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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2007

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[Refereed article]

Promoting Critical Thinking, and Information Instruction in a Biochemistry Course

Li Zhang
Assistant Professor/Reference/Web Services Librarian
Mississippi State University
Mississippi State, Mississippi

Copyright 2007, Li Zhang. Used with permission.


The explosive growth of the amount of information requires students to achieve competency in retrieving, managing, analyzing, and using information effectively. To help students function successfully in the information era, librarians need to focus on developing students' critical thinking and transferable learning abilities. This article describes a one-shot instruction session that teaches biochemistry students how to access, search, and evaluate information sources.


In the rapidly changing information age, the proliferation of accessible data has created a vital requirement for individuals to be information literate. Information literacy is defined by Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy (2006) as a set of abilities requiring a person to be able to "find, retrieve, analyze, and use information." Navigating through the vast quantity of information provided by libraries and national institutions has posed significant challenges for students studying biochemistry and molecular biology. Gaining information research skills becomes crucial if these students are to be able to achieve improved learning performances.

An information literate student will be able to formulate research queries and create search strategies that reflect an understanding of information sources and their organization, analyze the data collected for value, and ultimately incorporate the data to solve problems. This literacy or competency goes beyond simply acquiring knowledge; it involves the process of critical thinking, which emphasizes reasoning, forming judgment about the evidence, and determining when new information must be generated. Since information literacy and critical thinking are so closely related, it is the job of librarians who are also educators to go beyond merely providing lectures, but strive to cultivate students' thinking skills in order to equip them with necessary strategies to cope with complex problems. This article aims to explore teaching methods that can better support students' analytical thinking and problem-solving abilities. It does so by sharing experiences in teaching information research skills to biochemistry students at Mississippi State University.

Literature Review on Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is considered one of the central goals in all levels of education and has generated a wealth of literature. Theorists and educators in the field of learning theories have offered various definitions to describe the nature of critical thinking. Generally agreed characteristics of critical thinking include: defining problems, asking appropriate questions, analyzing assumptions, synthesizing information, and evaluating results. A good critical thinker should be able to actively apply higher order thinking skills to analyze issues, acquire and process information, and engage effectively in the problem-solving process.

Librarians have long been aware of the need to cultivate students' critical thinking skills, and in the literature many have particularly stressed the importance of incorporating critical thinking into library instruction sessions. Research in this area was heavily documented in the 1990's. For example, after exploring the essential elements in critical thinking (readiness to question, the ability to recognize, and the ability to determine) and the mental development stages, Bodi (1988) argues that academic librarians should most appropriately "encourage and reinforce" the development of critical thinking skills among students. In another article, Bodi (1992) expands her research by discussing collaborating with faculty to design bibliographic instruction that promotes students' critical thinking abilities. Jacobson and Jacobson (1993) urge librarians to apply cognitive learning theories in the environment of teaching research skills and help students build mental models for analyzing information and solving problems. Atton (1994) concurs that critical thinking should be used as a basis for library instruction. She further suggests that an introduction to critical thinking and communication should take precedence over the teaching of information retrieval techniques. Offering a comprehensive review of critical thinking theory and the controversies within the contemporary movement, Gibson (1995) proposes that teaching information access abilities should focus on the larger information environment and involve students to actively develop mental models of various components of that environment.

From a different research approach, Martorana and Doyle (1996) identify obstacles to critical thinking. They assert that, in the electronic classroom, librarians should minimize the technique aspects of the electronic environment and draw students' attention away from the mechanics of using numerous database interfaces, instead, focus on teaching students' critical thinking skills. Herro (2000) examines library instruction sessions that incorporate critical thinking activities and observes that many of these sessions emphasize the exploratory process in which critically evaluating information is involved. In a 2006 article, Cody argues that, while little agreement is reached on the definition of critical thinking, the teaching of critical-thinking skills should emphasize students' ability to effectively use multiple electronic databases in today's online environment.

The studies have repeatedly stressed the importance of instruction that builds students' critical thinking abilities. The issue of concern is how to integrate critical thinking instruction into information literacy sessions. A few works have demonstrated models that inspire and assist librarians to develop pedagogical strategies (Henninger & Hurlbert 1996; D'Angelo 2001; Olson 1998). None have reported on introducing students to critical thinking in a one-shot biochemistry class that consists of both undergraduate and graduate students.

Library Instruction Classes at Mississippi State University

Mississippi State University (MSU) is a land grant institution with multiple programs in support of biological life sciences research. Soon after a new semester began, the liaison librarian to the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology received a library instruction request from a professor. The professor stated that he was teaching a laboratory course where searching and referencing science citations were critical elements. Most of his students (20 undergraduates and 4 graduate students), while computer savvy, had not dealt with biochemistry information sources. They were not familiar with either the major sites on the Web or the resources that the library made readily available to them. He asked the liaison librarian to help the students learn "how to navigate the waters," with particular emphasis on how to access the library's resources.

As is the same with colleagues at other universities, the instruction and reference librarians at MSU often take the initiative to collaborate with teaching faculty in order to conduct bibliographic instruction sessions that meet the specific course objectives and student information needs. Biochemistry classes do not request library instruction seminars as frequently as other classes, such as English; therefore the opportunity to bring course-related library instruction to biochemistry students is very appealing. This user group tends to bypass the library and adopt the laboratory as its information community (Brown 2005). The liaison librarian followed the tradition of instructional services at MSU by closely collaborating with the faculty member. Emphasizing the student learning process, the librarian made efforts to develop a pilot class based upon active, cooperative, and problem-based learning models in order to facilitate students to creatively explore information and effectively transfer prior knowledge to new knowledge.

Planning the Instruction Session

The goal of this library instructional class was to help the biochemistry students increase information literacy and help create a positive attitude in these students when using the library. One of the expected performance results to occur was that the students would be able to select and search appropriate library resources relating to their field of study. In order to integrate critical thinking into the instruction, the liaison librarian planned to apply questioning strategies, including questioning students and encouraging students to question, as well as a hands-on interactive approach.

After communicating with the biochemistry professor, specific instructional objectives for the session were created. The anticipated learning outcomes were that the students would be able to:

To facilitate the instruction session, the librarian prepared a PowerPoint presentation and a one-page handout that covers general research steps and an outline of the library's resources and services. A more detailed guide to information research in biochemistry that targeted the biochemistry students was placed online, complete with hyperlinks to all the research sources referenced. The students were able to check the guide at any time to review the indexes and databases mentioned in the instruction session and explore additional databases as well as Web sites at their own paces.

The Instruction Session

The 75-minute instruction session was held in an electronic classroom where the students had access to computer terminals and could follow along with the librarian during the instruction. At the suggestions of the biochemistry professor and, in light of the fact that the instruction session was the first exposure of the majority of the students to research sources pertaining to their field, the class was designed to cover the following:

The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000) has provided instructional directions for "furthering the influence and impact of student-centered teaching methods." Through short lectures but mainly by facilitating discussions, asking questions, and assigning hands-on exercises, the librarian tried to establish an active-learning and problem-solving context.

To stress the importance of thinking critically about the biochemistry information sources on the Web, the librarian discussed Web evaluation criteria, emphasizing authority, timeliness, reliability, and overall integrity. In order to have the students cross check and exercise their judgment, two Web sites were presented for comparison and critique. Based on thoughtful reflection and critical evaluation, the students showed that they could establish a set of standards that could be used to identify credible sources.

The librarian then briefly demonstrated how to use the library's online catalog. According to her observation at the reference desk, many students tend to conduct keyword search by typing in the entire assignment statements or research topic sentences. In light of this problem, the librarian addressed the need to identify keywords in a research topic. She then gave students a research statement (characterization and new aspects on paths of infection and the role of catalase) and asked them to point out the keywords from the statement. The research topic was carefully chosen to allow the students to make common mistakes. To complete this activity, the librarian encouraged the class to participate in small group discussions for two minutes and then each group reported the key terms identified. This put the students in a more active learning situation and provided an opportunity for the students to think, discover, interact, and adjust opinions. Many students reported that the keywords were "characterization", "(new) aspects", "paths", "infection", "role", and "catalase". The librarian pointed out that the word "characterization" was a description about how to conduct the research, whereas "aspects", "paths", and "role" were general terms; they did not identify the unique concepts in this statement, and the word "new" simply indicated an viewpoint. By analyzing the mistakes, the librarian hoped that the students could have a better understanding of choosing search terms.

Major focus was placed on discussing the use of library electronic databases. One purpose was to help the students transfer their current Web search skills to other electronic resources. To attract the students' attention to subscription databases, Biological Abstracts and Web of Science were chosen as representatives because of their coverage and currency. The librarian decided to introduce two databases because she wanted to point out that article indexes or databases could have different search interfaces, but the thinking process and search strategies should apply across all the databases. The session encouraged analysis, group discussion, and looking for answers instead of a one-way lecture. To reinforce the student's understanding of keyword searching, the librarian once again asked the students to identify the main concepts of a research sentence. Using the effective search terms, the librarian demonstrated the use of Biological Abstracts. To help the students advance their knowledge and direct them to a critical reflection on the information searching process, the librarian raised the following question: "If the first search did not produce satisfying results, what possible tactics can be used to retrieve the data you need?" Although no one spoke out, the students' facial expressions displayed that they were thinking about their answer. After waiting for sufficient time, the librarian answered the question herself and introduced using synonyms to refine the search. She then asked the student to generate a list of words that were relevant to previous search keywords. Selecting the alternative terms to construct a new search query, the entire class ran a search again to expand the previous results. The librarian also pointed out using truncation symbols to look for variations of a root term (about 1 minute) and the students expressed curiosity and interest.

Finally, the librarian addressed properly evaluating search results to find appropriate information for the research topic. Having the students evaluate search results strengthened the idea that they should be critical thinkers to assess the quality and effectiveness of information. For example, to promote critical thinking, the librarian asked the students two questions: (1) "What can the total number of search results found imply?" (2) "If the number is very small, what search strategies can be used to broaden the search?" One student responded: "Try different words." The librarian reminded the students of the synonym search approach. She indicated that assessing the number of search records could help decide whether refinements should be conducted. Next, the librarian picked one search result from previous searching and clicked on the title link to go to the full record. In this case, the students used "protein crystal growth" as keywords to find information for the topic, "A process for dynamic control of protein crystal growth". The full record showed that the article title was: "A method for screening the temperature dependence of three-dimensional crystal formation"; the record listed major concepts including "methods and techniques" and "biochemistry and molecular biophysics". The librarian encouraged the students to transform the Web evaluation criteria to interpret and evaluate the database search result. The critical evaluation tasks for the students included: (1) analyzing the relevancy of the source to the research topic by examining the article title, abstract, and major concepts listed, (2) using a variety of criteria, such as currency, types of sources, author information, and publisher, to select suitable resources, (3) deciding desired sources, primary or secondary, to support scientific research, and (4) assessing reliability and validity through analyzing the article content.

When teaching the use of Web of Science, the librarian placed the students in an active role by having them apply what they learned from searching the Biological Abstracts database. With questions to elicit responses, the librarian invited the students to think about the search strategies needed and gradually guided them to the answers. Towards the end of the session, the librarian briefly mentioned that there were several other major databases relating to biochemistry, such as MEDLINE, SciFinder Scholar, and Cab Abstracts. She encouraged the students to compare the above databases after class, recognize the subjects covered, and identify specific characteristics of each source. The print source, Chemical Abstracts, another crucial resource which is central to any area of chemistry research, such as biochemistry, was pointed out as well.

After a brief wrap-up, there were about eights minutes left. So the librarian requested each student to reflect on what had been discussed and presented in the class, do practice searching for their research topics by selecting suitable databases as well as by applying appropriate search techniques and evaluation criteria. During this period of time, the students could benefit from the opportunity to develop research strategies, think critically about the process and the methods used, and implement the thought to formulate a solution. Some students came up with additional questions pertinent to search tactics and other concerns such as accessing databases from home, saving articles in folders, and so forth.

Librarians need to teach students basic knowledge such as how to navigate database interfaces as well as information searching mechanics but, in the process, it is more important for librarians to actively help students develop thinking skills through a set of activities that involve generalizing, cross-connecting, judging and refining knowledge. Generally adopted good teaching strategies that can help promote critical thinking include active and cooperative learning strategies, discussion method, and using questions, all of which engage students to learn and inspire critical thinking. Encouraged and influenced by the good practices, the librarian tried a method that puts an emphasis on inquiry-based instruction. Different from the traditional 75-minute library instruction approach, which consists of a one-hour lecture and a fifteen-minute in class hands-on exercise, in this class, the librarian structured activities and tasks which deliberately incorporated diverse aspects of critical thinking into the teaching of research skills. During the session, teacher-questioning is used as a major instructional method in the process of promoting students' critical thinking. By continually asking questions, the librarian intended to foster student-centered discussions so as to lead the students to active learning and higher level thinking. By providing tasks as problems to solve, the librarian motivated the students to develop analytical skills and learn through thoughtful discoveries. The librarian stimulated the students to understand information resources by comparing various sources, defining criteria to evaluate results, and seeking new solutions (i.e., search tactics).

Evaluation and Lessons Learned

Although an instruction evaluation form was sent out to the professor by the Library Instruction department, a formal questionnaire survey regarding the instructional format and activities was not distributed to the students. Before having access to the formal evaluation, the liaison librarian received an email from the biochemistry professor, indicating that his students "unanimously agreed that it was a worthwhile experience and should be incorporated into the regular class schedule." In the class, before the librarian started to teach, the professor required each student to write a summary of the library instruction and evaluate the usefulness of the class. He wanted to make certain that it could be beneficial to permanently incorporate library instruction into his class. Later, in a library administration committee meeting with the head and library representative from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the professors affirmed that they would integrate information literacy into their educational programs.

The liaison librarian has benefited a great deal from learning successful practices widely implemented in library instruction, such as collaborating with the disciplinary faculty and using examples related to the class assignment or the subject matter of the course. In addition, the librarian has gathered other practical tips on teaching information literacy skills in a meaningful way. The methods include:

Without a doubt, time constraints make it challenging to effectively develop students' critical thinking capabilities in a one-shot library instruction session. It especially requires librarian instructors to efficiently use time, methods, and resources to optimize students learning. Teaching critical thinking also demands that the librarian develop more skills and instructional strategies to promote active learning and problem solving.


Information literacy skills that include recognizing information needs, collecting information from proper databases, evaluating results, and making decisions have become an integral part of students' scientific research. The skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, which are critical components of the research process, can not only help students complete their course works and fulfill their goals in their academic careers, but also empower them to be independent learners throughout their life.

Librarians who have the opportunity to teach should aid students in fostering their abilities to generate and organize ideas and assistant students to develop skills that can solve complex problems. Information literacy instruction should integrate active learning, cooperative learning, and problem-based learning, all of which help students to expand their knowledge base and develop new ideas and transferable skills. These discovery-based learning styles will meet the faculty's expectation for students and the students' need for teaching and learning experience.

Library instruction does not always have to be delivered in the lecture format. Lecturing less and giving students more time to develop thinking skills need to be a strategic method for teaching instructional contents; this instructional approach can force students to discover information, think more critically about the research process, and make judgments and decisions from a base of understanding. Students become active participants in the teaching and learning environment instead of being passive recipients of information. In addition to encouraging students to follow their own thinking, directing thoughtful questions and responses will guide students to expected discussions; providing opportunities for students to complete hands-on exercises will allow them to practice what they have learned, increase their knowledge retention, and be able to apply the principles of research method in other contexts. Promoting critical analysis, evaluation, and use of information in information literacy education will ultimately make the learning process more meaningful, and will produce learning outcomes that are associated with higher order thinking, stronger problem solving, and lifelong learning.


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