This page is authored by Kiki Tömmila

Whatcom Community College


This is a guided practice activity that uses the "big ideas" of systems thinking and sustainability to introduce Information Literacy Threshold Concepts. The IL threshold concepts in this assignment are "Scholarship as Conversation" and "Research as Inquiry." In groups and then as a class, students map the ideas in an assigned reading and connect those ideas using systems thinking. Students will then use the concept map to direct their research inquiry.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Students will be able to:

  • Develop a meaningful research question from a broad topic
  • Identify key words and gaps in information in their research
  • Identify the parts of an ecological system
  • Analyze the interconnectedness of the parts of an ecological system

Context for Use

This is a guided practice activity that is used in a 200-level college Library course. This course uses the "big ideas" of systems thinking and sustainability to present Information Literacy Threshold Concepts. The American Library Association has identified six "frames," (concepts) that offer a way for instructors to engage students in a way of learning that is transformative and irreversible by presenting instruction as core ideas rather than as step-by-step demonstration. The six frames that currently drive the use of threshold concepts in Information Literacy are: Authority Is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as a Process; Information Has Value; Research as Inquiry; Scholarship as Conversation; and Searching as Strategic Exploration.1)The IL threshold concepts in this assignment are "Scholarship as Conversation" and "Research as Inquiry." The activity works best in a 15-30 student classroom and is accomplished in a 55-minute session.

Students have been introduced to the basic principles of Systems Thinking and the IL Threshold concepts prior to this lesson. Students have been assigned a reading to prepare for this activity before class. The first 20 minutes of class are used to draw students into the main lesson and engage them into the content by reviewing previous content, discussing the relevance of the activity, presenting the lesson objective and beginning with a small group activity that will be used later for the full-class activity. In the next 20 minutes, the class as a whole will participate in a guided practice activity that begins with a mind map and continues to a systems map. The remaining 15 minutes should be used for discussion and adding context to what they have done.

The materials need for this assignment are 3-4 colors of sticky notes per small group and a white board and markers (optimal). If you are in a classroom without a white board, you can improvise with paper or a computer and projector, but the whiteboard is optimal because you will be mapping connections and the number of connections could become epic.

Description and Teaching Materials

These are the directions that we give to the students:

Assigned reading for the 4th week

Your assigned reading for this week is the Introduction (pp3-11) to "Where Land & Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed" By Nancy Langston. We will be using this reading for our in-class activities next week, so please come prepared. Briefly answer these questions and post your answers in Canvas by Friday:

1. How does the author describe a "riparian zone"?

2. What are some of the human processes that have shaped riparian areas?

3. What is the author's description/opinion of conflict in land management?

4. What is the author's description/opinion of adaptive management?

(note: Where Land & Water Meet is an e-book that students can access from the library. The introduction does a lovely job of describing the history what is now the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. In eight short pages this reading lists the different cultural groups that have inhabited this area, how they used the land and how the land was changed by each intervention.)

To introduce the students to the activity, we say:

Today we are going to going to work through a research topic, not by thinking linearly, but by welcoming complexity and ultimately ending up with a focused inquiry. Researchers often select a topic without considering the complex conversations that create a full understanding of the topic. By creating a concept or systems map, we are building a visual tool to help us to create a framework for our ideas. Our goal is to map out a complex set of ideas and find an entry point for you to enter that conversation. Identifying ideas that most interest you will make it easier for you to begin with a focused inquiry for your research.


  • Develop a meaningful research question from a broad topic
  • Identify key words and gaps in information in their research
  • Identify the parts of an ecological system
  • Analyze the interconnectedness of the parts of an ecological system
Small Groups (15 min):

From the reading, identify elements (systems thinking) of the Malheur Lake Basin. Use pink sticky notes to represent human activity, yellow sticky notes to represent ecological processes, and blue for other. These sticky notes will be used to build a giant concept map, mapping elements and interconnectedness.

Guided Practice (20 min):

After 15 minutes, have your groups bring their sticky notes up to the white board, attach matching elements together and look for interconnectedness. (10 min). After all the elements are placed in a way that is satisfactory to the majority, connect them with markers, creating feedback, stabilizing, runaway and reinforcing loops (10 min). If the board gets messy, it simply illustrates the complexity of the issue.

Conclusion (15 min):

Discuss the complexity in research and in life (5 min)

Revisit the goals. Are you satisfied with your progress? Did the activity help? (5 min)

Next step: Move closer to picking an element (topic) to research. Look for dates, key people, theories, events related to that element. Identify keywords and gaps in information in your research.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Depending on the class, this may or may not be an ambitious exercise for a 1-hour session. Concept maps can be very simple or surprisingly complex and I am rarely prepared for the results. Don't be frustrated if it doesn't go as you had imagined. The real value of this guided activity is to work with students to experience how it is done...the map itself can end up less than you had hoped, as long as students know how to do it again. Group mind maps reflect group minds (yikes!).

The size of the small groups in the beginning of the activity depends on the size and dynamics of the class. Just remember that the more groups, the more sticky notes to organize when you move to the whole-class activity.

The assigned reading that I use contains sustainability content. The library has purchased the e-book so all students have access to it at no cost (besides their tuition and tax dollars). You can also download an article or chapter into Canvas or select a reading from your library databases. The more content you select, the more complicated the systems map.


Part of the discussion at the end of the session is to have a conversation about how well we met the goals presented at the beginning of class. Students will discuss how satisfied they are with the activity in helping them meet those goals, identify what goals are important to them and what work needs to be done to better meet those goals.

References and Resources

  1. Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,
  2. Teaching Information Literacy Threshold Concepts: Lesson Plans for Librarians by Patricia Bravendar, Hazel McClure and Gayle Schaub, eds.
  3. Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows, edited by Diana Wright
  4. Where Land & Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed by Nancy Langston. University of Washington Press, 2003