kenneth Burke’s metaphor of entering a scholarly conversation as like going to a parlor or a party (quote below). Ask students to reflect on and discuss the following questions: What does it suggest about research or scholarship? In what ways does the metaphor work? In what ways does the metaphor “break down,” or not work? 

“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, and you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”
Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 1973. p. 110-111.

Follow-up: After discussing Burke’s parlor metaphor, identify the arguments or claims made in two sources that are familiar to the class. Ask students to imagine that the authors meet each other at a party and want to understand one another’s views better. What would each say to the other? How would they explain their views, and what questions would they ask each other?

Activity Option 2: Sources in Conversation

Ask students to identify 2-3 key ideas from the sources of information that they plan to use for a sample research topic or for a research or writing project. For each source, ask that they write down on an index card or sticky note the name of the source and 1-3 of the most important ideas that relate to their research. Students can then place the sticky notes onto the classroom white board, easel pad, or even on their desks to rearrange the key ideas into points along the line of an argument. Alternatively, this can be done electronically, with a digital whiteboard like Padlet or Google Jamboard, or in the style of webbing or concept mapping using collaborative digital tools like Mindomo. 

Students can draw lines on the board, chart, or online tool in order to point to the intended connections or disconnections among each source. If this task is conceptually difficult for students at the outset, they can write on notebook paper the explanations of the connections and have them reviewed by peers or the professor. 

Students can then explain to each other or to the class how the key ideas they have selected from each source relate to one another and how they might be put “in conversation” as students develop their research or claims. Some instructors have found this part of the activity easier to do outside of class for homework and in written form. After completing this activity, individuals or groups identify what they consider to be the most salient connections and distinctions among the sources and articulate why those relationships are important. Students then consider how their understanding of the sources influence their own thinking, research, writing, or other creative and intellectual work. 

Instructor’s Notes: 
This activity could be done individually, in pairs, and/or in small groups. If students work in small groups, instructors can send a student representative from one group to another to listen to the proposed connections before large class discussion. Along the way, instructors might add additional thoughts about connections from among the sources, or they might introduce additional ideas from new sources.

The activity can also be presented as a writing prompt, a discussion prompt, or a role play for the theatrically-inclined. If approaching the activity as a role play and using sources with which the entire class is familiar, students can use a collaborative writing tool like Google Docs to create a script of new characters who join the party and have particular points of view. Students might take on the role of one character, or they might change characters over time. If teaching in person, consider using lanyards, name tags, or signs that will help participants and their audiences to remember which personalities, or source authors, are involved.