Research, information literacy, and independent study

Independent study thrives in my school library, which situates us in the center of our schools’ goals. According to my schools’ strategic plan, we aim to:

…foster a school environment and academic program that demands students join in the design of their own education, and which makes creativity, innovation, risk-taking, reflection, and resilience central to every academic experience.

Independent study challenges students to exercise these skills; often, students require support as they venture out on their own. School librarians are in the perfect position to guide intellectual adventurers as they choose their own adventure. I wrote about independent study before; we hosted Latin and Arabic programs in the school library. This year, I am working with the assistant head of schools to advise an independent study in Advanced Topics of Entrepreneurship.

Our participant pitched his course to help develop, patent, and market an information storage device he had designed with friends back home in China. He needed to learn more about patent law. Was his device patentable? Did anyone hold a similar patent already? What would holding a patent allow?

Very quickly, the independent study became a course in information literacy and research skills with a focus on entrepreneurship, ethics, and patent law. Our participant found the US Patent and Trademark Office website instructive to his course of study. Through database searches, he determined relatively early on that the product he wanted to patent had already been patented by another company. The assistant head of schools and I plied him with a few articles from academic journals and periodicals to help give him some momentum as he began to define questions, key words, and areas of interest. He also grappled with an unexpected outcome. His initial goal of patenting his product was unattainable.

He began to craft a research project. In reflection, the participant distinguished between research prompts he’d completed in humanities courses and this more difficult path: one in which he had to develop his own prompt.

In order to complete an annotated bibliography about patent law, intellectual property, and ethics, the scholar culled sources and then went back to fill in gaps. He was specifically interested in understanding current practices as distinct from theoretical ideas and legal arguments.

The scholar started with general ideas and looked up keywords: intellectual property rights, patent infringement, and business ethics. He sorted through information, scanned abstracts, and even looked at titles to help find material that was relevant to his research.

Along the way, he encountered an intriguing term: patent troll, one who secures a patent as a means only to block others; it is not intended to be used to create anything. In his mini-lit review, he distinguished between economic and ethical incentives to follow patent law. He teased out these distinct incentives, and wondered about their mutual ground. Are the two approaches to patent law mutually exclusive?

He struggled with coming up with an argument after finding sources. I have seen many students want to make an argument and only search for corroborating material. He was most surprised about the research process. Through his work, he discovered the functionality of the library’s e-resources and especially appreciated the ability to sort search results using different metrics.

Students often struggle setting an aggressive pace to independent work. They might miscalculate the estimated time it will take to do thorough research. Also, they may hit unforeseen roadblocks. School librarians can be perfect partners in times like these.

How are you supporting independent study in your library? What common issues do you see students encounter and how can school librarians best serve independent researchers? Leave your ideas and/or brag in the comments below.


Author: Mark Dzula

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

Tags: , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Hi Mark
    Independent study is a great idea. I’m not sure we have such a course in our school. However, I’d be willing to look into it. Id like to know is this course sponsored by you or another teacher ? Do you collaborate to create the syllabus? Who is responsible for the grading?

  2. Great questions, thank you!

    At my school, independent study proposals are created by the student and submitted to our Academic Council, a group of department chairs and other academic administrators. We approve the proposal, deny it, or send it back to the student for revisions. The student often identifies an advisor. Sometimes I am the one the student picks or I will express enthusiasm to support the proposal and volunteer to take it on. The course of study/syllabus is largely developed by the student while the advisor gives advice and helps suggest goals.

    The advisor does the grading. I am collaborating with my assistant head of schools so we meet with the student throughout the semester and then confer as we assess and determine a grade. One aspect of this independent study that I like is that my collaborator has a knack for economics while I feel very comfortable helping the student develop their research.

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