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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2010
DOI: 10.5062/F49Z92TJ

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[Refereed]

Using Course Syllabi to Assess Research Expectations of Biology Majors: Implications for Further Development of Information Literacy Skills in the Curriculum

Andrea L. Dinkelman
Assistant Professor and Science & Technology Librarian
Parks Library
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa
adinkelm@iastate.edu

Copyright 2010, Andrea L. Dinkelman. Used with permission.

Abstract

This article describes an analysis of course syllabi from selected courses in the biology curriculum at Iowa State University. The purpose of this research was to learn about the numbers and types of information literacy assignments given to students majoring in biology. Overall, the most common assignment type for biology majors was a lab report or lab exercise. Very few course syllabi mentioned the library as a useful resource for completing assignments. Only a few assignment directions recommended specific indexes such as Biosis Previews or Web of Science. Suggestions for improving the content of course syllabi and additional ideas about the further development of information literacy skills in the biology curriculum are discussed.

Introduction

As the subject librarian for the Departments of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology and Genetics, Development and Cell Biology, the author has been involved with course-related bibliographic instruction for undergraduate students since beginning employment at Iowa State University in October 2003. The author's teaching experiences revealed that many upper-level students had not been exposed to specialized library resources such as Biosis Previews or the Web of Science. At the end of course presentations, students are asked to write down one or two things they learned. Over the past four years, third- and fourth-year students enrolled in Biology 315: Biological Evolution, a core course in the biology curriculum, typically list comments such as:

While it was satisfying to read these comments, it was also discouraging to learn that third- and fourth-year students had not used the specialized resources for their discipline. A faculty member who submitted a syllabus for review shared a similar viewpoint, "On a personal note, I'm astounded at the lack of research skills (i.e., acquiring a PDF of a journal article) exhibited by a large number of my 3rd and 4th year students. Not only could students not navigate the Web of Science, but the thought didn't even occur to them to go the library and photocopy the article from the journal -- in fact, it seemed like it was a "Google or nothing" approach. I am all in favor of not only having students do more literature searches, but doing them much sooner in their academic careers."

Although the author has become a regular guest lecturer for a few courses in the life sciences, there was a curiosity to know, in more detail, what types of assignments were being given to students enrolled in other life sciences courses. The purpose of this project was to learn what types of assignments, especially those requiring research, were given to students who were completing the Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. Course syllabi for certain types of courses within the biology curriculum were collected and analyzed.

Background

The biology major at Iowa State University is an interdepartmental program administered by the Departments of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology and Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology. The major is offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts and Science. There are subtle differences in the college requirements, namely in the number of arts and humanities and social sciences credits. The biology major attracts a large number of students; there were 563 undergraduates majoring in biology in the Fall 2008 semester. According to the program coordinators, approximately 70% of graduating students continue their studies at the graduate or professional level. Students majoring in biology pursue careers in human medicine, veterinary medicine, and other health professions such as chiropractic, optometry, pharmacy, or physical therapy. Other students pursue graduate school, laboratory or field research.

The Biology Degree Requirements (2008) are reviewed and revised biennially. Students must fulfill University and College requirements (e.g., English composition, foreign language, arts/humanities, social science, and ethics), biology major requirements (e.g., core program and advanced courses), supporting sciences requirements (e.g., chemistry, mathematics, physical sciences) and communication requirements. Outcomes assessment goals for the Biology major were developed in 2004 and are available at: http://www.las.iastate.edu/academics/assessment/biology.shtml.

In addition to the above requirements, all students at Iowa State University are required to take the course, Library 160: Finding, Evaluating & Using Information. This one-half credit course introduces students to the resources and services available in academic libraries, and it is typically taken during the first year. The course also provides an introduction to the research process and other information literacy components.

The importance of information literacy within the sciences has been addressed by several organizations. The ALA/ACRL/STS Task Force on Information Literacy for Science and Technology (2006) asserts that, "Information literacy competency is highly important for students in science and engineering/technology disciplines who must access a wide variety of information sources and formats that carry the body of knowledge in their fields." The task force document, Information Literacy Standards for Science/Technology provides detailed information and outcomes about information literacy skills that pertain to students in science and technology disciplines. There are two professional organizations of interest to faculty who are teaching life sciences courses, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) and the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). The National Association of Biology Teachers (2008) released the Guidelines for the Evaluation of Four-Year Undergraduate Biology Programs. These guidelines include criteria for evaluating undergraduate biology programs. Regarding curriculum requirements, the guidelines state the following:

"The curriculum should be designed so that students develop skills in writing scientific papers, performing statistical analysis of data, reading primary literature, and designing and completing valid scientific experiments.

The curriculum should be developed so that the nature of science is stressed and the investigative nature of science is infused throughout the curriculum. Group and individual research projects should be incorporated into all courses. The curriculum should be structured so that more extensive independent work and data analysis is required as the student progresses from introductory to upper level courses. These projects should be developed so that students are exposed to library research, field-based research, and laboratory-based research" (NABT 2008).

The National Research Council (2003) in its BIO 2010 report also affirms the need for "library- and laboratory-based" projects within the curriculum; it also emphasizes the need for students to be skilled in accessing biological data in databases from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Literature Review

The library literature offers a few examples of course syllabi review projects. Rambler (1982) analyzed 162 randomly selected syllabi from Pennsylvania State University; she assessed syllabi for "instructional modes" (e.g., inclusion of presentations, written assignments, assigned readings, etc.) and assigned a level of library usage (e.g., much, some, none) to each mode. Rambler's assertion that a "responsive library is a curriculum-integrated library" served as the impetus for her review. Lauer et al. (1989) analyzed 493 course syllabi from two private academic institutions; they collected data about library usage (e.g., reserve readings, class presentations, research assignments) and ranked the level of usage using a 0-4 scale (no usage to significant usage). Both of these studies also analyzed data in terms of course level. Bean and Klekowski (1993) reviewed 649 course syllabi from classes taught at two of DePaul University's suburban campuses. Course syllabi were analyzed in terms of 10 different "library-use" categories (e.g., research paper, AV equipment, oral presentation, group project, reserve materials, etc.).

Only one study has focused on reviewing syllabi for curriculum within a specific discipline. Dewald (2003) analyzed course syllabi for required courses in the Bachelor of Science in Business Administration program at Pennsylvania State University. A modification of the method used by Lauer et al. (1989) was used to determine the amount of "research or library use" expected of students. Dewald noted that earlier syllabi studies were conducted before information was readily available from the World Wide Web so she chose to include "research or library use" in the 0-4 scale. Much business information is freely available on the web so students may not use library resources thereby causing Dewald to include any "research need" in her review.

Williams et al. (2004) evaluated 253 syllabi from 34 disciplines for library usage. Their article devoted significant attention to the outcomes that occurred as a result of the project. Project outcomes included: activities related to collection development, enhancing and creating additional web-based research guides, increased course-related instruction sessions, and increasing awareness of library resources to faculty members.

Two recent syllabi studies have taken a broader approach and included specific questions related to information literacy and university curriculum learning objectives. In a library instruction assessment report, Holliday and Martin (2006) analyzed 192 syllabi from general education courses at Utah State University. Their assessment included a number of questions specifically related to information literacy; several of their questions were used for this study. O'Hanlon (2007) of The Ohio State University reviewed course syllabi and surveyed teaching faculty for second level writing courses and senior capstone courses in her research project that assessed information literacy goals and assignments in two types of general education courses. One of the goals of O'Hanlon's project was to determine whether or not University-prescribed curriculum goals were mentioned on the course syllabus.

Lastly, a syllabi study conducted by VanScoy and Oakleaf (2008) determined that first-year college students were expected to locate articles, web sites, and books to complete research assignments given during the first semester of college. They analyzed course syllabi from a random sample of 350 students who were first semester college students. The authors suggest that librarians must consider local research expectations of students rather than teaching information skills in a "tiered" approach.

The purpose of the course syllabi review described in this article is to gain a better understanding of the research expectations of biology majors with the hope of further developing and expanding course-related instruction in this discipline.

Methods

Course requirements for the biology degree are listed on the Biology Degree Requirements document (2008). This project focused on reviewing syllabi for classes listed in the "Biology Major Requirements" section of this document. There are three groups of courses in this section: core program, biology advanced courses, and advanced courses from other departments or programs. Syllabi associated with courses that are part of the University, College, supporting science, and communication requirements were not reviewed. While students will likely complete assignments that require research in some of the non-reviewed course syllabi, the intent of this review was to focus on whether or not students were encountering research assignments in discipline-specific courses. Because a large number of students pursue advanced degrees, it is important that they develop some skills using the specialized indexes and other resources from the life sciences and biomedical field.

One hundred four course syllabi were collected over a two-year period and included courses that were taught during the Spring 2007, Fall 2007, Spring 2008, and Fall 2008 semesters. Using the online course schedule (http://classes.iastate.edu/) on the University web site, a list of courses was compiled at the beginning of each semester. Faculty were contacted via e-mail and invited to submit course syllabi and any associated handouts describing specific assignments. Courses with a laboratory component often had a lab manual, and in many cases, supplementary information for the laboratory was not reviewed.

Core Program Courses

There are 12 uniquely numbered courses in this group. (See Appendix 1.) Syllabi were collected for all (100%) of the courses in this group. The total sample size was 25. Many of the core courses are large-lecture courses that have multiple sections or the teaching responsibility rotates among faculty from semester to semester, so more than one course syllabus was collected. Four out of the 12 courses are laboratory courses. In some instances, additional courses materials for the laboratory (e.g., manual, handouts) were also received and reviewed.

Approved Biology Advanced Courses

Syllabi were collected for regularly occurring classes and experimental classes in this category. Experimental courses are not listed on the Biology Degree Requirements document; those courses are listed on the online class schedule each semester. The following courses were excluded: Biology 480, 481, 482, 490, 491, 494, 495, and 498. This group includes courses such as off-campus field experiences (480-482), independent study (490), laboratory teaching assistant (491), internships (494), seminars (495), and cooperative education (498).

There are 41 uniquely numbered courses in this course group after the above courses are excluded. Experimental courses contain an "X" at the end of the course number. Some courses are offered for graduate-level credit as indicated by dual course numbers. Syllabi were collected for 34 courses (83%) in this group, plus two experimental courses for a total of 36 uniquely numbered courses. (See Appendix 1.) The total sample size was 40. Two courses had multiple sections/instructors, so more than one syllabus was collected. In this sample, 15 out of 36 courses include a lab session in addition to the lecture, and three courses are lab courses exclusively. Seventeen courses are lecture-based. The international field trips course incorporates a pre-trip seminar followed by the field trip.

Advanced Courses from other Departments or Programs

Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology 404 and 420 were excluded as both of these courses are electives under the "supporting sciences" requirements. Genetics 462 was excluded as this course also appears in the Approved Biology Advanced Courses category as Biology 462. There are 50 uniquely numbered courses in this group after the above courses are excluded. Syllabi were collected for 38 (76%) courses in this group. The total sample size was 39. (See Appendix 1.) One course had multiple sections/instructors, so more than one syllabus was collected. In this sample, 15 of the 38 courses include a lab session in addition to the lecture. Twenty-two courses are lecture-based. One course is a laboratory course; and the laboratory manual was reviewed in addition to the syllabus.

Information Collected

An Excel spreadsheet was created for each of the three course groups to record information about each syllabus. Answers to nine questions (listed below) were recorded for each syllabus. Questions 1-7 were taken from the methods used by Holliday and Martin (2006) and O'Hanlon (2007). Questions 8-9 were developed by the author of this study. The following information was collected from each syllabus:

  1. Are the course objectives/learning goals stated on the syllabus? If yes, was information literacy an explicit part of those goals?
  2. Were information literacy assignments included? Information literacy assignments were defined as anything that required students to find, evaluate, or use information sources in some final product, such as a paper, presentation, etc.
  3. How many information literacy assignments were required?
  4. What types of assignments were required?
  5. Did information literacy assignments require that students find external sources of information (rather than evaluating and synthesizing information provided by the instructor)?
  6. For assignments that required external sources of information, did the syllabus describe types of or specific information sources to be used to complete the assignment?
  7. Does the syllabus explicitly mention the library as a useful resource for students to complete their assignments?
  8. For writing assignments that require a bibliography or a list of works cited, does the syllabus state a preferred citation style or provide examples of how to format the list?
  9. Does the course incorporate scientific literature either as an assignment or supplementary readings? For this question, assignments of interest include: written critique/review of one article from the scientific literature or discussion of scientific literature in class. For class discussion assignments, the instructor may provide a list of questions to assist students in reviewing the article. Supplementary readings may also be discussed in class, but there was no assignment associated with the reading.

Results

Course Objectives/Learning Goals

Fifty-eight out of 104 (56%) syllabi listed the course objectives and/or learning goals (See Table 1.). Only 26 (45%) out of 58 syllabi included statements related to information literacy. Overall, this represents only 25% of the total number of syllabi collected. Although none of the courses in the "Biology Core Courses" group listed learning goals pertaining to information literacy, several of these courses included information literacy assignments. Examples of information literacy learning goals include:

Table 1: Course Objectives/Learning Goals Stated on Syllabus

N=104 syllabi

 

Biology Core Courses N=25

Biology Advanced Courses N=40

Advanced Courses-Other Depts. N=39

Are the course objectives/learning goals stated on the syllabus?

Yes
No

36%
64%

65%
35%

59%
41%

If yes, was information literacy an explicit part of those goals?

 

0%

50%

57%

Information Literacy Assignments

Information literacy assignments were included on 63 (61%) of the course syllabi. The number of assignments per syllabus ranged from 1-9 (average 2.58) in the "Biology Core Courses" group, 1-12 (average 3.04) in the "Biology Advanced Courses" group, and 1-10 (average 2.38) in the "Advances Courses-Other Departments" group. Syllabi from advanced courses from biology and other departments were more likely to include information literacy assignments (See Table 2). There were a total of 169 information literacy assignments listed on the 63 syllabi.

Table 2: Information Literacy Assignments Required

N=104 syllabi

 

Biology Core Courses N=25

Biology Advanced Courses N=40

Advanced Courses-Other Depts. N=39

Were information literacy assignments included on the syllabus?

Yes No

48%
52%

63%
38%

67%
33%

How many information literacy assignments were required?

 

31

76

62

Note: Due to rounding, total percentages may be greater than 100%.

Nine types of information literacy assignments were noted (see Table 3):

  1. Lab report/lab exercise: For this study, a lab exercise is defined as a short assignment (often a series of questions) that required students to find sources, and a lab report is defined as a report that summarizes and presents the results of an experiment.
  2. Short paper: Short papers included assignments such as: reviewing a book, reviewing an article from the popular press, writing summaries of primary research articles, attending a departmental seminar and writing a short reflection paper, and writing about historical persons in a specific discipline.
  3. Scientific literature class discussion: These assignments required students to read scientific journal articles and to be prepared to discuss them during class. In some cases, the students also completed a worksheet with questions about specific aspects of the article.
  4. Miscellaneous homework assignments: Assignments placed in this category include: informational brochure, analysis of case studies, or worksheets that included a series of questions.
  5. Research paper/research project: Assignments include: 10-15 page research papers and research projects often included multiple parts (e.g., developing a research proposal, a management plan, and giving a final presentation).
  6. Presentation: The student gave a presentation on a selected topic during class.
  7. Paper/presentation: Assignments include: a paper and presentation on the same topic, or the student had the choice of writing a paper or giving a presentation.
  8. Poster presentation: The assignment required students to present their topic in the form of a scientific poster.
  9. Debate: Students debated a topic during class.

Overall, the three most frequently noted assignment types were lab report/lab exercise, short paper, and discussion of scientific literature in class. Research papers/research projects accounted for only 9% of the total number of assignments in the sample.

Table 3: Assignment Types

N=Number of assignments

Biology Core Courses N=31

Biology Advanced Courses N=76

Advanced Courses Other Depts. N=62

Total

Lab Report/Lab Exercise

39%

28%

29%

30%

Short Paper

42%

12%

16%

19%

Scientific Literature Class Discussion

0%

25%

10%

15%

Miscellaneous Homework assignments

0%

13%

16%

12%

Research Paper/Research Project

13%

7%

10%

9%

Presentation

0%

7%

15%

8%

Paper & Presentation
Paper or Presentation

3%
0%

7%
1%

0%
0%

4%

Scientific Poster Presentation

3%

1%

3%

2%

Debate

0%

0%

2%

1%

Note: Due to rounding, total percentages may be greater than 100%.

Information Literacy Assignment Guidelines

Out of the total number of 169 assignments, students were expected to find external sources of information to complete class assignments for 138 (82%) of the assignments. (See Table 4.) In those cases in which students were not required to find sources in 31 assignments (18%), the instructor was providing the information source (e.g., books, primary literature, web sites).

Table 4: External Sources of Information Required

N=Number of assignments

 

Biology Core Courses N=31

Biology Advanced Courses N=76

Advanced Courses-Other Depts. N=62

Did information literacy assignments require that students find external sources of information?

Yes
No

87%
13%

76%
24%

85%
15%

Table 5 provides information about whether or not the syllabus provided information about the types of sources (e.g., primary research article, popular press article) to be used or what resources students should use (e.g., providing specific titles of journals or mentioning specific article indexes). For the assignments that did not have specific information about types of sources, it should be noted that many of those assignments were lab reports; as stated earlier, complete information about laboratory assignments was not available for every course. Example wording from the course syllabi includes:

Table 5: Assignment Guidelines

N=Number of assignments

 

Biology Core Courses N=27

Biology Advanced Courses N=58

Advanced Courses-Other Depts. N=53

For the assignments that required external sources of information, do the assignment directions describe types of or specific information sources to be used to complete the assignments?

Yes
No

63%
37%

62%
38%

38%
62%

Out of the 63 course syllabi that included information literacy assignments, only 11 (17%) mentioned the library as a useful resource. (See Table 6.) If the library was mentioned, it was usually mentioned in the assignment directions and often in passing. For example:

Table 6: Library Mentioned on Syllabus

N=Number of syllabi with assignments

 

Biology Core Courses N=12

Biology Advanced Courses N=25

Advanced Courses-Other Depts. N=26

For those syllabi with information literacy assignments, does the syllabus mention the library as a useful resource for students to complete their assignments?

Yes
No

17%
83%

24%
76%

12%
88%

Only 13 (21%) of the 63 syllabi with assignments provided information about which citation style to use or provided specific examples about how to format the list. (See Table 7.) Examples include:

Table 7: Citation Format Stated on Syllabus

N=Number of syllabi with assignments

 

Biology Core Courses N=12

Biology Advanced Courses N=25

Advanced Courses-Other Depts. N=26

For those course syllabi that included assignments, does the syllabus state a preferred citation style or provide examples of how to format a bibliography or "works cited" section for assignments that require this?

Yes
No

25%
75%

16%
84%

23%
77%

Thirty out of 104 (29%) course syllabi incorporated scientific literature into the course as supplementary readings, used scientific literature in place of a textbook, or as an assignment. (See Table 8.) Seventy-four (71%) syllabi did not specifically mention the use of scientific literature.

Table 8: Scientific Literature Included in the Course

N=Number of syllabi

 

Biology Core Courses N=25

Biology Advanced Courses N=40

Advanced Courses-Other Depts. N=39

Does the course utilize scientific literature? (as an assignment or supplementary readings)

 

Yes
Not Stated


8%
92%


38%
63%


33%
67%

How is scientific literature incorporated into the course?

 

Biology Core Courses N=2

Biology Advanced Courses N=15

Advanced Courses-Other Depts. N=13

Supplementary readings

 

50%

47%

62%

Scientific literature used in place of a textbook

 

0%

7%

15%

Assignment: Short paper that analyzes 1 article

 

50%

13%

15%

Assignment: In class discussion of scientific literature

 

0%

47%

8%

Note: Due to rounding, total percentages may be greater than 100%. Total percentages may also be greater than 100% if a course used supplementary readings and included assignments.

Discussion

Useful information and insights about specific courses in the biology curriculum has been acquired from this extensive review of course syllabi. While the syllabus may not provide complete information about what is happening in a course, the review provides a baseline assessment of the amount of research that is expected of biology majors. It also provides an overview of what types of information literacy skills are being addressed in the curriculum. Preliminary discussions about the nature and intent of this project have occurred with the biology program coordinators, and they have expressed a strong interest in learning about the results of this analysis. Following the discussion of the results, recommendations regarding "best practices" for syllabi construction and insights gleaned from this study are discussed in further detail.

Course Objectives/Learning Goals

Intentionally including information literacy learning goals on a syllabus is an indication that the instructor acknowledges the significance and importance of the need for students to continue to learn and develop these skills. In this study, many of the information literacy learning goals stressed the ability to critically read and evaluate scientific literature. Only one syllabus included a goal that mentioned the process of doing literature searches and using online indexes. During the course of this study it was noted that teaching faculty affiliated with a program (Microbiology) and a department (Natural Resource Ecology and Management) routinely included goals related to information literacy on course syllabi. The program's and department's web sites include information about outcomes assessment. Some "student learning goals" from the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management - Iowa State University (2008) include:

The Microbiology program's Intended Professional and Technical Learning Accomplishments (ND) and Intended Professional Abilities (ND) include statements related to critical thinking and communication skills. The content of these documents is based on recommendations from, ASM's Curriculum Recommendations: Microbiology Majors Program (Baker 2005).

Information Literacy Assignments

Biology advanced courses and advanced courses from other departments, typically taken by students during the third and fourth year of the undergraduate program, were more likely to include information literacy assignments. One of the major challenges related to including assignments, such as research papers, in the biology core courses is the large class size. Course enrollment for Biology 312, 313, 314, and 315, typically taken by students during the second and third year, ranges from 70 -- 230 students per course.

Because of the large number of courses that include a laboratory component, it is not surprising that the most common assignment type across all three course groups was a lab report or lab exercise. Only two laboratory courses included specific exercises related to finding literature and writing lab reports. The "Literature Search Exercise" in Biology 354: Animal Behavior included a number of activities in which students compared Web of Science, Biosis Previews, and Google Scholar. This exercise also gave students practice in searching for phrases, using Boolean operators, finding related articles, and finding papers cited by another paper. A "Writing Lab Reports Exercise" in Biology 312: Ecology gave students the opportunity to search Agricola or Biosis Previews and included an activity which required to students to format citations (e.g., book, book chapter, journal article) in proper scientific format. Both of these courses used these activities as a precursor to lab report assignments that occurred later in the course. Several other interesting assignments include:

One of the fundamental skills biology majors must develop is the ability to read and comprehend scientific research articles. Twenty-nine percent of the course syllabi included scientific literature as supplementary readings or as assignments that required students to write short papers that reviewed a single article or complete a worksheet in which a series of questions were answered about the article. This number may certainly be higher as additional readings may have been incorporated into the class at a later time. Certainly other assignment types, such as research papers and presentations, require the use of scientific literature, but the author was especially curious to know what types of assignments gave students experience in starting to learn this skill. The short paper and worksheet assignments serve as "building blocks" in learning how to read the scholarly literature.

Information Literacy Assignment Guidelines

Students were expected and required to find outside resources to complete the majority of the assignments described in the course syllabi in this sample. Depending on the nature of the assignment, students were usually required to find scholarly research articles. While it was common to see the source type requirement listed on the syllabus (e.g., journal article, book), it was less likely to find suggestions of specific indexes to use. In fact, there were only six course syllabi that mentioned one or more article indexes by name. If students are expected to find scholarly sources, they need to be made aware of what resources (beyond Google) are available. Although all students at Iowa State University are required to take Library 160: Finding, Evaluating & Using Information, the course only provides a broad introduction to the library and a very general introduction to the different types of information sources available. Specialized indexes for the different disciplines are not covered in great detail. It has been the author's experience that some faculty assume that research skills are taught in English composition courses and Library 160. While this is certainly the case, students are usually not learning about the specialized indexes and electronic resources at that level. This assumption was echoed in a comment that was received from a faculty member who contributed a syllabus to the study, "I don't give the students a lot of instruction on reviewing literature or using the library resources. I assume that as juniors and seniors and having taken a series of prereq's for the course that they should have at least the beginnings of such skills."

With respect to other assignment guidelines, few syllabi with assignments provided information about specific citation styles or provided examples of how assignment bibliographies should be formatted. For those syllabi that included this information, the citation style chosen was often the style of a specific journal in the discipline. It is quite possible that more details were provided to students later in the semester. However, based on past experiences at the reference desk, it has been the author's experience that students often ask what citation style to use for assignments because it was not stated by the course instructor.

Suggestions for Course Syllabus Improvement

A number of ideas related to improving syllabus content became apparent as a result of this review. With regards to what types of information should to be included in a course syllabus and/or associated handouts, several suggestions are listed below:

  1. Be sure the assignment directions that specify types of sources are unambiguous. Wording such as: "A minimum of three references required. Only ONE of which may be from the web or internet." may be misinterpreted by students. Because of the large number of library resources available electronically, students may think that electronic journals are not acceptable sources. Be specific about the types of sources (e.g., primary research article, review article, etc.) required for assignments. A statement such as, "Please include at least three references that you used to compose your answer (your text book is a valid choice). References are a very important part of this assignment." makes the assumption the student knows what kind of references to select. Flaspohler et al. (2007) found that providing more detailed assignment instructions to students enrolled in an upper-level biology course contributed to improved student work.
  2. Suggest specific resources for students to use to locate information (e.g., Biosis Previews, Web of Science, etc.). When including links to specific resources on the syllabus or course web site, make sure the URL contains the "proxy" information. This insures availability off-campus. Free web sites, such as PubMed and Google Scholar, also have different URLs that provide direct linkage to full-text journal articles. While listing specific titles of journals in a discipline is helpful to students, oftentimes students think that these are the only journals acceptable for an assignment. Students need to be aware of what article databases index those journals as well as others in the discipline.
  3. Specify a citation style for class assignments. In some instances, some syllabi stated references should be in "standard bibliographical format." This is apt to cause confusion as students are often unaware of the multitude of citation styles. English composition courses often require use of the Modern Language Association (MLA) format. Unless students have encountered the Council of Science Editors (CSE) style previously, they may be unaware that a specific style for science publishing exists. An alternative to CSE is requiring students to use the citation style of a specific journal.
  4. Include specific directions for preparing research papers, lab reports, research posters, and presentations that use PowerPoint slides. Assignment directions in this set of syllabi ranged from very brief to several pages of instructions. A notable item that was provided in a lab manual was a "checklist" that guided students in what elements needed to be included in a scientific report. Another course included a "checklist" for preparing a scientific poster. Consider using a grading rubric for assignments. Two rubrics were encountered in this study. One rubric was used for the grading of an informational brochure, and the other rubric was used for a term paper assignment. A grading rubric developed by Flaspohler et al. (2007) for an annotated bibliography assignment focused extensively on source quality as well as other elements of the assignment. Porter (2005) also uses a grading rubric for several written assignments in a cell biology course.
  5. Mention the library and subject librarian as a source of information and additional assistance.

Implications for Librarians and Life Sciences Teaching Faculty

While the author has made progress in increasing the amount of course-related instruction within the biology curriculum, there is clearly more work that needs to be done in promoting the library's resources and services to the teaching faculty. This project has increased the author's awareness of specific types of information that should be communicated to teaching faculty and generated some additional ideas to explore with the program's faculty.

Course Reserves and Copyright

Encourage faculty to contact the Library's course reserve service to place supplemental textbooks on reserve. For some courses, supplemental books were listed on the syllabus, but not placed on reserve. A few syllabi listed supplemental books that were held at a branch library rather than the main library on central campus making it inconvenient for students to use the suggested items. It was also noted that sometimes the most current edition of a supplemental book was not listed on the syllabus. Inform faculty about issues associated with copyright. Some course syllabi stated that PDFs of articles were being posted in WebCT® or on a faculty member's course web site.

Research Guides

Within the past year, online subject guides have been developed for several subject areas within the life sciences using the LibGuides® application. Planned enhancements to existing guides include adding additional information about careers in the life sciences as this topic is presented to students in an orientation class and including information about scientific writing and communication. Based on this review of syllabi, some classes would benefit from a course-specific research guide. A few syllabi listed web sites and other suggested sources. This list could be enhanced by promoting the library resources relevant to the course. If the instructor is using some type of course management system, encourage the placement of a link to the guide within the course page. The online research guides are an excellent way to increase student and faculty awareness of relevant library resources for their courses. Because of the increasing amount of information that is available online, teaching faculty may not be aware of all of the specialized resources that are available. This sentiment was expressed by one faculty member during this study, "Students today are very quick to perform Google searches, but they need to learn to recognize reliable sources. I stress this point with them a lot. Other than NCBI, I don't have a working knowledge of other credible source databases that I should recommend."

Information Literacy and the Curriculum

A key idea to consider and discuss with the biology program coordinators is how information literacy skills can be further developed within the curriculum. Smith (2003) discusses the science education process of science students and identifies information literacy skills that are needed at each level of education (e.g., undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral). Grafstein (2002) advocates that information literacy skills are best taught by librarians and discipline-specific classroom faculty. Some items to explore are:

  1. How might information literacy skills be incorporated more consistently into the biology core program courses?  The main challenge is the large enrollment for these courses. The literature offers a number of examples of librarian and teaching faculty who are collaborating within introductory biology courses (Ferrer-Vinent & Carello 2008; Firooznia & Andreadis 2006; Jacob & Heisel 2008; Kearns & Hybl 2005).
  2. Encourage teaching faculty in advanced courses to incorporate assignments that allow students to expand their research skills and knowledge of important resources. Holyoak (1998) discusses the importance of writing throughout the biology curriculum and identified eight types of writing tasks that biologists encounter in their careers. Many of these writing tasks, such as writing position papers or literature reviews, require students to find and evaluate scientific information. Although this project did not map the Information Literacy Standards for Science and Engineering/Technology (ALA/ACRL/STS Task Force 2006) to the assignments listed in the course syllabi, upon reviewing the standards at the end of the project and thinking about the nature of the assignments that were included in this set of course syllabi, there are some topics mentioned in the standards that may not be adequately addressed in the curriculum. Some examples and observations are listed below:
    • Scientific publishing cycle and types of sources (Standard 1.3.a & b) -- The information cycle is presented in very general terms in the Library 160 course. Students may not have a good understanding about the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources as applied to the life sciences.
    • Awareness of professional associations (Standard 1.3.c) - Only one syllabi in this study, Microbiology 477: Bacterial Plant Interactions, mentioned a professional association (American Phytopathological Society) as a useful source of information.
    • Awareness of relevant article indexes in the field and knowing how to search them (Standards 2.2 and 2.3.a) -- As discussed previously, very few course syllabi listed specific resources by name, and only one assignment in this study gave students the opportunity to practice Boolean searching, phrase searching, and other techniques.
    • Current awareness and lifelong learning (Standards 5.1 and 5.2) -- There were no assignments in this study that introduced students to current awareness tools such as setting up alerts to receive tables of contents, "saved" searches, or the use of RSS feeds.
    • Awareness of other forms of scholarly publishing (Standard 5.2.e) -- While some courses incorporated "current events" assignments that required articles from the "popular" press (e.g., newspapers, magazines), students would also benefit from reading and reacting to postings from some of the life sciences blogs.
  3. Consider a more systematic approach to the inclusion of scientific literature within the curriculum. Tenopir et al. (2003) used focus groups to determine how and when undergraduate students from chemistry, engineering, and physics are using scholarly journals. The authors of the study state, "Students do not come to college with an inborn knowledge of the importance of scholarly scientific literature, nor do many of them possess the skills and knowledge necessary to evaluate quality, read and understand scientific literature, or know when to use journal literature in their work." Assignments such as lab reports and research papers require students to use the scientific literature. But, students also need assignments that give them the opportunity to analyze and understand a single research article. Rybarczyk (2006) provides a number of suggestions regarding the use of scientific literature within the curriculum.

Conclusion

This review of course syllabi for the biology curriculum has provided useful information about the number and types of information literacy assignments given to biology majors at a large, land-grant university. The method used in this study could be adapted by any science librarian who is interested in learning more about a specific curriculum at their institution. While many courses incorporated assignments that required students to locate information, very few courses required the typical term paper assignment that is often used in the humanities and social sciences. Large classes often preclude incorporating an assignment of this nature. Hopefully, further conversations with teaching faculty can lead to the development of assignments that give students practice accessing and using the resources important to the biological sciences, as well as learning other important research skills. Identifying ways to incorporate additional library instruction, whether in class or web-based, is also a desired outcome.

Although students are taught basic information regarding research skills and library resources in English composition courses and the required library course, the continued development of these skills, especially as they relate to the discipline, is crucial to their success in college and beyond. Tenopir et al. (2003) states, "Much introduction to search systems and journals is now "hit or miss" in the science curriculum." Based on this review and past teaching experiences, the author tends to agree with this statement. Because courses within the biology curriculum are taught by a large number of faculty members from several different departments or the teaching responsibility for a course rotates among faculty members, there is no assurance that assignments that provide students exposure to resources and research skills important to the discipline are included on a consistent basis. Tenopir et al. (2003) goes on to state, "A coherent information literacy plan that builds over all four years of the undergraduate experience would help students better understand search engines, search strategies and content." Continuing to strengthen existing partnerships and establish new ones with teaching faculty is a great way to begin to accomplish the task of developing a strategy that addresses the need to incorporate information literacy assignments throughout a student's undergraduate career. Next steps include sharing the results of this research with the program coordinators and teaching faculty and beginning a conversation about how the recommendations might be implemented.

References

American Library Association (ALA)/Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)/Science and Technology Section (STS) Task Force on Information Literacy for Science and Technology. 2006. Information literacy standards for science and engineering/technology. [Online]. Available: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/standards/infolitscitech.cfm [Accessed: July 28, 2009].

Baker, N.R. 2005. ASM's curriculum recommendations: microbiology majors program. [Online]. Available: {http://www.asm.org/index.php/component/content/article/29-education/undergraduate-faculty/223-asms-curriculum-recommendations-microbiology-majors-program} [Accessed: October 8, 2009].

Bean, R. J. & Klekowski, L. M. 1993. Course syllabi: extracting their hidden potential In: Jacobs, C.J., editor. The Sixth Off-Campus Library Services Conference Proceedings; Mount Pleasant, MI: Central Michigan University. p. 1-9.

Biology Degree Requirements. 2008. [Online]. Available: http://www.biology.iastate.edu/Feb08DegreeRequirements.pdf [Accessed: March 9, 2010].

Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management - Iowa State University. 2008. Learner outcomes assessment portfolio. [Online]. Available: http://www.nrem.iastate.edu/about/outcomes/snapshot/learning_goals.php [Accessed: July 30, 2009].

Dewald, N. H. 2003. Anticipating library use by business students: the uses of a syllabus study. Research Strategies 19(1): 33-45.

Ferrer-Vinent, I. J. & Carello, C. A. 2008. Embedded library instruction in a first-year biology laboratory course. Science & Technology Libraries 28(4): 325-351.

Firooznia, F. & Andreadis, D. K. 2006. Information literacy in introductory biology. Journal of College Science Teaching 35(6): 23-27.

Flaspohler, M. R., Rux, E. M., Flaspohler, J. A. 2007. The annotated bibliography and citation behavior: enhancing student scholarship in an undergraduate biology course. CBE- Life Sciences Education 6(4): 350-60.

Grafstein, A. 2002. A discipline-based approach to information literacy. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 28(4): 197-204.

Holliday, W. & Martin, P. 2006. University studies syllabus audit. [Online]. Available: http://library.usu.edu/instruct/gened-il-audit.pdf [Accessed: July 30, 2009].

Holyoak, A. R. 1998. A plan for writing throughout (not just across) the biology curriculum. The American Biology Teacher 60(3): 186-190.

Intended Professional Abilities. N.D. [Online]. Available: http://www.micro.iastate.edu/extendedgoals.html [Accessed: October 8, 2009].

Intended Professional and Technical Learning Accomplishments. N.D. [Online]. Available: http://www.micro.iastate.edu/majorgoals.html [Accessed: October 8, 2009].

Jacob, N. & Heisel, A. P. 2008. A faculty-librarian partnership for investigative learning in the introductory biology laboratory. Journal of College Science Teaching 37(4): 54-59.

Kearns, K. & Hybl, T. T. 2005. A collaboration between faculty and librarians to develop and assess a science literacy laboratory module. Science & Technology Libraries 25(4): 39-56.

Lauer, J. D., Merz, L. H., Craig, S. L. 1989. What syllabi reveal about library use: a comparative look at two private academic institutions. Research Strategies 7(4): 167-174.

National Association of Biology Teachers. 2008. Guidelines for the evaluation of four-year undergraduate biology programs. [Online]. Available: http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/index.php?p=118 [Accessed: July 28, 2009].

National Research Council. 2003. BIO 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, Washington, D.C. : National Academies Press. p. 3, 46-47.

O'Hanlon, N. 2007. Information literacy in the university curriculum: challenges for outcomes assessment. portal: Libraries & the Academy 7(2): 169-189.

Outcomes Assessment for the Biology Major. 2004. [Online]. Available: http://www.las.iastate.edu/academics/assessment/biology.shtml [Accessed: October 8, 2009].

Porter, J. R. 2005. Information literacy in biology education: an example from an advanced cell biology course. Cell Biology Education 4(4): 335-43.

Rambler, L. K. 1982. Syllabus study: key to a responsive academic library. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 8(3): 155-159.

Rybarczyk, B. 2006. Incorporating primary literature into science learning. In: Mintzes, J.J. & Leonard, W.H., editors. Handbook of College Science Teaching; Arlington,VA: NSTA Press. p. 159-166.

Smith, E. M. 2003. Developing an information skills curriculum for the sciences. Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship [Online]. Available: http://www.istl.org/03-spring/article8.html [Accessed: August 1, 2009].

Tenopir, C., Pollard, R., Wang, P., Greene, D., Kline, E., Krummen, J., Kirk, R. 2003. Undergraduate science students and electronic scholarly journals. In: Todd, R.J., editor. ASIST 2003: Proceedings of the 66th ASIST Annual Meeting; Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., p. 291-297.

VanScoy, A. & Oakleaf, M. J. 2008. Evidence vs. anecdote: using syllabi to plan curriculum-integrated information literacy instruction. College & Research Libraries 69(6): 566-575.

Williams, L. M., Cody, S. A., Parnell, J. 2004. Prospecting for new collaborations: mining syllabi for library service opportunities. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 30(4): 270-275.


Appendix 1

Biology Core Program Courses (N=12 courses)

Number of Unique Syllabi Collected

Courses that Include a Lab Session

Biology 110 - Introduction to Biology

1

 

Biology 111 - Opportunities in Biology

1

 

Biology 211 - Principles of Biology I

6

 

Biology 212 - Principles of Biology II

4

 

Biology 312 - Ecology

1

X

Biology 313 - Principles of Genetics

3

 

Biology 314 - Principles of Molecular Cell Biology

2

 

Biology 315 - Biological Evolution

2

 

Biology 211L - Principles of Biology I Laboratory

1

 

Biology 212L - Principles of Biology II Laboratory

1

 

Biology 313L - Principles of Genetics Laboratory

2

 

Biology 314L - Principles of Molecular Cell Biology Laboratory

1

 

Total

25

1

Biology Advanced Courses (N=36 courses)

Number of Unique Syllabi Collected

Courses that Include a Lab Session

Biology 306X - Metabolic Physiology

1

 

Biology 328X - Cell Physiology of Human Diseases

1

 

Biology 335 - Principles of Animal Physiology

1

X

Biology 336X - Ecological and Evolutionary Animal Physiology

1

 

Biology 351 - Comparative Chordate Anatomy

1

X

Biology 352 - Vertebrate Histology

1

X

Biology 353 - Introduction to Parasitology

1

X

Biology 354 - Animal Behavior

1

 

Biology 354L - Animal Behavior Laboratory

1

 

Biology 355 - Plants and People

1

 

Biology 356 - Dendrology

1

 

Biology 364 - Biology of Invertebrates

1

 

Biology 365 - Vertebrate Biology

1

X

Biology 371 - Ecological Methods

1

X

Biology 381 - Environmental Systems

1

X

Biology 394 - International Field Trips in Biology

4

 

Biology 423 - Developmental Biology

1

 

Biology 423L - Developmental Biology Laboratory

1

 

Biology 428 - Topics in Cell Biology

1

 

Biology 434 - General and Comparative Endocrinology

1

 

Biology 436 - Neurobiology

1

 

Biology 444/544 - Introduction to Bioinformatics

1

X

Biology 454 - Plant Anatomy

1

X

Biology 455X/555X - Bryophyte and Lichen Biodiversity

1

 

Biology 456 - Principles of Mycology

1

X

Biology 457 - Herpetology

1

X

Biology 458/EEOB 558 - Ornithology

1

X

Biology 459/559 - Mammalogy

1

X

Biology 462 - Evolutionary Genetics

1

 

Biology 465/EEOB 565 -Morphometric Analysis

1

X

Biology 471X - Conservation Biology

1

 

Biology 474 - Plant Ecology

2

 

Biology 483/EEOB 583 - Environmental Biogeochemistry

1

X

Biology 486/EEOB 586 - Aquatic Ecology

1

 

Biology 486/EEOB 586L - Aquatic Ecology Laboratory

1

 

Biology 488 - Identification of Aquatic Organisms

1

 

Total

40

15

Advanced Courses from Other Departments (N=38 courses)

Number of Unique Syllabi Collected

Courses that Include a Lab Session

Agronomy 421 -- Introduction to Plant Breeding

1

 

Agronomy 485/585 - Soil Microbial Ecology

1

X

Anthropology 307 - Biological Anthropology

1

X

Anthropology 319/519 - Skeletal Biology

1

X

Anthropology 424/524 - Forensic Anthropology

1

X

Animal  Science 331 - Animal Reproduction

1

 

Animal Science 332 - Laboratory Methods in Animal Reproduction

1

 

Animal Science 337 - Lactation Biology

1

 

Biochemistry, Biophysics & Molecular Biology 405 - Biochemistry II

1

 

Biochemistry, Biophysics & Molecular Biology 411 - Techniques in Biochemical Research

1

X

Entomology 370 - Insect Biology

1

X

Entomology 374 - Insects and Our Health

1

 

Entomology 375/575 - Plant Protection

1

 

Entomology 376 - Fundamentals of Entomology and Pest Management

1

X

Entomology 425/525 - Aquatic Insects

1

X

Exercise & Sport Science 355 - Biomechanics

1

X

Genetics 340 - Human Genetics

1

 

Genetics 410 - Transmission Genetics

1

 

Genetics 411 - Molecular Genetics

1

 

Horticulture 321 - Horticulture Physiology

1

 

Horticulture 423/523 - Plant Tissue Culture

1

X

Microbiology 302 - Biology of Microorganisms

2

 

Microbiology 302L - Biology of Microorganisms Laboratory

1

 

Microbiology 310 - Medical Microbiology

1

 

Microbiology 320 - Fundamentals of Microbial Physiology and Genetics

1

 

Microbiology 402/502 - Microbial Genetics

1

 

Microbiology 408/508 - Virology

1

 

Microbiology 420 - Food Microbiology

1

 

Microbiology 475/575 - Immunology

1

 

Microbiology 477 - Bacterial-Plant Interactions

1

 

Animal Ecology 321 - Fish Biology

1

X

Animal Ecology 366 - Natural History of Iowa Vertebrates

1

X

Animal Ecology 442/542 - Aquaculture

1

 

Natural Resource Ecology & Management 301 - Forest Ecology and Soils

1

X

Natural Resource Ecology & Management 407/507 - Watershed Management

1

X

Plant Pathology 408/508 - Principles of Plant Pathology

1

X

Plant Pathology 416 - Forest Insect and Disease Ecology

1

 

Psychology 315 - Drugs and Behavior

1

 

Total

39

15

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