Sunday, May 30, 2010

Joining the Cadre

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Against all odds, we find ourselves again at the end of the school year, still open for business and still doing extraordinary work everyday. As my second year as composition coordinator draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on our composition program and the “dedicated cadre of faculty” who teach first-year writing.

That quote is found on the department’s web site and in the most recent departmental program review self-study. While I am the author of both, I didn’t write that phrase. In fact, when I first encountered it I stumbled at the word cadre, which struck me as a bit of English department flourish in the midst of bureaucratic emptiness. For me, cadre was a little too redolent of the military, of Navy SEALS and strike forces and elite teams on special missions. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to like this word. First, our teachers of writing are a cadre, a core team, an elite and highly skilled group with special expertise. They are also, in another meaning of the word, akin to revolutionary zealots—they are absolutely sure of the value of what they do even when that value is not always acknowledged by others. And let’s be honest, we are at war with university administrators, with accrediting agencies, with our Chancellor’s office, with public perception, and even with other parts of our own campus. We are at war with bad ideas and reduced funding, with shortcuts and cynicism, with well-intentioned policies and ill-intentioned mandates. In short, we need a cadre now more than ever.

I have also been thinking about what I’m going to do with my free time. (cynical laughter) My two years as composition coordinator will end this term, and while I have already started my new assignment as (once again) WPE director I know from experience that running the once a quarter WPE is nothing compared with “coordinating” (whatever that means?!) a large and successful first-year writing program, an impossible undertaking I might add if not for a dedicated cadre of faculty. Besides everything else, these weekly Comp Quickreads have occupied much more of my time than I ever expected. I have learned a great deal both from preparing them and from the responses I have received. And I have been gratified by the responses, even the teasing (I think) by Margaret and David who queried each other in the hallway “Isn’t that the author of the Comp Quickreads!” One reader noted with either awe or indignation, “How do you manage to treat every topic in the same number of words?” Some were quick to challenge my claims and call me on my at times simple and reductive thinking. Since my primary purpose in writing these weekly missives was to start or renew a conversation about what we do and how we do it, each response suggests that we have started that conversation and I hope we never tire of it.

Perhaps the more important purpose behind these short articles has been to begin to suggest the depth and complexity of writing and the teaching of writing. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many very intelligent people believe that writing either can be taught by anyone or cannot be taught at all. Our students know first-hand the falseness of both of these claims, but like Obama’s birth certificate or the five paragraph essay some ideas survive and even flourish in absolute and perverse contradiction of all logic and evidence. The truth is simple and inconvenient: writing and writing instruction take time; effective teachers of writing have expertise and experience; and a successful writing program cannot exist without a dedicated cadre of teachers.

Comp Quickread Topics I Never Got To (until now)

The following topics were on my list at the beginning of the year, but never made it into print.

Plagiarism and Other Crimes—I liked the title but never got around to the subject, which is too bad given the prominence of and misconceptions attached to plagiarism. The short version is that a first-year writing class is where a student is supposed to learn about plagiarism and how to avoid it. In a first-year writing class plagiarism is almost always a teachable moment.

Is There a Place for Timed Writing?—I chose to avoid this topic because my answer is not constructive. I would argue that there is a place for timed writing and that should dishearten us. High-stakes timed writing is the site of our devil’s bargain with the institution’s need for easy assessment, which in turn rewards the glib and superficial and punishes the deliberate and thoughtful.

The Five Paragraph Essay Must Die—I wonder what I intended to do with this topic? In reality, quite reasonable people argue for the utility of giving students temporary “crutches.” Increasingly I feel that these and other shortcuts are almost like an abdication of teaching, a cynical or frustrated admission that some (or all) people cannot over time improve their writing. That timed writing is often invoked as justifying the teaching of the five paragraph essay is merely another indictment of timed writing.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Preparing for the WPE

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The last Composition Conversation of the year focused on the role of ENGL 102 in preparing students for the Writing Proficiency Exam (WPE) The WPE is how CSULA has elected to implement the CSU Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement (GWAR), which requires all students to demonstrate competence in writing in order to receive a degree from a CSU campus. Ideally, prior to taking the WPE, students have taken ENGL 101 and ENGL 102 (or their equivalents), and countless general education classes in which they have had ample opportunities to write and revise. In theory, ENGL 102 is simply one of many classes students might take prior to attempting the WPE.

In practice, ENGL 102 might be for most students their most recent class that required writing or in which they received any writing instruction. Students are often encouraged by advisors to take the WPE as soon as possible after completing ENGL 102, a practice which makes obvious the central if not solitary role played by English department courses in addressing student writing at the university. So while the WPE is part of an all-university commitment to assessing and improving student writing, ENGL 102 instructors often feel a special responsible for preparing students for the WPE.

All of the participants at the Composition Conversation devoted some class time to the WPE in their ENGL 102 classes. The range of strategies, however, was wide. One participant generally set aside about half a class period in either the eighth or ninth week of the quarter to respond to student questions about the WPE and to let students know about the WPE workshops offered every quarter by the University Writing Center. Another instructor offers “WPE alerts” throughout the quarter. Whenever class discussion turns to a strategy useful for timed essay writing such as that demanded by the WPE, the instructor calls attention to the moment by referring to it as a “WPE alert.”

Some instructors devote as much as one or more class periods to preparing for the WPE. Some instructors distribute the WPE scoring guide and help students understand how the rubric is used to score student responses. Some instructors use the sample essays found online (at the University Writing Center web site) to illustrate the scoring guide. Some schedule a practice WPE as the midterm for the course. On the day of the midterm, students are given 90 minutes (as on the WPE) to respond to a WPE-type topic. As with the WPE, students do not know about the topic until they sit down to write. The instructor then scores the essays using the WPE scoring guide, with the only comments referring to the language of the scoring guide. Those students whose essays are scored “5” or “6” (i.e. clearly passing) are asked to share their timed writing strategies with the entire class.

Regardless of the time committed specifically to preparing students for the WPE, all participants noted the importance of directing students to services and resources available in the University Writing Center. Besides offering workshops, advisement, and UNIV 401 (the course alternative to the WPE), the Writing Center also maintains materials online, including a “Ten Tips for WPE Success” handout, sample scored responses, and “retired” WPE topics. Most important, perhaps is the fact that the Writing Center is not part of the English department, which reinforces the notion that writing instruction and assessment are the responsibility of the entire campus and not just one department.

The University Writing Center and the WPE

The University Writing Center has long been a key part of the university’s use of the WPE as something more than an obstacle to student graduation. The WPE, ideally, identifies students in need of additional advisement and/or instruction, both of which they can receive through the Writing Center in the following ways:
  • A student who fails the WPE can meet with WPE consultants to go over his or her exam and learn why graders did not see it as passing; consultants can also help students prepare for re-taking the exam by discussing alternative writing strategies.
  • Students can attend WPE workshops usually offered during the second and third weeks of every quarter. At the workshops, students are introduced to the logistics of the exam and offered advice on timed writing, including such basics as read the question carefully, and set aside time for planning at the start and editing at the end.
  • A student might be advised to consider enrolling in UNIV 401, the course alternative to the WPE available to students who have failed the exam at least once. Successful completion of UNIV 401 satisfies the GWAR.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Writing at the University after 102

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When students finish ENGL 102 are they finished with writing at the university? Of course, we hope not, but the answer depends on the student and the student’s major department. After successfully completing ENGL 102, students are still required to take and pass the Writing Proficiency Examination (WPE) and an upper division writing course in their major program. Beyond this minimum, the university encourages faculty teaching both lower and upper division general education classes to incorporate writing assignments into their courses. In addition, students in some majors might have the opportunity to work on undergraduate theses and certainly in some majors students are expected to write in some, most, or even all courses in their major program.

That’s the idea, at least. What individual students encounter varies significantly from class to class and from major to major. First, assigning writing in GE courses, both lower and upper division, has been more worthy goal than actual practice outside of a few stalwart departments such as English. While traditional “letters” faculty might be very comfortable assigning and responding to student writing, faculty in other disciplines might not be comfortable teaching writing outside of their discipline-specific conventions. This reluctance has undoubtedly been exacerbated by increasing class sizes, which of course make meaningful writing assignments a virtually overwhelming burden for conscientious faculty. For example, GE classes in critical thinking have grown from an average of 43 students in 2001-2002 to an average of 66 in 2009-2010. Average class sizes in applied science (GE B3) have increased from 44 to 61 in the same period. Upper division theme classes in the humanities, where one might expect writing to be assigned, have grown from an average of 33 in 2002-2003 to an average of 48 in 2009-2010. And while there are useful strategies for reducing the workload of assigning writing (such as using more low-stakes writing and forgoing the marking (i.e. “correcting”) of papers, those strategies are wholly inadequate to the crippling pedagogic limitations imposed by the present economic realities.

As for writing in the disciplines, the amount, kind, and frequency, of course, depend on the discipline. Students in some major programs, such as English, history, philosophy, and others, can expect to write in virtually every class. Students in other major programs might be required to write only in their upper division writing courses. And the amount and frequency of writing required even in these “writing intensive” courses might vary significantly from program to program. Most programs are somewhere in between requiring writing in every class and requiring writing in only one class. Regardless of the desire, however, the same anxieties and economics that have limited the assigning of writing in general education courses no doubt has had an impact on writing in the majors.

Universities have always been forced to struggle with imperatives that are at best contradictory and at worst dishonest. The emphasis now is on the short-term economics of efficiency and speed, which translates into more students and more degrees in less time and with less cost. Lost in this emphasis is the long-term value and usefulness of an education that adequately prepares one for life and work. Reading and writing are central to such an education, but as with so much right now short-term economies have triumphed over long-term value.

University Writing Requirements at CSULA

In order to promote writing, the University has a four-part writing requirement for all students:
  • ENGL 101, Reflective and Expository Writing;
  • ENGL 102, Analytic and Persuasive Writing;
  • the Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement, met by passing the Writing Proficiency Exam (WPE) or University 401; and
  • an upper-division writing course in a student's major.
In ENGL 101, students write thesis-driven arguments that make use of external evidence. In ENGL 102, students extend their ability to interpret and analyze a range of texts, write longer and more sustained essays, carry out independent research, and integrate multiple sources into their essays. Research involves training in information literacy skills often offered in partnership with library staff.

The WPE is offered each quarter. Students are allowed 90 minutes to write an essay on an assigned topic of general interest. The essays are scored holistically by faculty graders. Students who do not pass the WPE are permitted to enroll in UNIV 401, a course alternative to the exam.

Each major program must require all students in the major to take an upper-division writing course. This course usually focuses on writing in the discipline.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Try It Out Vs. Get It Right

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Believe it or not, we get mail, and last week’s Comp Quickread brought more than the usual one or two notes from China. One reader offered a very important clarification that is worth quoting in full:

“One quibble—or maybe less a quibble than an extension of something you said: I think the problems created by students’ trying to sound “academic,” or just plain smart, by using big words, convoluted sentence structures, passive voice, etc., are definitely worth pointing out to students (not, of course, while you simultaneously smack them with a rolled up newspaper and yell “Bad! Bad student!”), as is offering them assistance in clarifying (and understanding) their meaning and finding alternatives other than “dumb it down a bit.” At the same time, though, I think it’s important for teachers to keep in mind that the impulse students display in attempting these sophisticated but ultimately unsuccessful structures and vocabulary choices is a good one, and hence ought not to be discouraged; quite the contrary. Certainly one of the implicit goals of academic writing is to “sound like the teacher” (if you will), but we can’t really expect perfect success right off the starting block. Nothing ventured and all that. Writing teachers especially need to make room in their classes for students to experiment and take risks in their writing without endangering their GPAs.”

This note raises many interesting points about the classroom spaces we create and about our roles as instructors. I think the most important point is the last one, that we, as writing teachers or as teachers in general, need to recognize that our students are experimenting with words, forms, ideas, perspectives, ways of seeing, ways of reading, and ways of knowing. They need spaces where they can take risks, fail, and try again, where they can try it out without worrying about getting it right. And before someone accuses me of dangerous coddling, the need for such encouraging spaces is acknowledged in early childhood education, studies of creativity in both the arts and the sciences, and literature on management and leadership.

If given the opportunity to take risks, students will try out different approaches and develop strategies to get it right. Their ability to get it right, though, is directly related to the complexity of the tasks we give them. At each moment of their development they are hopefully being challenged with new ideas, new perspectives, new ways of organizing and engaging with the world and those challenges are leaving traces in their writing. A first-year student whose writing has been concise and logical can produce a sprawling self-contradictory rant in response to a question about the ethics of downloading music. A third-year student whose writing has been a paragon of clarity and grace can produce a nearly incoherent paper on Immanuel Kant. Of course Kant himself produced many nearly incoherent papers on himself.

Creating classroom spaces that support experimentation, though, is an increasingly difficult proposition in the twenty-first century corporate university. The “get it right” forces are everywhere from the expectation that writing can be taught in a single course to the rush to measure everything the university does through learning outcomes. Perhaps we should be more concerned about creating the spaces that enable what J. S. Mill called each individual’s “experiment of living.”

Encouraging Experiments

What can we do to place greater emphasis on “trying it out” and less emphasis on “getting it right”? Here are a few classroom practices to consider:

Trying On Perspectives—Encourage students to think outside their conventional patterns by forcing them to “try on” the viewpoint of others. Students might be required to take up positions opposed to their own argument, work specifically with other writers who have taken opposing positions, or re-read a text with a raised consciousness (about gender or class, for example, or about some key idea such as “justice” or “nation“). Such activities in sympathetic imagining also help develop a sense of audience.

Low-stakes writing—These assignments allow students to take risks without significant consequences. Students might be asked to produce quick-writes, journals, or even mini-essays to work through challenging ideas. Such writing might eventually be incorporated into a high-stakes assignment, but only after appropriate feedback.

Multiple Drafts—Instructor feedback on intermediate drafts enable students to take risks in earlier drafts and then adapt and adjust to feedback from the instructor or from peers. Of course, most experienced teachers of writing incorporate multiple drafts into each writing assignment. To encourage students to take risks, however, early drafts should be ungraded.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Emphasizing Clarity

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In our collective anxiety about being overwhelmed by error-ridden sentences, many of us have neglected a crucial aspect of writing: style. For literature-types (hey fella, that's me you're talking about!), a writer's style can be as distinctive as a fingerprint and might have been the source of the initial interest in if not lasting appeal of the writer. Many of us became interested in writing because of an early fascination with style, whether it was the Keatsian romance of Fitzgerald, the synthetical and antithetical balancing of words, phrases, and clauses of Johnson, or the “enwinding” complexity and nuance of James.

When we talk about style in student writing we are usually talking about something else, something more like clarity and a certain amount of grace. Writing teachers will recognize those two terms as the subtitle of one of the best books on teaching style, Joseph Williams' Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Williams and others have redefined the discussion of style, moving it away from what we might call the “writerly” style of literary texts and towards what we might call the “readerly” style of primarily communicative texts (with due apologies to Barthes). As the name implies, a “readerly” text is one that is more attuned to the needs of the reader. If the writer's primary purpose is communication, then the expression should be clear. If a writer is not clear, the reader (or an instructor reading a student’s writing rhetorically) needs to signal this lack of clarity.

Rather than marking and rewriting a student’s sentences (something every teacher of writing struggles to avoid), we can identify for students when their expression interferes with communication. For example, a teacher might note where he or she has trouble understanding the writer by writing in the margin “I get lost here,” or “This sentence confuses me.” We might also help the writer see the importance of clarity by signaling basic understanding but the need for greater clarity. We might note such moments in an essay by writing in the margin, “This part here strikes me as really important, but I had trouble with it.” By calling attention to these clarity “hot spots” (topic sentences, thesis, transitions, and so on), we help students focus on improving clarity where it matters most. Of course, we want every word, sentence, and paragraph to be clear and effective, but in any piece of writing some words and sentences are more important than others. These “hot spots” usually constitute the argumentative skeleton of the essay so the “work” the writing is doing at these points is simply much more challenging than the work being done in other places. When students encounter complex rhetorical tasks and when they are wrestling with challenging ideas, clarity and grace suffer and even errors return. Attention to these “hot spots” then will help students clarify their own ideas and improve the clarity of their expression.

Finally and at a minimum we should communicate our expectations about style when we assign writing. Teachers are sadly familiar with the difficult and long-winded prose that students produce when trying to imitate academic prose. Students do not produce such prose out of perversity (though at this point in the year it certainly feels that way); they do so out of ignorance. We might advise students to try for an easy, graceful, but not overly casual writing style and suggest that they read their papers out loud to make sure it sounds like spoken English and not like paper-ese.

Some Sources of Unclear Writing (taken from Williams’ Style)

Besides asking for clarity, expecting clarity, and signaling our disapproval when we don't get it, we can help students identify the sources of unclear writing. Here's a short list:
  • Writing that tries to impress or intimidate us rather than communicate with us
  • Writing that has been padded (the three page paper turned into the four-and-a-half page paper simply through the addition of words not ideas)
  • Writing that is tentative and has nothing to say, usually because the writer cannot locate his or her authority to speak (this is really an audience problem)
  • Writing full of long abstract nouns and no active verbs—"who is doing what to whom?" we might ask of sentences and not be able to answer

What can students do about problems with style? Here's some advice:
  • Write with the needs of readers in mind
  • Make your nouns concrete and precise
  • Make your verbs active
  • Be able to look at your sentences and say "I know who is doing what to whom"
  • Be concise

Sunday, April 25, 2010

CSU English Council Position Statement: Mandatory Early Start (April 2010)

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In April 2009, the English Council of the CSU issued a position statement opposing the adoption and implementation of mandatory “early start” programs. “Early start” would require incoming first-year students designated as “not proficient” to begin “remediation” in the summer before they begin college. (In some models of “early start” students must not only begin “remediation,” but complete it before enrolling in regular classes.) Similar resolutions opposed to mandatory “early start” have been passed by the Academic Senate of the CSU and the Academic Senate of CSULA. In October 2009, the English Council of the CSU was informed that a task force had been assembled to study and report on the implementation of “early start.” In response the Council presented the task force with a “counter-proposal,” which reiterated the pedagogic and philosophic objections to mandatory “early start,” highlighted current successful practices, and offered the measured judgments of experts. At their March 2010 meeting, the CSU Board of Trustees adopted an ‘early start’ policy. In response, the English Council of the CSU drafted and approved the accompanying position statement.

CSU English Council Position Statement: Mandatory Early Start (April 2010)

We understand that the Board of Trustees’ resolution to implement Early Start programs on all CSU campuses is an effort to help integrate first year students into mainstream academic life quickly, humanely, and with a high degree of probability that they will graduate. We share this concern. However, along with the Statewide Academic Senate, the CSU English Council opposes a mandatory Early Start as a precondition for enrollment at any CSU campus. We believe that a mandatory Early Start program will not serve our students well for these reasons:
  • Mandatory Early start is discriminatory, forcing an identified group of students to participate in summer as a pre-condition of enrollment to the university, even though this same population of students is not only fully qualified for admission, but arrive at the CSU having earned high school GPA’s of B or better;
  • While we do support voluntary summer programs, as a mandatory program, Early Start is punitive, placing high-stakes preconditions on admissions to fully qualified first year students. This raises the questionable legality of denying admission to these students;
  • Mandatory Early Start places undo financial burden on students who can least absorb it. Whatever financial aid students may receive cannot compensate for summer income lost and summer costs incurred, which could lead to resentment, hardship, and disenrollment;
  • No valid evidence has been presented to us that Early Start is effective, and we do not feel students should be forced to enroll in programs whose educational value is unproven;
  • By contrast, in a two-year experiment at SFSU, Summer Bridge was designed as an early start, where students who were highly successful in this summer bridge course (earning a B+ or higher) were promoted to the next level composition course. The students did so poorly that Summer Bridge went back to its original model as an addition to, rather than a substitute for, the full sequence of composition courses;
  • There is a great deal of evidence from a number of campuses indicating that innovative first-year programs (e.g. directed self-placement and stretch) are successful at retaining students, improving compliance with EO 665 (system-wide, roughly 85% of students are compliant within their first year), and improving graduation rates;
  • In a CSULA study, students who placed into regular semester basic writing courses had higher persistence rates than students who placed directly into first-year composition, showing that students who go directly into our existing first-year courses do as well as, if not better than, their more “proficient” peers;
  • From long-term consultation with Chancellor’s Office representatives, we understand that remedial courses that do not count toward graduation are a problematic option in today’s budget climate. We believe that directed self-placement and stretch courses solve this problem. Early Start, on the other hand, creates an additional remedial course;
  • Early Start is an unfunded mandate that will require substantial resources to design, implement, and sustain and that will place differential burdens on individual campuses.
For these reasons, English Council recommends that writing programs throughout the system decline to participate in the design or implementation of mandatory Early Start Programs. We understand that conditions are different on different campuses and that some writing programs might for various reasons feel compelled to participate, and these programs have our full support. Nevertheless, the Council as a whole feels it is important to voice our strong opposition to this ill-conceived, however well-intentioned, program.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Research as a Process

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Texts such as They Say/I Say begin with the assumption that to enter a discourse community, to learn to write and speak as a participant, one must learn what David Bartholomae calls “the commonplaces, the texts, the gestures and jargon of the group.” That entry, though, is usually a slow and gradual process. Susan MacDonald suggests four points on a continuum to describe the path students must navigate to enter the academic discourse community:

  1. nonacademic writing
  2. generalized academic writing concerned with stating claims, offering evidence, respecting the opinion of others, and learning to write with authority
  3. novice approximations of particular disciplinary ways of using and creating knowledge
  4. expert, insider academic writing

First-year writing courses tend to focus on the first two points of the continuum. Students are often asked to write in a range of genres that include many instances of what MacDonald calls “generalized academic writing” and the argumentative “moves” made explicit by Graff and Birkenstein focus almost exclusively on this type of writing.

But as MacDonald’s continuum makes explicit, key to entering the academic discourse community is the need to learn the research conventions of scholars and to recognize how these conventions might be discipline-specific. To some, these differences across disciplines are so great as to call into question the ubiquitous general education research paper. Richard Larson went so far as to refer to the “so-called ‘research paper’” as a “non-form” with “no conceptual or substantive identity.” If the research assignment focuses too narrowly on finding and reporting information, on regurgitating data into templates, then Larson’s objection is valid.

Research assignments in first-year writing courses are certainly susceptible to the pressures of teaching the “format” of the generic research paper even when no such format exists, or rather even when a dizzying number and array of formats exist. The generic research assignment also confirms common misperceptions about research and writing; that they are simple tasks of gathering, organizing, and transferring to paper information that is already known. Instead, research is best taught as part of a course designed to introduce students to the discourse communities that form around specific topics. And research assignments need to emphasize the qualities that underlie research in all disciplines: intellectual curiosity and personal engagement.

Furthermore, research like writing is best seen as a process. Research abilities, like writing abilities, are neither separate nor linear. As the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) notes of its recommended information literacy standards, “many of the competencies are likely to be performed recursively, in that the reflective and evaluative aspects included within each standard will require the student to return to an earlier point in the process, revise the information-seeking approach, and repeat the same steps.” To teachers of writing this description will sound very familiar.

As with their ideas about writing, students often arrive in college with a very narrow sense of research. Their success at the university and as life-long learners will depend on their coming to see knowledge as both shared and created, and research and writing as epistemic and recursive, as ways not only of making sense of the world but of making the world.

Correlating Writing and Information Literacy Outcomes

(from the WPA Outcomes Statement and the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards)

Research Process
  • focus on a purpose
  • use writing and reading for inquiry, learning, thinking, and communicating
Information Literacy
  • defines and articulates the need for information
  • reevaluates nature and extent of information need

Search Strategies
  • respond to the needs of different audiences
  • understand a writing assignment as a series of tasks, including finding, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing appropriate resources
Information Literacy
  • identifies a variety of types and formats of potential sources of information
  • selects the most appropriate investigative methods or information retrieval systems for accessing information
  • constructs and implements effectively designed search strategies
  • retrieves information online or in person using a variety of methods
  • refines the search strategy if necessary

  • practice appropriate means of documenting work
Information Literacy
  • extracts, records, and manages the information and its sources
  • acknowledges the use of information sources in communicating the product or performance