Online Searching Using EBSCO Host Databases
A group project presented in class by Raymond Solga and Scott Voth for GSLIS 790.03. I wrote the following part, which describes plans to teach college students how to use EBSCO Host:
Learning Activities and Timing
The bibliographic instruction is designed to take place in two, ninety minute sessions. Each lesson attempts to incorporate active learning techniques, as well as the general principals of andragogy. Students actively participate in the course through exercises and the compilation of a search-strategy worksheet, which is one of the two requirements. The second requirement is a multiple choice test, delivered on-line, which provides immediate right-or-wrong feedback on each question, along with an explanation of the concept behind each question. The test, which may be taken as many times as the student wants, is designed to re-enforce the major topics covered. Both the worksheet and the test will be further described in the assessment section of this document.
Relevance is inherent in the course. The students’ professor has assigned a research paper, the students have submitted their topics, and they have all been approved before the bibliographic instruction is scheduled. Clearly this class can be used as a stepping stone towards writing this paper. Another principle of andragogy is self-directed learning, and this will be addressed through “sponge activities” at the beginning of each class, designed to both immediately engage the students (Grassian & Kaplowitz, 2001, p. 293), and allow them to decide on the content of the search activities. This will be described in each lesson plan’s section. Hands-on, practical training with EBSCO Host will be emphasized throughout the instruction.
As students arrive, the instructor gets to know them by engaging them in a “sponge activity.” He or she has written five general headings on the board (News, Literature, Music, Psychology, Medicine, Science and Technology, Sports), and asks them to pick their favorite. The instructor gives out different colored index cards, depending on the heading choice, and asks the students to write down four or five very specific topics under this heading that interests them. As more students arrive, the already seated students help explain the concept and hopefully establish a rapport with their peers. The instructor makes sure that there are only three to four students per heading, and students arriving late may be closed out of their favorites.
The course begins with an introduction that describes EBSCO Host as a collection of databases that index scholarly and popular periodicals, and provides a common method to search them. This is a complicated concept, and the instructor must make sure the students understand it before proceeding. He or she should ask for questions or clarifications, and make sure it is clear what a database is, and what indexing entails.
The instructor then passes out a one-page syllabus, with a succinct, one-paragraph description of EBSCO Host (to re-enforce the learning so far), followed by an outline of the course and a description of the requirements. Requirements: (1) Students will use EBSCO Host to search for articles for their final research paper and compile a worksheet that records the various search terms used and the number of hits. The worksheet should show at least five search attempts, and demonstrate how the search strategy evolves to produce a more concise list of quality results. (2) Students will take an online, multiple-choice test based on the materials covered in these two lessons. The test may be taken as multiple times, and the highest score counts.
The instructor asks the students to bring up the university’s library website, and shows them all the databases available, and how many belong to EBSCO Host. He or she explains how each database has a specific focus. Subscription costs are mentioned as a sideline, if time permits. Instructor can mention how a sizable portion of tuition goes towards funding these databases and describe EBSCO Host’s role as the largest database aggregator, collecting a vast array of articles and indexing them so that they can be searched by a consistent front-end graphic interface (GUI). But the need is to get the students into hands-on, EBSCO Host searching.
The students break up into groups according to index card color (from sponge activity). The instructor will quickly visit each group and suggest which EBSCO Host database to use for the particular heading. Students as a group should discover the basic search functionality, and individually or as a group, the students will conduct keyword searches, using their favorite topics written on their index cards. The instructor circulates to provide help and assess the learning so far. He or she also demonstrates how field searching works and why it would be used. This exercise should last for 15 minutes at the most, but it vital for the instructor to get a sense of whether the students feel overwhelmed.
The instructor reconvenes the class and students exchange search experiences. Depending on how the learning has gone, the instructor concludes with some or all of the following takeaways: (1) EBSCO Host is a collection of diverse databases which may be searched individually or collectively; (2) EBSCO Host is designed for different audiences and comes in many flavors, depending on the library’s contract; (3) EBSCO Host is just one database aggregator – there are other databases and other aggregators that may possess the same articles, or different articles, depending on their focus and scope; (4) on-line, peer-reviewed databases are expensive to deliver, but offer many ways to search them, and are free to students, and can be accessed from anywhere, using a proxy, and are vital to scholarly research.
As the students begin to arrive for second class, the instructor tries out another “sponge activity,” telling the students that his or her cell phone has died, and asks for their suggestions for a replacement. He or she says he wants a really good one. Hopefully this will encourage some lively discussion and disagreement about which model is the best, and what features are important to have, and what are the price considerations. Trying not to over-work the analogy, the instructor switches gears gracefully, saying that in a way searching for articles in a database is like looking for the best cell phone. Sure you could just search Amazon for a cell phone, but would you pick the first you find? With EBSCO host there are some easily learned techniques which make it possible to find the best articles for your papers.
Lesson Two will cover searching techniques, and the instructor has prepared a PowerPoint presentation. He or she distributes hard-copies of them to the students. The first slide is an outline of the general topics to be covered: keyword searching, subject searching using controlled vocabulary, using a thesaurus to find subject terms, and using Boolean operators to join terms. The PowerPoint presentation is quite detailed, and the instructor tells the students not to worry and that it is meant to be used as a reference guide, and that the class will be switching back and forth between the slides and hands on work with EBSCO Host. The instructor acknowledges that there is a lot to EBSCO that the class won’t have the time to even mention: his or her objective is to teach the major concepts that will get the students searching on their own as fast as possible.
Since Academic Search Premier is so widely used for academic research, the instructor focuses on this database. He or she uses the example of the “cell phone” to demonstrate how to use the thesaurus to get the proper subject term (“cellular telephones”) and explains how a keyword search would only find articles with the words “cell phone” and miss articles that used wireless phone or cellular telephones. Controlled vocabulary is discussed, and its advantages briefly described. He or she then asks the students to find subject terms “email” (“electronic mail messages”) and shows how to use Boolean logic to join the two terms to get articles. There is a slide in the PowerPoint presentation that shows several Venn diagrams that illustrate AND, OR, and NOT combinations. Class continues in this way, with the instructor demonstrating how to use date ranges and source types to narrow down the list of articles found. If time permits, students are encouraged to use their own research topics and discover search terms.
When there is only ten minutes left in class, the instructor goes to the end of the PowerPoint presentation, to a slide that summarizes the points that have been covered. Again he or she states that there is much functionality that there was not enough time to cover, but by using the basic techniques the students should be able to find good quality articles. He or she gives a quick comparison of keyword searching and subject searching using controlled vocabulary, and reviews the way Boolean logic is used to join search terms, and names the various operators that can be used to narrow results to a manageable list. The instructor concludes by saying that he looks forward to reading the students search-strategy worksheets, which are due when the paper is due, and reminds them to be sure to take the online test. If the students have any questions, they can e-mail the instructor or ask any librarian. The instructor reminds the students that the PowerPoint presentation is available on-line and that the URL is included in the handout.
As described above, the bibliographic instruction was designed to utilize two measurement tools: the search-strategy worksheet and the online test. Both of these are done after the instruction is done. The worksheet is more qualitative in nature, and allows the instructor to see a part of the search journey each student took towards the selection of articles for the research paper. Each worksheet will be different, and should show whether the student was able to effectively incorporate the techniques covered in the lesson plan. The online test is very quantitative in nature, as the results are numeric and can easily be graphed. Having both qualitative and quantitative assessment tools allows for “triangulation” which may balance the methods and provide a more accurate sense of the learning which took place (Grassian & Kaplowitz, 2001, p 279).
In the search-strategy worksheet, the instructor looks for an evolution towards precision in search results. It is expected that this may be demonstrated in many different ways. There are a wide variety of topics, and the complexity of the necessary searching varies greatly. The instructor would hope to see evidence that the student was able to use the EBSCO thesaurus to find search terms and use subject searching and Boolean logic, but in reality, in some cases, keyword searching may produce equivalent results. The instructor fully expects some students will, for various reasons, take a pro-forma approach to filling in the worksheet, perhaps doing it after their actual research is done and paper written. Of course the worksheet needs to be judged in conjunction with the final paper to truly assess the quality of the searching conducted. The professor and the bibliographic instructor need to coordinate and collaborate with this assessment.
The online test was designed to be an interactive learning tool as well as a measurement tool. Providing immediate feedback on each question, it is designed to explain why the chosen selection is right, or if wrong, provide an explanation of why the selection is wrong. There are actually thirty questions in the test, but each time the student takes the test, fifteen of the thirty will be randomly selected. This way, a re-take of the test will result in some familiar questions, and some brand new ones. A record of each of the student’s attempts will be kept and the data may be analyzed for a variety of purposes, including general learning accomplishment, and well as specific topics that will demand more coverage in further iterations of the instruction.
Clearly the design and delivery of a bibliographic lesson is a large undertaking, and one which requires much preparation, as well as collaboration with the students’ professor. Understanding the learning need and knowing the target audience are crucial to the success of such an effort. It is also necessary to have the goals and objectives clearly defined prior to planning the lessons, though these goals and objectives may alter slightly as the lesson plan takes shape.
Instructors need to be flexible and open-minded with a course such as this one, since each class will bring with it a variety of personalities and learning styles that may be prove challenging. There is a natural tendency to cram as much information as time allows into such a course, and only by trial and error will it be clear that the timing and content is correct. Unfortunately, librarians generally only get a couple days to teach classes like these, and students deserve more exposure to complex user interfaces such as EBSCO Host. The good news is that once they learn one database, learning other, non-EBSCO databases will be much easier, as much of the techniques are readily transferrable.
Grassian, E. & Kaplowitz, J. (2001). Information literacy instruction: Theory and practice. New York: Neal-Schulman.