Monday, March 11, 2013

Keywords: Strategies, tips and tricks

One of these days the field will realize that jargon terms our students don't understand just add one more layer of haze we have to dig through to simply get to the student. But until that day we must soldier on with what we have.

Let's talk about one of my favorite library jargon terms: keywords. Now it's a simple enough concept to get across to students, but getting them to develop a list or recognize that there is more than just the word they list as a topic is a totally different story.

Over the past few years I've developed a few different strategies to get students to engage with the idea of keywords. My favorite has to be playing Keyword Taboo. You can play this game with or without technology. I like to play it with technology to add that extra level of playfulness. I present the students with a research topic: college students and alcohol. I use this in particular because there are many options for keywords and it is also totally of interest to students. After I give them the topic I have them come up with keywords for that topic. The catch? Like the game Taboo, they can't use the words "college," "student," or "alcohol." I don't give them any other direction than that. I usually mediate this through Poll Everywhere using a free-text response option instead of the pre-determined polls. I have the students pull out their cell phones (or use the computers in front of them) to send in responses. Then as they show up live on the PPT slide or screen, I discuss what they come up with. Because of the nature of the topic, the students are forced to narrow the topic. I usually see terms like "beer," "binge drinking," "underage," "liquor," and "teenagers" pretty quickly. I point out how each of those terms narrows my topic in some way. And we talk about how the subsets of teenagers and underage don't necessarily hit all college students. Inevitably someone posts something they find funny or inappropriate, but usually only after the first round of terms come in. I have a pretty good idea of terms and ideas that I think might work so when I don't see those come up, I try and get the students to navigate themselves to them somehow. Undergraduate(s) is the one missed most often. This activity takes a little time, but it really helps the students understand that keywords are NOT just the words in the topic. That you can and should think outside the immediate phrases in front of your eyes. It also hits home the point that you need to narrow your research topic considerably for it to be really successful for those short papers.

Another strategy I like to use is the "Think, Pair, Share." This works well when students already have individual topics picked for their project. I have the student brainstorm as many keywords as possible for their topic/research question/theme and write them down. Then I have them turn to the person next to them, explain and describe their topic and then have their partner come up with a few more keywords. Usually the partner cane come up with the few extra words they need to get them over the 10 keyword bar I set. Partnering them is usually enough to allow students to recognize there is more than one way to describe a topic, and that sometimes finding someone slightly removed from the topic can help broaden their horizons.

Every once in a while I end up with a class where everyone in the class is researching the same topic. Or similar topics. Instead of playing Taboo with those classes I've started going around the room and creating a class keyword list. Each student is required to come up with one keyword. The first 5 or 6 are easy. Then the students start trying to opt out. I keep pushing for synonyms and remind the students all they have to do is come up with one word. That's not so hard. So far I've just gone around the room back to front. But next time I do this, I think I'll have everyone stand up and when they say one they get to sit down. Level the playing field a bit. And when push comes to shove toward the end, I usually let the rest of the class help bail out those last few students. But at the end, we've got a nice long list of keywords. We've talked about synonyms, combining terms, and searching for phrases. For this last class I just took a picture of the whiteboard where I wrote them all and posted it on the course LibGuide so students could use the list to actually search later.

What do you do to get students to really engage with the idea of keywords?

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