thing 10: Searching as Strategic Exploration

Recommended Readings, Resources, and Examples

Simmons, M. H. (2005). Librarians as disciplinary discourse mediators: Using genre theory to move toward critical information literacy. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5(3), 297-311.

Choose Your Own Adventure Activity

Select one of the following activities to complete:

  1. Locate an example of an article or lesson plan that describes an approach to teaching using the frame Searching as Strategic Exploration. In a comment, post a link to the article or lesson plan (or a citation if paywalled) along with a short summary of what you read. How could you adapt or build upon this approach at your own institution?
  2. Drawing inspiration from one of the recommended readings, draft your own lesson plan related to the frame Searching as Strategic Exploration. Upload your lesson plan to Project CORA and/or the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy Sandbox, and post a link to it in a comment.


  1. Although I’m not sure how much of a place there is at a community college for librarians to function as disciplinary discourse mediators – this may be an ability students start to develop at the upper-division level – our position as both insiders and outsiders in academia does create interesting possibilities. We may well have a role to play in “helping students to examine and question the social, economic, and political context for the production and consumption of information,” and I definitely want to empower them by “facilitating students’ understanding that they can be participants in scholarly conversations” (p. 299).

    I looked to chapter 6 in Teaching Information Literacy Threshold Concepts for more information about the “winding path through the forest of information possibilities” that is characteristic of this frame. Of several lessons featured at the end of the chapter, I was most intrigued with the exercise “Who Has Information?” Students are given a list of questions (e.g. How many square miles are in Rhode Island? How long will it be before the polar icecaps melt?) and asked to brainstorm two different people, groups, or organizations who could produce an answer. Then they search Google to find the answers, noting the source and how many tries it took. There probably wouldn’t be time for this in a one-shot, but it could work in our one-unit information literacy course. It would certainly fit in the lesson on finding relevant websites, but it could be useful to try early on when I talk to students about choosing a topic and working with it. And of course I would change the Rhode Island questions to California!


  2. A librarian at Columbia College Chicago came up with a fabulous activity to get students to understand Searching as Strategic Exploration. The activity is called “DISCOVERY TOOLS ARE LIKE SHOPPING FOR JEANS” ( This activity compares the process of shopping for jeans with “shopping” for resources. This connects to the knowledge practice, “Understand how information systems (i.e., collections of recorded information) are organized to access relevant information.”

    The activity first has the students brainstorm the kind of criteria they look for when shopping for jeans (e.g. price, size, fit, color, brand, etc). Then the instructor goes to a department store website and uses the criteria to locate a pair of jeans that fits all of those factors. This teaches them about limiters and sorting. Then the instructor opens a database and searches a broad topic while inputting the kind of criteria important for a good resource.

    I could definitely see doing something like this at my university. I love that this librarian found a way to correlate limiting searches to online shopping. I probably wouldn’t do specifically buying jeans, but maybe some other kind of online shopping. Also, using something like yelp has a lot of limiters and could be a good way of relating the information to their lives.


  3. The Project CORA lesson What is this thing? Koosh balls and search terms

    caught my attention. Since many students shop online, the lesson would apply that experience to academe.

    It has structure but would be a fun change from the usual demo.

    This would work best in a face-to-face setting, which is not the bulk of my instruction. Still, I could keep this lesson in my toolkit–especially for courses which already concern innovation or play. I could even use this idea to interest my faculty in a session for those courses.

    P.S. I could use this exercise as much as the students could. I once searched for my cat’s favorite sanctioned toy and had not thought of the term “sponge soccer ball.”


  4. I looked at a lesson plan that included a metacognitive search strategy worksheet from

    The worksheet starts with an activity where the librarian shows students an object (a Coke bottle, pics of Puff Daddy, etc) and ask students what they would call them to demonstrate that different words and phrases can be used to apply to the same topic. Students are then split into groups to brainstorm keywords for their topics and to help each other.

    Students are then given a quick demo of the databases and the catalog, as well as Google and Google Scholar, and are then asked to do some searching on their topic in various locations. While searching students must answer questions on a worksheet that ask them to think about the insights they are having as they search and what search terms and search features they are finding most useful, among other things. Then students must answer a required question about what they learned as they searched.

    I love this worksheet, and had already been thinking of asking students to do something similar in a for-credit class I am developing – I was thinking something like a research journal, but these questions would be great prompts to get students thinking and writing.


  5. The first activity, “Intro to Databases” by Beth Arjona, listed under “Teaching Content” on this guide:, is very similar to the way I already introduce databases. Arjona’s plan is thorough and well-formulated. I tend to approach the project as a class-think project, in which the class comes up with a topic, then the main ideas, and then the keywords (because in a one-shot instruction, there is very little time to break out into groups or do individual work). However the main idea is the same; and this confirms for me that at least I teach databases similarly to someone else out there in the great, wide world!!

    In the past, I’ve noticed that students occasionally have a hard time moving through the process from topic to narrower terms. Once we work through the process a couple of times as a class, I start seeing the light of understanding come on for most of them. Like all good skills, learning how to identity main ideas, keywords, and adjacent and narrower terms takes practice and time.


  6. The article by Michelle Simmons about critical information literacy gave much food for thought. Her point is well taken that much of what we study and teach is situated within our discipline at a particular place and time. The language and thought patterns of our discipline become our primary discourse. As librarians we have the task of teaching students, who are “outsiders” to the discipline, to be information-literate in the discipline. We can teach them the norms and conventions of the discipline as a useful means of communication for scholarly exploration without representing these norms as absolute truth. I started thinking about this idea when introduced to the first edition of John Seely Brown’s “The Social Life of Information” at a library workshop about 15 years ago. Brown is not a librarian, but I recall that he argued that information exists within a particular container and social context, and the context is part and parcel of the information. Also a few years ago I read a paper by Swedish research Annemaree Lloyd. She said that information literacies are constructed and negotiated within communities of practice by members of that community. I think the idea of “critical information literacy” is central to revitalizing librarianship.
    I wanted to find a lesson plan using this idea, and picked the same one as in one of the responses above:
    This assignment hints at critical information literary rather than explicitly teaching it. It asks groups of students, after being shown how to find articles, to state their topic of research, find an article, put it in the correct format, and think of other search terms that might have been used. The information for each group is put in a grid that could be used as a topic of discussion. This lesson would be useful for a beginning group of students. I think it would also be useful for an online class. Students can begin to think about the research tools and vocabulary for their chosen discipline


  7. I find it interesting that the article argues we’re perfectly positioned to guide students from one genre to the other. Yet, in order to find information, we often ask students to speak yet another language.

    That said, I do like doing something like this.

    Except the literature tracking sheet I provide is simpler. It asks them which databases they chose and why (if they know why), their keywords, the number of their results and then asks them for comments. Were they happy with the results? Were there other keywords they’d like to try? Did they find Subject Headings they’d rather use to target their search? If they weren’t happy, what were their next steps? Do different databases provide more relevant literature?

    So far, there is only one class that requires it but I appreciate the instructor’s view that metacognition is appropriate to apply to searches. I only wish they got the instruction earlier in the program. I might speak with another instructor I work with to incorporate this. I often talk about how searching is a bit of improvisation and that failure can be telling but having them do this sheet is a way to show it.


  8. While I think this can connect to many different frames, I’ve been thinking a lot about CREATE as detailed here:

    CREATE is a thinking tool created specifically with librarians who work with studio art in mind: Conversation, Revision, Exploration, Authority, Thoughtful, Experiential. Revision and exploration seem the most related to Searching as Strategic Exploration. While the article doesn’t give any specifics for these elements of the approach, just thinking of the framework in a different way with artists in mind has helped me consider ways to bring library instruction to the attention of the faculty in this area.


  9. Simmons’ point of librarians using the discourse of specific departments is a valid one; however, if librarians work at a small liberal arts college, as I do, then there are not librarians assigned specifically to each academic department. Instead, we learn about the nuances of searching in different fields while on the job, picking up terminology from working with students and talking with faculty. During one-on-one sessions, I ask students pointed questions at the start and during the search process to learn how experts in their field approach research; upper class students have usually started to pick up the specialized vocabulary from their field. Reading the instructor’s directions usually provides nuances of a field-specific search, which is especially helpful when working with first-year students and sophomores.

    A lesson from the Sandbox is “From Nothing to Something: Transforming the ‘Failed’ Search”:“failed”-search

    This is a lesson plan from Teaching Information Literacy Threshold Concepts, edited by Patricia Bravender, Hazel McClure, and Gayle Schaub and contributed by Ika Datig.

    The lesson helps students learn how to refine their searches and shows them that they need to be flexible and use different search strategies when a search “fails.”

    The lesson recommends that student peers comment on the “failed” search, hopefully adding other paths to explore. If the classroom has technology that shares desktop images, such as Solstice, then a group could put their search on the main screen and walk the class through their process.


  10. The video, “One Perfect Source,” from the ACRL IL Sandbox (, is a good example of helping students to get out of the mindset that “I can only use stuff from this source…” or of trying to find just one source that will entirely cover their research need.

    I would adapt at my institution by including a handout for students to brainstorm keywords/phrases for their own topics, and then having a discussion around building strategies, using alternative keywords/phrases and synonyms. Ample time would be allowed for students to search databases and find at least three different sources during the Information Literacy session.

    The assigned reading was encouraging in describing how we as librarians are “insiders and outsiders” to many disciplines and as such we can help students see knowledge as “constructed and contested.” We can then encourage students to ask additional questions, relative to the discipline, which would help them find sources more relevant to that discipline.

    It was interesting to learn that the “integration of genre theory” was the basis for Writing Across the Curriculum, the use of which has been increasing.


    • What was striking to me was the fact that this article was published before the Framework was introduced. I did not take the time to explore how it fits into the larger conversation but did observe that the author uses the heading “Critical Information Literacy—Moving Beyond the ACRL Standards” on page 299.

      The challenge for our instruction staff is that we do not have a liaison program and we usually assign our instruction sessions based on who is available. We do make an effort to assign upper level classes to librarians who are more comfortable with that particular area due to inclination and some subject area expertise. But sometimes we end up teaching a subject area where we are very much the “outsider” mentioned in the article.

      So perhaps we are truly the “disciplinary discourse mediator” as we are navigating understanding the difference in using the term “deviance” in a Sociology class as opposed to a Biology class. As a result, I found the following lesson plan the most useful after exploring a few options:

      Many professors are starting to use Research Logs as part of their assignments, so it would be easy to adapt this as part of the teaching. Perhaps even require that the students complete part of the worksheet before arriving in class. I will most likely attempt to turn this into a more interactive, active learning opportunity.

      As an interesting side note, I managed to go down a rabbit hole after looking into CP Snow’s The Two Cultures. This led me to an interesting documentary we have access to via Films on Demand:

      “Ideas Roadshow: The Two Cultures.” Films Media Group, 2013, Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.

      Where Stefan Collins, the author of What Are Universities for? (London, Penguin, 2012), discusses the debate around the Sciences vs. the Humanities and how we ought to organize our universities. Much of which is a debate of the language around how we have conversations in academia. I think this is directly connected to the idea that “research is about constructing meaning through active engagement with the ideas and asking questions surrounding the information itself. “ (Simmons, p. 308)



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