Blog 18

SPARK your teaching in 2016!



Ron Sheese and Sophie Bury, Learning Commons


SPARK is a digital resource designed by York librarians, study-skills specialists, and writing instructors to help students with academic writing assignments. Students around the world are consulting SPARK to learn fundamentals of library research and writing skills.

While many instructors recommend SPARK to their students, many are also incorporating features of SPARK into the design of their courses. Teaching with SPARK is a module within SPARK that assists instructors to employ specific elements of SPARK to help their students develop their research and writing skills.

SPARK consists of thirteen modules organized into three categories: Getting Started, Exploring, and Pulling It Together. Tools such as worksheets, exercises, and quizzes have been created for each module, and Teaching with SPARK suggests numerous ways that the module and its associated tools might be used in a course.

SPARK is built on the recognition that many contemporary undergraduates are strangers to the conventions and expectations of the academic community. Studies show that undeveloped academic literacy skills related to academic reading, writing and library research pose obstacles to academic success for students. Studies from Project Information Literacy (Head, 2013) and ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) (Foster & Gibbons, 2007), for example, examined undergraduates’ information seeking behaviours and found evidence of many areas for development. Students tended when conducting research, for example, to rely on familiar resources such as their course readings and Google, rather than to seek out and use any of the many other sophisticated resources available. They also found that most students lack an understanding of how to develop an effective search strategy, whether using Google or subscription library databases.

Our own experience has been that students are often unclear about the difference between the resources freely available on the web and those indexed in scholarly databases, including recognizing why the difference is important and how to critically evaluate the information they locate within them. Many have little experience with the processes associated with the analytical reading and writing expected in university. Many find the conventions of APA and MLA style baffling. SPARK addresses such uncertainties and lack of experience. A useful starting point for instructors is to recognize that our assignments often carry the implicit assumption that everyone has mastered the underlying literacy components of academic writing. The Making the Implicit Explicit page of Teaching with SPARK provides examples of academic literacy skills that instructors often take for granted in their own work, but which typically require explicit instructional attention in order to foster their development in students.

Instructors eager to assist students with the processes and skills implicit in academic reading, writing, and research find that SPARK enhances their ability to provide the focus and practice students need in order to improve. For each of the thirty-six resources included in the SPARK modules, Teaching with SPARK provides a page that identifies the skills addressed by the resource, possible classroom uses for it, and options for feedback or evaluation. It also provides suggestions for possible ways to customize the resource, and it provides links to the original WORD documents to facilitate such customization.

Speaking of processes such as those involved in conducting library research and in writing at the university level, Tasmin Haggis (2006) says, “process cannot be delivered; it can only be described, compared, modelled and practised.” We can’t just hand over the ability to do this work to our students; rather we need to find ways to help them recognize and accomplish the processes. It is just this type of exercise that SPARK and Teaching with SPARK seek to make available to instructors.

If you are interested in reading more about academic literacies, consult the resource guide compiled by those of us at The Learning Commons who have been involved in the design and implementation of SPARK. We are available to consult with you about how you might use SPARK to achieve your course goals in the area of library research and writing. If you haven’t worked with SPARK, please have a look and contact us to talk about how it can help you. We are particularly interested in talking to instructors who have included SPARK resources in their course exercises or assignments. Please if you have worked with SPARK, contact us and let us know about your experience. Our email addresses: and


Foster, N.F. & Gibbons, S. (2007). Studying students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester. Chicago, IL: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Haggis, T. (2006). Pedagogies for diversity: Retaining critical challenge amidst fears of ‘dumbing down’. Studies in Higher Education. 31(5), 521-535. doi: 10.1080/03075070600922709

Head, A.J. (2013). Project Information Literacy: What can be learned about the information-seeking behaviour of today’s college students in the Proceedings of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2013 Conference. Indianapolis, IN, 10-13 April, 2013. Chicago, IL: American Library Assocation. [Available:]

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