Bibliography Anxiety

I am most definitely in the bibliography doldrums today. I have a class full of 8th graders who are so intent on their requirements for a bibliography, that they are losing track of the research itself. How to motivate them to do the work: to read and explore, to become experts in what they’re learning, without trying to take on the last step first? It makes me want to say “Who cares about the Bibliography, what did you learn today about Allen Ginsberg?” But the Bibliography is necessary, and it is good. Right now, however, it just feels like it’s in the way.

My Belief: The Bibliography is a tool.

The Bibliography is a tool for teachers to see how a student is doing. Truthfully, I don’t even enjoy using the word “Bibliography” anymore (preferring to call it a “Works Cited Page”), because it implies “books only” and does not accurately reflect today’s information formats. I’ve tried to inspire a change in the verbage, but that’s what the students call it, and so I’d rather err on the side of a common vocabulary. By using a Bibliography, teachers can see if students are choosing the best sources, in need of help in finding better sources, having trouble locating who is responsible for creating the source, etc. It gives us the chance to see if there is a direction they need to be taking, or even if there’s something interesting I’ve found lately that I’d like to share with them. For this particular assignment, we are asking for the bibliography early, so we can truly use it to be of help to students, and not as a final assessment of how well they researched. But they are still … panicky.

Why do Bibliographies cause such anxiety? A few possible answers:

Is it because the bibliography is often handed in at the end of a project? I want to use it as a teaching tool, but I don’t want it to be the focus of the project. If the bibliography becomes the focus, it is easy for students to “source collect” – that is, accummulate a bunch of sources (without necessarily reading them first) and stick them on the bibliography so that they can “get credit.”

Is the bibliography not so good of an assessment tool after all? Is there a way to see whether or not students are finding good information, if they need additional information, etc., without having them tell us which sources they are using? Ok, that last sentence sounded a bit absurd. But it is something I’m thinking about. I don’t believe we should drop Bibliographies, because they are a skill that is needed, and the more one practices, the easier they get. But I am rethinking them, based on the emotional reactions (and not the good kind) they seem to inspire.

For example, one of the things we are trying this year in 8th grade is a “Twitter-like” program called Edmodo, where students can “micro-blog” after each class to say where they are in the process, what they are working on, what sources they used, what information they found, what more they might need, etc. We are hoping that this will keep us on top of their progress and be able to help them out when the need it.

Part of me wonders if the Bibliography serves as a distraction away from the scarier prospect of having to learn something new and delve into unfamiliar territory. Perhaps it is easier for the mind to think of finding the source, rather than reading it and using the information? This goes back to my previous post on “What Research is Not” – are we putting so much emphasis on how to find the “answers” that we are not helping students know what to do with the information?

Very often, students believe that they should already know the topic they are assigned. They don’t want to start on a project because they think about the end result and say “I don’t know how to get there.” So the greater question here may be: how do we get students to realize it’s okay to start from the beginning – to not know the answer and to slowly acquire knowledge over time. How do we give them the gift of that time?

I’ll close this post with a recent experience: I was at a Colonial event where I was showing a student how to play with a a “Bilbo Catcher” which is a toy where you try to get a ball on a string into a cup or peg. (It’s a lot harder than it sounds).

Bilbo Catcher

Photo from Jas Townsend & Son

The student tried it a few times and then asked me, “What’s the trick?” I said, “There is no trick – you need to practice.” The student lost interest.

How does one get a student to desire “Carnegie Hall?”


About Paula Montrie

I am a Middle School Librarian at Friends School of Baltimore. I have been a librarian for 11 years, serving 6 years with the Howard County Public School System before arriving at my current school. I teach two classes: SpeechCraft (a combination of information literacy, public speaking and theater), and Media Literacy at the middle school level. I also collaboratively co-teach with a number of teachers at the school, including Music, Geography, and U.S. History. I love it! My professional interests are: information literacy, multiple intelligences and learning styles, teaching through movement, curriculum-writing, technology integration, and bridging the gap between digital natives and digital immigrants. My personal interests are: dancing, singing, knitting, sewing, art, living history, writing and of course - reading!
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3 Responses to Bibliography Anxiety

  1. I have noticed the same thing, often students are so wrapped up in one requirement that they lose sight of the purpose: learning. Last week I was in the library when a group of third grade students filtered in. They were intent on finding a biography for a reading assignment in class. The librarian and I set about helping students find bibliographys that the students would enjoy reading and offered several. The first thing the students did: flip to the back page of the book to find out how many pages it was. The teacher required that the biography be 100 pages. We had found a stack of biographies that these students would love reading but they were between 40 and 60 pages. None of the students wanted them. They just wanted us to find them a 100 page biography and send them on their way where they would struggle through it and hate every minute of it. I understand the teachers requirement, she was probably trying to avoid her students taking the “easy” way out and coming back with books that were too easy of a reading level. But, in the process, the students lost any desire for learning something new, something good. In my situation, I wish that the teacher had let the students select a book and bring it back for her to evaluate. She probably would have only had a handful of students that needed to be sent back for a book that reflected their reading level.
    Is it the process of biography creation that has your students stressed? Is it the format of the bibliography? If it is keeping record of the books that has their focus on the wrong thing, perhaps letting them use one of the bibiliography builders online would help. They enter the book title and the online programs generate the bibliography, couldn’t be easier.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kelly! I am happy to say that the bibliography anxiety has passed, and the students did a tremendous job! This was their seconed experience with an annotated bibliography (we have them briefly summarize their source (one sentence), tell us whether it’s primary or secondary, and then briefly describe why it is important to their project). This has really been a great way to get them to choose only the really good sources, rather than “source-collect” a string of websites that often have little to do with their project. They use NoodleTools, but it is their first year with Advanced, so I think they were nervous.

      Anyway, after it was over and I praised them gloriously for their efforts – we talked about the anxiety and the sense of accomplishment they felt afterwards. Also, how much easier it was to do the annotation once they had actually read the source (grin). I think this anxiety was a learning experience for them, and I’m so happy it turned out to be a positive one. I’ll keep everyone updated on how this project is going – it’s a November – May Documetnary Film project.

  2. Fantastic .. really amazing topic. I’m going to blog about it as well!

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