Paper Trails: My Alternative to the Annotated Bibliography

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I’ve always loved the annotated bibliography assignment, because I am just that kind of a geek. I regularly assign annotated bibliographies as a preparatory assignment for the longer research paper as I believe it helps us cover a number of essential skills and lays a solid foundation for that sort of writing. But this semester I knew I would be teaching a number of students still struggling with college level literacy in my First Year Seminar and knew I would need better scaffolding for the projects I hoped to see. So I went in search of an alternative to my traditional AB assignment. I was inspired by Kathee Godfrey’s Information Literacy assignment (which was in turn inspired by Joanna Burkhardt and Mary MacDonald’s Paper Trails project) to create my own Paper Trails assignment.

My Paper Trails assignment was divided into two parts. The first part was an ongoing journal assignment (we used Blackboard’s journals). Weekly journal posts included an entry for each reading we did as a class that week. The entries needed to include an MLA works cited entry for the reading followed by a brief summary and a response to the reading. Then, following a session with a reference librarian, students were expected to locate articles that honed in on a particular topic or question that interested them and to add entries for those readings to their Paper Trails journal.

The second part of the Paper Trails assignment was a one-page reflection on their research journey documenting where they had been and what they had learned. We jumpstarted the reflection writing by building individual charts listing interesting ideas and making connections among those ideas across the texts then discussing those ideas in class.

Overall I was pleased with the assignment – especially for a first iteration. When I teach this again I will hand it off sooner to the students to choose their own readings. I am certain I can winnow down my reading list or perhaps have some transitional weeks when they choose from among the readings I provide. This assignment was for my Walking Dead class and I really want their Comic Projects to be true passion projects inspired by their own questions and interests. I believe they were but I think the Paper Trails assignment could provide a better foundation for it and I need to create a better hand-off to transition between the two. The Paper Trails assignment dominated the first half of our semester and the Comic Project the second half and that balance is about right. Students reported in their end-of-semester feedback and reflections that they found the Paper Trails assignment useful preparation for the comic project and some plan to replicate the process for future research projects (score!), but others seemed to see it as busy work which means I need to do a better job explaining its relevance. I liked how the Paper Trail assignment broke down the research process into manageable chunks spread over time, helped students explore connections among the texts we read, and put their writing on a trajectory for an interesting and successful research project.

How do you teach information literacy and prepare your students for research projects?

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2 comments

  • I really like this alternative approach to the annotated bib–which I also use as a ramp up to research writing with my FYC students. If I’m understanding the article correctly, you start with a class reading that you have selected; then the students pick a topic based on something in that reading to pursue. I’m wondering would it be as effective (or more) to start with student generated questions on topics of interest to them; then let them, or help them search out sources related to it?

    Also, some of my online teacher friends have mentioned letting students learn how to edit Wikipedia entries as an alternative or supplement to research writing. What’s your thinking on that?

    • The option you describe is perfect for a passion project, but the class I currently use this assignment for has a specific theme so I try to give them a good start before letting them run with a topic. I do plan to move more in that direction the next time I teach it.

      I haven’t really thought much about the Wikipedia editing assignment. I know there are many people who do it and there are pros and cons, but I’m not very knowledgeable about it. I am a fan of authentic, purposeful writing though and this is certainly one option.

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