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Making it Relevant to Them: An Architecture-specific Information Literacy Course

November 1, 2012

Barret Havens, Woodbury University Outreach and Architecture Subject Librarian

 

Thinking critically about information and using information ethically­­­--core tenets of the field of information literacy--have become more relevant than ever to the architecture curriculum.  This is due in part to the fact that architecture students seeking information to incorporate into research papers and precedent studies tend to rely heavily upon free, often less-than-authoritative sources located through Google or other search engines. In a recent study of the information-seeking behaviors of architecture students, Makri and Warwich noted that even at the graduate level, students  made “almost no use of dedicated electronic architectural resources…despite many resources being listed by subject on the university library catalogue” (1752). In addition, “despite the ubiquity of images on the internet…” students in humanities and related disciplines, even if they have been taught to think critically about textual information, are “confounded when confronted with an image if they have not been taught how to analyze images” (Martinez 10).

The ethical use of information is an especially crucial issue for students in design-related disciplines because they are often confused about what constitutes plagiarism since the imitation of established architects, artists, and designers has long been promoted by instructors as an essential learning tool (Walker 49). Students in architecture and design disciplines might also be tempted to plagiarize as a quick and easy solution when they find themselves short on time after marathon sessions in studio (49).

Recognizing the importance of information literacy to all disciplines including architecture, Woodbury University, a small, private college with campuses in Burbank and San Diego, requires that each student, prior to graduation, complete a ten-week information literacy course taught by a member of the library science faculty. Before the fall semester of 2011, most architecture students at the Burbank campus fulfilled this requirement by completing a general information literacy course (LSCI 105) that offered them little opportunity to apply information literacy skills within the context of their major. In order to increase the perceived relevance of information literacy to architecture students’ discipline and to help them conceptualize the vital role of information in the design process, a new course was implemented: “LSCI 106: Information Sources in Architecture and Interior Architecture.”

The course is structured around specific information needs at both the academic and professional level including researching: architectural precedents, site planning, building systems, codes and standards, design materials, construction methods, and locating architectural images. In addition, information literacy skills relevant to all disciplines are explored. These include citing sources and avoiding plagiarism, establishing the reliability of sources, developing well-focused thesis statements, and Boolean searching and other advanced database search strategies.

Whenever possible, the same hands-on, process-oriented approach pervasive throughout the Woodbury School of Architecture curriculum is employed in LSCI 106. For instance, during the first week of the course, students are asked to create diagrams representing the steps in the research process. They are then asked to reflect on whether a linear, sequential representation is adequate or whether another model, such as a three-dimensional representation would be more appropriate. In another example, students are asked to design their own user-friendly bibliographic citation style. Instruction takes place in the library computer lab and students spend approximately 65% of class time actively searching for, or evaluating information sources.

Another theme that figures prominently into the course is problem-based learning. For each module of the course, teams of students are given professional practice scenarios that require them to locate sources of information that resolve challenges they might encounter as practicing architects. For instance, rather than being asked simply to “use the MaterialConnexion database to find textile-based architecture materials,” they are presented with a complex scenario such as “a client has asked you to design an elementary school library in a desert climate in Arizona. Please use the MaterialConnexion database to locate textile-based materials that would be ideal for the interior of a library in this climate and for this particular group of users.” Furthermore, students are asked to reflect on statements by Woodbury University School of Architecture faculty about how information informs and inspires their professional practice (these statements were solicited from them by the author). These exercises raise students’ awareness of the relevance of critical thinking and information to their discipline.

Overall, architecture students who take LSCI 106 have exhibited higher levels of engagement and attendance than architecture students who satisfy the Woodbury University information literacy requirement by taking LSCI 105. Since the implementation of LSCI 106 in the fall of 2011, Woodbury librarians have noted, during consultations at the reference desk, a sharp incline in the number of students who indicate some familiarity with the library’s architecture resources. Furthermore, during those consultations, far more students indicate that they have tried using one or two of the library’s architecture resources before asking for assistance. Though preliminary indications suggest that this architecture-specific approach to teaching a credit-bearing information literacy course has achieved some success, further assessment is currently being conducted that might establish this definitively. For instance, several semesters’ worth of scores from rubrics applied to LSCI 106 students’ final annotated bibliography projects will be compared with the scores of architecture students who took LSCI 105 to see if there is a statistically significant difference in performance. Another assessment project is currently underway in which a rubric is being applied to research bibliographies that were submitted by students in major sequence architecture courses. Rubric scores for those students who have successfully completed LSCI 106 will then be compared to those of students who have not completed LSCI 106 in order to explore a possible correlation between completion of the course and demonstrated mastery of information literacy outcomes.  

References

Makri, Stephann, and Claire Warwich.“Information for Inspiration: Understanding Architects’ Information Seeking and Use Behaviors to Inform Design.”Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 61.9 (2010): 1745-1770. Print.

Martinez, Katharine. “Image Research and Use in the Humanities: An Idiosyncratic Bibliographic Essay.” Art Documentation. 28.1 (2009): 9-15. Print.

Walker, Beth. “New Twists on an Old Problem: Preventing Plagiarism and Academic Integrity in an Art and Design School.” Art Documentation. 28.1 (2009): 48-51. Print.


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