14 Cultivating a Disposition of Inquiry

Embedded Librarianship in First-Year Composition

Kevin Augustine and Jacqueline Hollcraft

“Our embedded librarianship model enables the librarian to collaborate on curriculum with the writing instructor to create learning experiences that develop both research skills and writing in tandem, fostering a supportive learning environment that spans the library and classroom, aiming to develop and sustain intellectual curiosity.”

Identifying barriers between first-year students and librarians

Coming out of high school, the transition to academia is rife with barriers for first-year students as they attempt to acquire a wide range of new skills, reconsider old values, and navigate a series of systems which are completely unfamiliar (Fisher & Heaney, 2011). Early in their academic careers, students typically receive “one-shot” instruction sessions led by librarians introducing them to library research. Determining the information needs for an academic assignment can be complicated for first-year students, and faculty often assume that students know how to navigate the complex information landscape or that a one-shot library instruction session is enough to develop a student’s course-related information-seeking skills. Even in the way first-year students seek information in their everyday lives, they exhibit information-searching skills that seem to rely on rankings provided by Internet search engines rather than careful analysis of the results (Fain, 2011). First-year students do not yet know about the process of inquiry conducted in the academic world, and they are novices to the scholarly conversations in their disciplines (Refaei & Wahman, 2016). First-year students often struggle not because they lack the abilities to succeed, but because they lack experience with applying skills to unfamiliar tasks and texts within a new academic discourse (Fisher & Heaney, 2011). When encountering academic literature, first-year students may make many ill-informed choices as they gather information sources to complete college-level projects, where some may disregard a source based solely on their inability to read and understand it (Flaspohler, 2012).


First-year students need collaborative learning experiences built by discipline experts and librarians that familiarize them with approaches to academic research and enable them to develop and sustain intellectual curiosity from its origins in inquiry grounded by subject knowledge with an information literacy lens. First-year students are on the periphery of the undergraduate academic community of practice, and through their coursework and accumulation of social capital they move toward the core of the community (Folk, 2021). There is a need for supportive learning environments in the transition to higher education to allow students to become accustomed to discipline norms and academic standards (Wilkes et al., 2015).


Librarians are in a position to foster supporting learning environments, however, they face challenges accessing students and developing comprehensive information literacy instruction models that address the needs of first-year students. Teaching within the one-shot model keeps librarians in a holding pattern, limiting agency within campus power structures (Fister, 2021). This lack of agency, in addition to the devaluation of librarians’ time by teaching faculty who ask for last-minute instruction, and the demand for instruction program assessment further pins librarians to the one-shot model (Nicholson, 2019). Another challenge for librarians to move beyond a one-shot session is faculty support, as librarians struggle to find buy-in from faculty to seamlessly incorporate information literacy skills into the curriculum and assessment tasks (Wilkes et. al, 2015).

Faculty-Librarian Collaboration

In 2019, Stanislaus State’s English department facilitated a cohort of First-Year Composition (FYC) faculty and librarians to strategize ways to more effectively integrate information literacy into its first-year writing courses. Stanislaus State’s English Department offers a First-Year Composition (FYC) stretch course spanning two semesters as a way of closing achievement gaps through developmental education programming (California State, 2017). These FYC stretch courses include additional goals and learning outcomes aimed at supporting first-year students’ sense of belonging in academia, acclimation to college culture, confidence in accessing campus resources, and information literacy.


On an institutional level there has been a significant push towards the implementation of information literacy in general education courses. In 2018 our campus formed the Information Literacy Faculty Learning Committee (IL-FLC), which reported on program curriculum maps and stated that some information literacy coverage happened across disciplines but noted the ambiguity of the meaning of information literacy and the lack of systematic mapping of outcomes to learning goals despite a perceived value. While the committee’s findings acknowledged the struggle to formulate an information literacy approach on our campus, the English departments’ FYC stretch course was noted as a course where information literacy is an explicit learning outcome (Information Literacy Faculty, 2018).


Collaboration with librarians is essential when implementing information literacy in composition (DeSanto & Harrington, 2017). D’Angelo et al. (2016) assert “the responsibility to implement information literacy instruction should be shared among all stakeholders, which includes faculty, librarians, administrators, and external stakeholders …” (p. 3). Collaborations spur deeper conversations about effective pedagogy that go beyond the one-shot sessions and frequently involve considering the intersections between writing and information literacy that inform learning outcomes, activities, assignments, course materials and class instruction (Baer, 2016-b). When librarians and composition instructors do not collaborate and learn from each other and focus only within their discipline, the larger picture of student learning on campus is missed and there is the potential to mistake each individual’s part in teaching as the whole (Jacobs & Jacobs, 2009).


Information literacy in composition classrooms reflects shared pedagogical interests between librarians and composition instructors. First-year composition provides the space to engage cognitively and reflectively with the research process through writing. Both composition and librarianship disciplines rely on threshold concepts as they aim to move students from the perfunctory performance of tasks into a contextual use of information within a given rhetorical situation (DeSanto & Harrington, 2017).


As a result of the cohort pairing FYC faculty with librarians, we, an English department lecturer (Jacqueline Hollcraft) and a Research and Instruction Librarian (Kevin Augustine), began collaborating on curriculum and asking how a more consistent librarian presence in the classroom would impact first-year students’ research methods and utilization of sources in assignments. During this time, we discussed our frustrations with the limitations of a one-shot instruction session and the traditional essay assignment. We also asked, how can we develop student confidence in accessing information and establish the relevance of information literacy in their academic and everyday lives? How can we foster initiative approaching librarians for research help? We determined that embedded librarianship might best support first-year students’ research needs and overall sense of confidence navigating both research writing projects and academia as a whole.

Embedded Librarianship in First-Year Composition

Definitions of embedded librarianship throughout librarianship literature vary in depth and engagement, and given the wide range of approaches and interpretations, it can be somewhat difficult to define (Schulte, 2012). As a model, embedded librarianship provides opportunities to enable librarians to demonstrate and apply their information expertise in ways that have direct and deep impact on research and teaching while enabling stronger connections and relationships (Carlson & Kneale, 2011). Characteristics of embedded librarianship include collaborating with  students, developing partnerships across campus, customizing responses to meet specific students’ needs, working outside of the library, becoming immersed in the spaces of students, and understanding the culture and research habits of students in a discipline (Brower, 2011, p. 4). Exposure to embedded librarianship for at-risk students can include a greater willingness to ask questions about the research process, more focused research topics, increase in follow-up consultations, an ownership of and view of librarians as teachers rather than visitors, and greater appreciation of research (Fisher & Heaney, 2011).


Our interpretation of embedded librarianship is defined by a consistent presence of the librarian in the classroom, an increase in the number of library instruction sessions throughout the course of an academic year, and the co-curricular development of writing assignments, library session activities, other course assignments, and pedagogical approaches. Our embedded librarianship model enables the librarian to collaborate on curriculum with the writing instructor to create learning experiences that develop both research skills and writing in tandem, fostering a supportive learning environment that spans the library and classroom, aiming to develop and sustain intellectual curiosity. Our model also attempts to accomplish the learning outcomes of the university regarding the implementation of information literacy in courses that explicitly have it as a learning outcome.


Our collaboration led to the development of a research project titled, Embedded Librarianship and the Implementation of Information Literacy in First-Year Composition. Our purpose was to implement scaffolded information literacy instruction into Hollcraft’s FYC stretch courses. We then aimed to assess student writing and responses within coursework to determine if scaffolded development of the research process, in parallel with the writing process, produced effective research and utilization of sources in student writing, thereby facilitating more effective writing while building a sense of belonging, agency, and empowerment in Stan State’s academic culture. We also intended to cultivate confidence in first-year students’ library-oriented capabilities and the utilization of librarians as a resource for their information-seeking needs. We also hoped to demonstrate the impact teaching faculty and librarian collaboration can have in the classroom throughout an academic year to the campus community.

Overlapping the ACRL and WPA Frameworks

Developing a curriculum for teaching information literacy in first-year composition required us to examine the Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (2015) and the Writing Program Administrators’ (WPA) Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (2011) as the cornerstones for our disciplines. The ACRL framework, which targets the student researcher and those who teach information literacy, does not specifically mention composition or writing in their frames. Similarly, the WPA framework does not explicitly refer to writers as researchers. However, each framework echoes the concepts, goals, and considerations of the other.


While the ACRL framework emphasizes knowledge practices and dispositions, the WPA framework emphasizes opportunities for development, learning experiences, and habits of mind. The two frameworks share emphases on the developmental, process-based approach to learning that must be implemented in a variety of ways across learning contexts, academic disciplines, and social contexts (Baer, 2016-b). Both frameworks acknowledge the student’s role in knowledge construction and meaning-making and the exercise of their critical voices and involvement both in and beyond their academic communities (Albert & Sinkinson, 2016). Also, both frameworks’ emphasis on the environments in which writing, research, and information use occur may help students recognize the relevance these practices have in their everyday lives and in their communities (Baer, 2016-a).

Blending Frameworks to “Research and Writing as Inquiry”

The knowledge dispositions in the ACRL Frame “Research as Inquiry” and the WPA’s habit of mind “Curiosity” both emphasize the need for researchers/writers to confront problems, engage in dialogue and disagreement, examine and challenge assumptions, and refine and expand methods of exploration and investigation of a topic. Blending the two frameworks offers a way to introduce first-year students to their own intellectual curiosity, facilitate their pursuit of answers to respond to that curiosity, and develop their writing to articulate their newfound knowledge resulting from their investigations. We both agreed on an inquiry-driven, process-based curriculum, which we decided to call “Research and Writing as Inquiry.”


We determined that a good starting point in our curriculum would be translating students’ real-world knowledge and expertise when seeking out information in their everyday lives into an academic context. Alison Head’s (2013) research showed that students continue to rely on familiar methods and sources like Google to seek out information, and we speculated that facilitating acknowledgement of students’ everyday life information-seeking behaviors would transfer into more complex, unfamiliar, academic research strategies. We also acknowledged the need to scaffold first-year students into those strategies and to model the iterative, challenging nature of college-level research. We began by facilitating activities where students practice inquiry-based research strategies first in everyday-life contexts and then develop those strategies in the context of an academic research and writing assignment.

As Johnson and Kolk (2016) observe:

Although students may be persistent, flexible researchers in some sectors of their lives, writing teachers and librarians should consider how to help students enact these habits in their academic research and writing – a context where research questions are located in scholarly discourse communities and where research consequences may be less concrete (pp. 11–12).

The challenges students face in academic research with dead-end searches, conflicting information, and ill-formed research questions requires flexibility to find new research paths and build persistence while engaging with difficult information (Johnson & Kolk, 2016).

Curriculum Development

Our interwoven curriculum includes co-developed activities, discussions, and writing assignments that develop and foster intellectual curiosity and are facilitated in both the composition classroom and the library instruction space. Over the course of an academic year, we implement six library instruction sessions and additional classroom visits, moving beyond the traditional one-shot session. We focus on fostering blended learning environments, normalizing the librarian presence in the classroom, and increasing the students’ presence in the library for information literacy instruction.


From the composition angle, first-year students engage in methods of inquiry, create multimodal projects that articulate their developing understanding of information literacy, and participate in consistent discussions and group-work centered on metacognition of their information-seeking behaviors and methods. Writing assignments and online discussions incorporate reflection on their research process as well as allow them to pursue answers to the research questions they developed on chosen topics relevant to their interests and/or academic goals. Three major elements of our curriculum are the implementation of question formulation at the beginning of their research process, research logs as a tool for documentation, evaluation, and reflection, and the “Research and Writing as Inquiry Portfolio,” which wraps up their experience in the course with an academic research essay.

Question Formulation Technique (QFT)

Early in the curriculum we implement Rothstein and Santana’s (2011) Question Formulation Technique (QFT). The method assists students in guided brainstorming by quickly generating multiple questions on a topic. We introduce the method in the classroom through  group work using everyday life topics. We then scaffold the students into applying the method to their chosen topics for the culminating portfolio assignment. The QFT has been an essential tool in spurring multiple avenues of inquiry for students who are intimidated and anxious at the beginning of the research process for a major academic assignment. The QFT is a method that students can use beyond our course curriculum as they transfer the approach of question formulation to research assignments in other disciplines.

Research Logs

The research logs span 4-5 weeks of the term, and students submit one log each week as they begin researching for the “Research and Writing  as Inquiry Portfolio.” The logs are a way for students to state their research questions, describe their information needs, record their gathered sources, detail their methods of finding those sources, and metacognitively engage with their research process. Research logs allow students to use writing to simultaneously develop and express their emerging understandings as they unfold in response to inquiry’s discoveries without the pressure of an asserted thesis (Bush & Mason, 2016).


Students use writing to observe and reflect on their attitudes, approaches, and behaviors associated with their research process. By using writing to articulate their experiences with their research process, they are then able to evaluate the effectiveness of that process and decide on the need for new strategies and approaches. We make it clear that they should honestly record their strategies, methods, behaviors, and attitudes, because we want them to reflect on and evaluate their authentic process, even if (or rather, especially if) it is messy, disorganized, cursory, rushed, or unproductive. We also ask them to document when, how often, and for how long they engage in research over the course of a week. Self-reflection on the research process at various points during the semester provides opportunities for  holistic interventions that foster students’ intellectual curiosity over time.

“Research and Writing as Inquiry Portfolio”

The purpose of the “Research and Writing as Inquiry Portfolio” is for students to immerse into the research experience with a topic of interest and then to write about both the topic and their approach to research. Students are allowed to choose the topics they research and write about in order to acknowledge and validate their individual curiosity and show that any topic can be approached in an academic context, which reinforces the need for consistent guidance and scaffolding by both the librarian and composition instructor. Students may often not know how to pursue their topics using scholarly resources, and teaching multiple strategies of increasing complexity and implementing interventions when students encounter obstacles are vital to maintaining students’ motivation and interest throughout the project.


The assignment goes beyond a traditional academic essay by weaving in description, evaluation, and metacognition of their research process with either an argumentative or informative approach to their topic, which also impels the students to reference their research logs. The assignment blends information literacy and composition goals and outcomes and reflects our blended approach to the overall “Research and Writing as Inquiry” curriculum. Peer-review is also incorporated into the process of this assignment, so students have the opportunity to read about their peers’ approaches to research and to provide feedback from their own experiences.

Project Assessment

When assessing both embedded librarianship and our curriculum “Research and Writing as Inquiry,” we must determine whether embedded librarianship directly correlates with a more meaningful development of the research and writing processes. We also must determine whether embedded librarianship increases student confidence in their research process, their sense of belonging in academia, confidence navigating library resources, and interactions with librarians in their research process. Finally, we must assess the effectiveness of our pedagogy, teaching methods, and curriculum in meeting the goals of our project and the learning outcomes of composition and information literacy instruction.


We realized the need to rely on the observations and responses of the students in order to determine answers to our assessment questions, and so student writing, our pre/post survey, responses on library instruction activities, and responses to course evaluations became the principal avenues of acquiring data informing our research project, pedagogical approaches, and curriculum development. We discovered that in addition to curriculum development, we also needed to collaborate on evaluating assignments, activities, student responses, and writing. This revealed another area where librarianship and composition blended.


The scope of data that informs the effectiveness of information literacy instruction is difficult for librarians to assess. When it comes to estimating the value of the use of library terms or systems, the questions end up being shaped to prove the worth of a program rather than a genuine desire to improve learning (Head, Bull, & Macmillan, 2019). However, partnering in the evaluation of students’ assignments can help determine whether or not students apply information literacy skills in their assignments, and our immersive embedded librarianship model spanning the entirety of an academic year allows for a better assessment of how much students use and retain research and information literacy skills (Brower, 2011). This increased level of collaboration brings librarians into new territory and further dismantles boundaries preventing librarians from accessing student feedback on the effectiveness of instruction methods.


Over the course of our project, our observations have led to continued refinement of our curriculum in order to better scaffold the students into more complex research methods and provide writing situations that better facilitate metacognition of the research process. Each year we have modified and consolidated assignments, restructured the order of the library instruction sessions, and revised assignment prompts to better incorporate opportunities for metacognition. Our continued engagement with our curriculum revealed that, like the research and writing processes we are attempting to develop in our students, co-curriculum development itself is iterative in nature.


As we look to deliver the results of our endeavors to various stakeholders at the departmental and institutional level, we have faced many challenges. Designing, implementing, and evaluating our curriculum demands time, energy and resources. From fall 2019 onward, our challenges have grown in complexity and mirrored our developmental progress.


Our initial challenges involved navigating the University Institutional Review Board process for all of our instruments, contending with colleagues’ initial impressions and questions about our project, acquiring funding for Hollcraft’s time (as she is a non-tenure-track, contracted lecturer), and transitioning our curriculum online at the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The pandemic continued to be a catalyst for transitioning our curriculum from in-person, to online, to hybrid, and back to in-person, which required significant time and energy.


In 2020 and 2021 we encountered new and repeated challenges. We contended with the problem of having to exclude minors from our project, continued seeking funding for Hollcraft’s time, purchased qualitative analysis software, and initiated the hiring process for student assistance in migrating data for qualitative analysis. We also scaled our curriculum to a one-semester course in Fall 2021 due to enrollment issues and changes to Hollcraft’s assigned course load, which compelled us to reduce the amount of instruction sessions and condense our lesson plans while still retaining the essential components of our curriculum.

Project Outlook

Our project has ambitious goals in its attempt to break down the barriers between librarians and the first-year students who are new to complex information landscapes. Our embedded librarianship model is an attempt at meeting first-year students where they are in a comprehensive, holistic way that is intended to make an impact beyond the FYC classroom.  We have received support and funding for our project at both the departmental and institutional levels, as various stakeholders are interested in effective approaches toward supporting first-year student success. In the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 academic years, we were awarded consecutive institutional grants supporting our collaboration and research. As we gather and migrate data from our activities and instruments, we hope to gain insight into the effectiveness of our methods based on student reflections, feedback, and observations. As we assess student input, we continue to refine our curriculum and shape how we cultivate a disposition of inquiry in first-year students. We also hope that our collaboration serves as a model for librarians and faculty across our campus to consider ways of coming together to develop approaches to information literacy instruction that provide librarians consistent access to students and a more immersive, meaningful presence beyond the one-shot instruction session in the academic learning experiences of first-year students.



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About the Authors

Kevin Augustine is a Research and Instruction Librarian at California State University, Stanislaus. He holds an MLIS from San Jose Staté University and a BA in English from California State University, Chico.

Kevin can be reached at kaugustine@csustan.edu

Jacqueline Hollcraft in an English lecturer at Stanislaus State and teaches composition, humanities, and literature courses. She is currently involved in qualitative research assessing the implementation of information literacy in first-year composition and is faculty lead on an interdepartmental collaborative effort to provide peer mentorship and classroom-embedded writing support for first-year students. In her work on campus as Writing Center Coordinator: Online Tutoring, her focus is online and asynchronous tutoring, outreach and campus partnerships, and graduate writing workshops. Some of her literary interests include the grotesque in literature, art, and film and the works of Flannery O’Connor.

Jacqueline can be reached at jhollcraft@csustan.edu


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