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Problem-Based Learning for English Composition: The School Board Project
This series of lessons is designed to introduce first-year English composition students to the research process, using a problem-based learning approach. Students read excerpts from a book on school integration in the 1950s and then an article on the state of racial integration in schools today. They are then provided with a scenario in which the governor of a state is thinking about mandating a school integration plan. The students, working in groups, must research the issue and then make a presentation to the State Board of Education in which they state whether they support or oppose a mandatory school integration plan and why. Students spend about 3 weeks developing research questions and a focus, conducting research using library resources, writing an annotated bibliography, and then making their presentation to the class.
Goals & Objectives:

1. Students will define their information needs in order to anticipate what they and their audience need to know and to focus, shape, and organize their ideas and writing. Students will develop and demonstrate these skills by:

  • Asking specific questions about their topic of research.
  • Exploring and summarizing general information sources on a topic so that they can provide necessary background information and develop a more focused inquiry.
  • Revising their research questions based upon the information found throughout the research process.

2. Students will use a variety of sources to explore a topic in order to develop an appreciation of different types of information and their purposes. Students will develop and demonstrate these skills by:

  • Identifying the value of different types of information sources for various purposes in their own writing, such as providing background, clarifying questions and issues, and presenting evidence.
  • Identifying the differences between primary and secondary sources.
  • Using an appropriate range of sources in their writing.

3. Students will evaluate information for its value, relevance, and accuracy in order to develop the critical thinking skills of analysis and self-reflection. Students will develop and demonstrate their evaluation skills by:

  • Actively engaging with and questioning the texts they read.
  • Identifying the purpose and audience of different information sources.
  • Determining whether information is useful for their purpose.
  • Selecting information that provides evidence for the topic and using that information for support in their writing.
Materials & Sources:
1. Recommended background readings:

Excerpts from Melba Patillo Beals, Warriors Don't Cry (Washington Square Press, 1995)

Jonathan Kozol, "Still Separate, Still Unequal:America's Educational Apartheid," Harper's Magazine v.311, n.1864 (Sept. 2005)

Or show Fighting Back, an episode from the PBS documentary, Eyes on the Prize

2. Research plan worksheets (see supporting files)
1. Background discussion:
Before coming to the library, discuss the readings or film mentioned above. Ask students to reflect on their own experiences of racial and ethnic integration or segregation in schools. This provides a common ground for their research.

2. Library Lesson One: Research Plans:
Introduce the assignment and the PBL scenario on school integration. Students are introduce to the research process as a process of asking questions. The class brainstorms questions related to the issues by focusing on the prompts:

a. What do I already know about this issue?
b. What do I need to know about this issue in order to better understand it and present an argument for or against a proposed school integration plan?

You can use the worksheet in the supporting files section so that students can record their own questions.

The class then breaks up into groups and each group further discusses their questions and develops a focus for their research.

3. Library Lesson Two: Research Day
The class comes to the library for basic instruction. It is useful to have a website or handout with recommended resources (e.g. suggested library databases, websites, etc.) so that they do not get overwhelmed.  See, for example,

You might need to demonstrate how to locate articles or books in the library, but the demonstration should be brief. The remaining time is spent coaching students in groups as they explore the recommended resources for answers to their questions developed in the previous lesson.

4. Optional Research Day
It is helpful to have an additional hands-on research day further into the assignment to assist students find more information, as their questions and focus have likely changed based on what they initially discover.
1. Annotated bibliographies can be scored according to a rubric to assess the quality of sources used, in terms of credibility, variety, and relevance.

2. A reflective self-assessment essay can be assigned so that students can reflect on their own learning and what they might change in future research projects.
Melissa Bowles, Heather Robison, Brady Edwards, and Mike Terry
This series of lessons is the result of extensive collaboration between the Reference Services Department and the English Department at Utah State University. The success of the lessons are a direct result of the hard work and creativity of several librarians and English instructors
Print this Lesson Plan
Presented By: Wendy Holliday
Collaborative: Melissa Bowles, Heather Robison, Brady Edwards, and Mike Terry
Website by Data Momentum, Inc.