Doing Content Analysis in a Building Full of Content

Two weeks ago I presented at the 2013 Forum of the NOLA Information Literacy Collective, our local gathering of academic instruction librarians in the Greater New Orleans area. I shared my experience developing an active learning session at the library to drive home a sociology professor’s lesson on content analysis methodology. The slides from my presentation are available online, and this post describes the lesson plan which readers can adopt and adapt in their own instruction.

For a little background, students in the sociology major are required to take a sequence of 3 courses early in their major career: a foundations course, a research design course, and a research analysis (a.k.a. statistics) course. Collaborating with faculty members, I’ve integrated information literacy instruction into this 3-course progression.1 In the foundations class, students learn to read an academic article and conduct basic searches in the database Sociological Abstracts in service of an annotated bibliography assignment. In research design, there are two library sessions: the first focuses on building a literature review, and the second had been an introduction to using and evaluating U.S. Census data. In the last course, the library session is about locating quantitative data sets. The lesson plan I’m about to describe replaced the second session in the research design class.

The professor wanted students in her class to be exposed to archival materials. In semesters past, her students had fixated on surveys as the preferred sociological methodology, and she wanted to promote qualitative analysis of existing materials. In order to assist in this goal, I first needed to familiarize myself with what archival materials meant in sociological research, so I consulted the sociology literature and read up on studies using content analysis methods. The professor and I corresponded and brainstormed on our goals and expectations for the session, and I came up with the following:

Before the session, students had homework: use Sociological Abstracts to find an article wherein the author uses content analysis methodology, read and evaluate it, and bring it to the library session. Students were given the hint to include “content analysis” in the Abstract field. This served both as a refresher on how to use the database, and modeled the use of content analysis by experts in the field.

To start the library session, I asked students to share two aspects of their located article: what was the content used by the author, and what sociological question did the author seek to answer? I listed on the board the types of content students identified, and the common themes among authors’ research questions. This helped students by showing them the realm of possibilities in content to be analyzed, and what sociological questions are appropriate and possible with this methodological approach. The professor also had the opportunity to ask follow up questions about students’ articles.

Then came the big reveal! I had a cart stacked with potential content: namely, print materials I had selected from the stacks. These included Caldecott award-winning children’s books, U.S. history textbooks from the 1980s and 1990s, published song lyrics from three disparate artists2, bound Life magazines from the 1950s, and recent issues of the photography magazine American Photo. I divided the students into 5 groups, assigned each group a content from the cart, and challenged them to work together to come up with a research proposal using content analysis on their assigned materials. Now they had the chance to practice the method they had only read about to this point, and by providing a content set to practice with, I removed the added challenge of conceptualizing and locating their own data set before they had a strong grasp of how to use it. (Watch for a future post on the relationship between finding and using information in student research assignments.)

After 10 to 12 minutes of group work, during which the professor and I circulated to offer encouragement and assistance as needed, I asked for a representative from each group to describe their content to the class and share the research proposal they came up with, emphasizing how they would apply content analysis methodology and the sociological question they intended to address. The exercise was a great success! Students were able to articulate the use of content analysis methods and generated interesting sociological research questions. The professor asked follow up questions that related back to their initial class lecture and readings on the method, and she later reported back to me that students seemed to “get it” both in subsequent class meetings and later on the exam. Thus we were able to assess students’ learning both in their reporting back to the class in the library session, and in the formalized space of their exam responses.

The sequence of assignments and activities here was designed to provide some scaffolding for the students as they learned to do content analysis. Scaffolding—a pedagogical metaphor often attributed to Jerome Bruner—is a method of breaking down the distance between novices and experts by creating stages through which students can work, taking into account what they can do on their own, what they can do with assistance, and what might still lie beyond the learning horizon.3 In this lesson plan, we first modeled for them what content analysis is and looks like in the discipline through their class readings and lecture, and then in finding their own example of a sociologist using the methodology. Then we worked as a class to list types of content and research questions typical of the methodology. Then working in small groups students could rely on each other during the hands-on challenge, giving students who already grasped the concept to help along those who weren’t quite there. Finally, with hands-on practice under their belts, students could demonstrate their conceptual grasp of the method and its application individually on the exam.

This lesson plan based on content analysis methodology in sociology could be applied in any disciplinary context using primary source materials. It’s also a means of showcasing interesting collections in the library while avoiding a dry show-and-tell presentation. Students will become aware of library sources by using them in service of a real learning goal, and not just for the sake of the materials themselves. This approach also demonstrates to faculty members that library instruction is more than just learning how to search, but can be a space for active engagement with library materials in support of their disciplinary content and learning goals. I encourage readers to adopt and adapt the content analysis library session, and come back to share how it went.


1. For more on this sequenced information literacy program, see my article “Beyond the One-Shot: Advantages of a Programmatic Approach to Information Literacy Instruction,” ANSS Currents 27 no. 2 (Fall 2012): 23-26 (http://anssacrl.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/anss-currents-fall-2012-1.pdf).
2. The song lyrics were three published collections: Hank Williams, Paul Simon, and John Denver.
3. See for example, David Wood, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross, “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving,”
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17, no. 2 (1976): 89-100.

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