INQuiring Minds

A collaborative model of the liberal arts between the biology department and library at Oxford College

Nitya Jacob

Andrea Heisel

With the recently launched “Ways of Inquiry” (INQ) curriculum, Oxford College’s general education program in the liberal arts, freshmen and sophomores now learn through discovery. That is, in an INQ course, students learn and apply knowledge the ways that scholars and researchers in a particular discipline ask questions and create knowledge. 

For a number of years, Oxford’s biology faculty have directly involved students in inquiry-based learning in introductory courses by working with the process of scientific inquiry. These courses were a natural fit for the new INQ curriculum. Inquiry-based learning also creates opportunities for creative partnerships among faculty—in this case, between biology faculty and librarians. Scientific inquiry requires critical thinking and information literacy—two essential learning outcomes of a liberal arts education, as noted in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ 2007 report, College Learning for the New Global Century. Information literacy facilitates critical thinking, both while forming a research question prior to laboratory work, in the case of the scientific discovery process, and while analyzing results. Actively engaging students in researching and using appropriate resources to inform their own ideas is a significant element of biology INQ courses, but it necessitates a teaching partnership between biology faculty and librarians. 

Through the sequential courses of Biology 141Q and 142Q, the biology faculty and librarians have collaborated for more than ten years to create inquiry-based research opportunities that build upon each other, allowing students to understand the research process and to develop meaningful experiments as freshmen and sophomores. Establishing working partnerships among faculty, staff, and students is an important aspect
of implementing INQ in the classroom.

The success of our collaboration began with the realization that by breaking down the steps of writing a research study and performing research, students could develop a better understanding of the process as a whole. For example, in the first library instruction session for Biology 141Q, the professor and the librarian work with students on how to write an introduction for a scientific paper, using their own laboratory investigation as the topic. The co-teaching works best in this scenario because students hear their professor talk about writing a good introduction and then immediately learn how to locate appropriate resources for the assignment with guidance from the librarian. This method of assigning one part of the research process at a time allows the librarians to deliver information at the most relevant point and helps students retain what they have learned for future use. Throughout the rest of the semester, students learn how to write the other pieces of a study—the materials and methods, results, and discussion—and then are challenged to complete and write an entire research study on their own. Meanwhile, the librarian is involved throughout the semester as students later perform their own experiments and work together to create their own research study. 

Biology 142Q, the following course, sets the stage for students to review the skills they learned in Biology 141Q while writing research papers. Biology 142Q begins with a short investigation and a corresponding research paper assignment. Students are given written guidelines and reminders of what they learned in Biology 141Q to fulfill this task successfully. Following this “warm-up,” Biology 142Q begins a semester-long research project that is separated into smaller parts over the course of the semester. 

The librarians and faculty renew their co-teaching partnership in the third week of the semester, when students have to write a research proposal for their semester-long project. In this session, students review appropriate searching strategies and types of sources with the librarian, while the instructor helps them develop a research topic by searching scientific literature. 

At the end of the project, students write a final research paper to report their project, and again, the process is divided up into smaller parts. A draft of one part of the paper is due several weeks before the final paper. Along the way, students are keeping a laboratory research notebook to gather information for data analysis. In the last three weeks of the project, students work together on data analysis, which requires consulting published literature. Student research teams present their work in an oral presentation, also requiring external references. The librarian continues to participate in these intermediate steps and to help students acquire the necessary information.

One of the learning outcomes for these activities is for students to internalize skills in information gathering and finding appropriate resources for research. In 2008, our findings, reported in the Journal of College Science Teaching, demonstrated the success of this outcome and that “the involvement of the librarian, along with the instructors’ reinforcement of appropriate resources throughout the first semester, helped students transfer their knowledge skills to successive writing assignments into their second semester and develop improved research questions.” 

The practices we use for Biology 141Q and 142Q, in terms of information gathering and critical thinking, are skills necessary for students at the graduate level. What they accomplish in these courses provides a glimpse of how they will be expected to think in professional or graduate studies. Building a comfortable environment for students to experience this type of inquiry as early as their first two years is an important way in which the INQ curriculum can shape a student’s future. 

From the liberal arts perspective, our goal is for students to understand the connection between what they learn in one discipline to another—in this case, performing research in the sciences and how a similar process may work in the humanities or social sciences. To that end, in our collaboration, the students have been able to transfer their research and critical thinking skills from one biology class to another. It is a small but important step as they learn to engage in learning through discovery by analyzing, synthesizing, and applying their knowledge and research to create new and exciting ideas—the very essence of Oxford’s inquiry-based curriculum.