Teaching a Credit-Bearing Class

Authorize this

Our zine “textbook”

This semester I’ve been co-teaching a credit-bearing class called The Politics of Information.  The class is about how gender, race, class, and other subject positions relate to information, and we’ve been talking a lot about the idea of authority–what authorizes someone to access, use, or create information?

I’m teaching the class with my fellow instruction librarian, Andrew Battista, and we themed each week around a different issue: social media and political activism, the digital divide, the cycle of power/publication in academia, government surveillance, and more.  It’s been a great experience so far–we have complete creative freedom with the course, it’s helped us engage that elusive fifth ACRL IL Standard, and I’ve found that the ongoing discussion in this class has informed and enhanced my traditional library instruction.

Creative Freedom, or, Sneaking in the Back Door

In order to get this class on the books, we had to teach it as a one-credit 300-level honors course.  There was nowhere else where the weirdo librarians would fit!  Because of this, we didn’t get many students–a lot of students don’t want to take a one credit course, we have a pretty hefty gen ed curriculum that limits non-major electives, and we were limited to a small pool of honors students.  But, now that we’re in the door, it might lead to bigger things.  My institution is in the process of revising its gen ed curriculum, and they created a new category where an IL course (and other random things like exercise-based kinesiology classes and personal finance classes) would fit.  To me it’s not ideal that we’re in the “random” category  (they’re calling it “life skills”), but hey–A) what’s in a name, and B) Gen Ed is power.  Like we’ve been talking about in class, sometimes there’s power in sneaking into the mainstream (And then subverting it.  And then starting the revolution).  Now we have an example we can point to when it comes time to put IL classes on the books in future semesters.

I’m glad that we’re developing a class that isn’t your classic “research skills” credit-bearing class.  While students are practicing research skills using both library and non-library resources, they are first and foremost critically engaging with what it means to create and access information in society today.

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Keyword Hot Potato, or, The Show Must Go On

Earlier this week when I was planning for a Communications 101 class I taught yesterday, I put together an activity I oh-so-cutely named “Keyword Hot Potato.”

But when I got to work this morning, for some reason I felt like this:

grump

I had the major grump, and I was worried it was going to effect my teaching mojo.  I was definitely worried I wasn’t going to have the pizzazz required to sell Keyword Hot Potato.

But the library instruction goddesses smiled upon me, and the students ate it up.  Not only did the activity go well, their enthusiasm turned my grumpiness right around. It was a really nice moment that reminded me why I like doing what I’m doing.

Here’s the (very simple) gist of Keyword Hot Potato: Students are in pairs or groups, and each group is given a sheet of paper with a research topic.  Groups have one minute to write as many keywords as they can think of related to the topic, and then they have to pass their sheet to the next group.  Every group gets one minute with each topic, but it gets more difficult as they go along.

And here’s more info in the form of my favorite thing, a Slideshare:

It’s great when the stars align in a library instruction session.  Especially when it cures the grump.

Let them play games!

Games-based learning is all the rage in academia/libraryland right now.  There’s a part of me that wants to have a curmudgeon explosion about it.  “Back in my day, when I was only a wee sixth grader, I sat in a cubicle at the public library for six hours straight reading books about Queen Hatshepsut and writing notes on notecards with my bare hands!  And then!  Then!  I walked home uphill both ways, where I proceeded to render a bust of Hatshepsut out of play dough.”

But last Thursday, I caved:

The Game is Born

Earlier in the week when I sat down to plan the instruction session for this English 101 class, I had one of those terrible snowballing revelations about how tricky the class was going to be.

“Blerg, this assignment doesn’t actually have a research component.”

“…Hmm, didn’t these classes have a major ‘tude when they came in for the intro session at the beginning of the semester?”

“They won’t have topics picked yet, the instructor just wants me to help them find background information about the texts…”

I had to do something to light a fire under these classes.  And then I read a Tweet from @ProjectSAILS about an online game created by librarians at UW Oshkosh.  A trivia game to teach and assess information literacy skills?  Yes!  All of the things!

I had been thinking about some kind of setup where groups rotated through stations and looked at print/digital encyclopedias to find background information about the historical events in the texts, the author and director, and the texts themselves.  After a little self-directed active learning, maybe groups could “teach” the rest of the class one thing they learned?  I could just hear the crickets when I tried to get groups to come up and do demos…but trivia!?  This could be something!

The Game is Played

I ended up keeping the rotating station idea, but I added a board game component.  Here’s what the students did.

When students came in, they sat at one of five tables, thus naturally arranging themselves into five groups.  Bwahaha!  My plan was coming together.

Each table contained: a “board game” that walked through the steps of using a resource, two or three Chromebooks, and a few books that they would need.

When the session started (after the zombie-like students turned in papers that they had presumably worked on all night), I explained that we were going to play a giant board game to learn about different kinds of resources they could use to find background information about the texts for their next paper.  I explained that the game would have two parts: first, each team would rotate through five stations, where the game pieces on the table would walk them through how to use a resource.  Next, we would play trivia, which would include questions about the information they found and the research methods they used.  I gave each team a sheet for notes and we started the first part of the game.  The groups rotated through these game stations:

  • Background on Vietnam War – They used a print encyclopedia about the Vietnam War and Credo Reference to find digital encyclopedias.
  • Background on the Belgian Congo – They used a print encyclopedia about African History and Credo Reference to find digital encyclopedias.
  • WorldCat Local Catalog and LC Classification – I pulled several books about the two historical events, had students look up the titles in the catalog, identify LC Subject Headings, and then look at the call number to figure out the book’s “big subject” in LC Classification.
  • Background on Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola – Students used a film encyclopedia for Coppola, Literature Resource Center for a bio of Conrad, and also looked up Coppola on Wikipedia and identified parts of the entry that might be useful for research.
  • Academic Search Premier and MLA International Bibliography – Students practiced searching for articles related to the book and movie.

The first part of the game felt a little more like “work” than I would have liked, but when I looked at the students’ note sheets I could tell they had indeed worked their way through the game pieces and gotten a lot out of actually having to use the sources.  The second part, the trivia, was actually…fun!  The groups got competitive about answering the questions, although they were much more sure of themselves when answering questions about “facts” they found as opposed to the research methods they used to find them.  After groups answered questions, I found that I could sometimes add to their answer in order to extend how they were thinking about the resource they used or the research method they used.  I hadn’t actually planned on doing this, but it felt natural so I went with it.

The last question of the game (worth double bonus points!) asked for a team to come up and demonstrate a search they had done in Academic Search Premier.  In both classes, students were a little reluctant to come up, but eventually a team decided they wanted the points enough to brave the database in front of the whole class.

The Gamemaker Reflects

This was the kind of session that I felt could go one way or the other: Absolute Flop or Library Instruction Triumph. In reality, it was somewhere in between (although it leaned in the Triumph direction!).  Here’s what I think/learned/want to do in future:

  • Students were a little wary at first.  Especially in the first class, students just had this look on their faces like: What is this crazy library lady gonna do to us now?  I can actually relate to that.  It’s a little unsettling to come to “Library Day” (I wish that term would die a thousand deaths) and sit down at a table with a giant, colorful board game on it.
  • Most students eventually “got into it.”  One student asked me why they didn’t have giant game pieces to move along the board as they went.  When we played the trivia part, students were loud, engaged, and even got a little angry when another team beat them out answering a question.
  • Student engagement is high-stakes in this type of environment.  In a “normal” library instruction session if there are a couple students refusing to engage it’s not a huge deal.  It’s annoying, distressing, and can sometimes disrupt the mojo of the entire class, but for the most part it won’t destroy the experience for everyone.  For this game, though, I knew I needed students to be into it.  A couple groups had a student who was bent on complaining: “Are we getting a grade for this?  I can’t read this upside down.”  Those students made it a lot harder for their groups to be successful.
  • It’s great when you have excellent classroom technology and space!  This year we got supplies for a “mobile classroom”: a projector and screen, along with 40 Chromebooks.  These supplies have made so much difference in how I do instruction!  Sometimes I set up the space in “coffeeshop chill vibe” mode, with lots of big comfy(ish) chairs and little tables.  For this class, the five tables worked perfectly.
  • Assessment!  The trivia game itself was an assessment, but I didn’t actually get any hard data from it.  If I do this type of game again, I want to think of a way to generate data (but without being clunky and interrupting the flow of the game).  I also collected the note sheets for each group.  I can definitely use those to assess what types of information and skills students found important, but since they’re for entire groups (and usually the designated note taker is highly motivated), it won’t necessarily be a reflection of the class as a whole.
  • Overall, success.  I think this activity surprised students, helped them learn skills to locate and use a variety of print and online library resources for background research, and positioned the library as a friendly, fun, welcoming place.

Makerspace/Book Display

Making book displays is one of my favorite little things I get to do as a librarian.  There’s something comforting about picking out the books and bringing them out of the stacks to share with students.  It’s an act of care that’s different than what I do in the classroom or at the reference desk–a little more free-form, a little more “just because.”

Last week I set up a Library Staff and Patron Book Display.  I set out markers and old catalog cards with the vague instructions to add a favorite book to the display and decorate a card to go with it.
Staff & Patron Book Display from lmwallis

First I sent out the call to the student workers I supervise at the reference desk.  I like to find little ways like this to encourage them to participate in what we do at the library.  I think it helps them feel confident and take more ownership of their work at the ref desk–but I digress!  I also asked the library faculty and staff and additional student workers to contribute.
Then I set up the display, leaving blank spaces on the shelves for more books to be added.  I wish I could say that patrons have flooded the shelves, adding their favorite books right and left.  We’ve had some books added, but what surprised me was the number of books that are getting checked out.  It’s midterms time and yet they’re grabbing novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Jitterbug Perfume!  Success!  The display is definitely getting lots of students to stop and look, and I hope they’re thinking that it’s a little something different, that it means we respect them and want to listen to what they have to say.
I did something similar in April for National Poetry Month.  I wasn’t thinking of it as a makerspace at the time but it definitely fits the idea.  In addition to a display of poetry books I made a giant magnetic poetry board (full disclosure: I yanked this idea straight from the collective genius of the library blogosphere).  Students had lots of fun with this one!

Painter’s Tape Pedagogy

Painter’s tape holds a lot of promise.  You’re going to change something: your walls, your life…maybe a little of both.

This semester I’ve been experimenting with “Painter’s Tape Pedagogy” in information literacy instruction.   Painter’s Tape Pedagogy introduces a makerspace component to the library classroom.  It involves active learning, feminist pedagogy…and a lot of crayons.  It’s been surprising my students, mostly in a good way!

This slideshow outlines some of my recent attempts.  It includes activities, student learning outcomes, prep work I did for each session, and ways I would improve the sessions next time.

Fall Semester Wrap-up

I wrapped up this semester by attending a workshop on active learning hosted by NC BIG.  It was a great way to reflect on the work I’ve done in the instruction practicum this semester and think about how I’d like to improve my instruction techniques in the future.  Here are some of the main ideas I’m taking away:

-Active learning needs to be intentional: It’s easy to get excited about active learning and throw in a bunch of games and activities, but there has to be a clear reason for using these methods.  One of the best ways to be intentional is by writing student learning outcomes and connecting activities to them.  To be honest, the idea of SLOs kind of rubbed me the wrong way at the beginning of the semester, but I’m on board with them now.  They really do help to organize a class and make sure that all the key objectives are met.

-Active learning can take many forms, or, Is there such thing as passive learning, anyway?: Even when a student is sitting silently during lecture or class discussion she can be analyzing ideas and integrating them into her knowledge base–although this isn’t always the case.  Library instruction requires some lecture and demonstration, so students can’t all be active all the time.  But integrating active learning methods can help students focus their attention and learn more.  Activities can be simple, like class discussion questions, or time to work with databases, or more elaborate like a game or group problem solving activity.

-Real-world application can be difficult: In the afternoon we worked in groups to develop SLOs and active learning exercises for a library instruction session.  One of our group members suggested we design them for a class he teaches every year at the community college level: a world religion class of students who have to write an annotated bibliography of 10-15 book sources in preparation for writing a research paper.  This was a tricky one, because we recognized that these students needed two main skills from the class: narrowing down a topic, and evaluating sources.  It was really too much to hope to accomplish in a 50-minute class, and we felt like we would have to choose between talking about how to narrow down a huge topic like Buddhism using background research, or how to have students practice evaluating sources and articulating what makes a source quality.  Active learning techniques can help students practice skills and retain information more, but they also take more time.

 

Overall, it’s been a great semester.  I’ve practiced library instruction in my practicum, worked at the reference desk, and learned about web design and library management in my classes.  I can’t believe I’ve only got one semester to go!

Problem-Based Learning

My latest reading for my practicum has been about Problem-Based Learning (PBL), which involves giving students a real-world problem to solve in groups.  It sounds like a great active learning method for library instruction because it can help students take control of their learning and experience first-hand the cyclical, messy nature of research.  The “problem” gives the research process a relevant context, which in turn helps students have a “clear sense of purpose” about how library resources can be used (Kenney 386).

The problem can be simple or complex, which makes PBL applicable to a lot of different levels of library instruction.  “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session” gave an example that positioned students in a speech class as advisors to a senator who needed to make a presentation about her views on the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in an hour–but currently didn’t know where she stood on the issue.  The students had to find five reliable sources to help the senator form her viewpoint.  Scenarios like this one allow students to imagine themselves in a powerful position and think about the implications of research as they work to find good information.

In “Re-framing Information Literacy,” the authors noted that library instruction often proceeds in a linear fashion, emphasizes the searching part of the process, and positions the librarian as a demonstrator.  PBL can help librarian instructors take on a role as guide/facilitator as students experience the true interative, cyclical nature of research.  When their research inevitably produces more questions, it requires them to recognize that there is no “right answer” and think critically about how they seek information in their daily lives and for school.

Of course, not all students will be fully engaged with PBL methods.  “PBL in a Media Ethics Course” discussed how many college students have little experience taking control of their own learning, are uncomfortable with ambiguity, and get frustrated with a lack of structure (189-190).  This is all the more reason to use methods like PBL, especially in a one-shot library information session that might be a freshman student’s first contact with the library.

I really like the idea of PBL as a way to give students control over their learning and engage them with the material.  The articles I read discussed using PBL with upper-level classes, but I think there is a lot of potential to use it with freshman classes as well, especially those that don’t have a research assignment looming in the near future to scare them into paying attention.  For beginning college students, I think a PBL excercise could be an excellent way to get them to experience how the research process can be messy and sometimes frustrating, but also exciting and empowering.

Next week I’m going to use my fellow reference interns as guinea pigs for PBL.  We’re all doing a “mini-teach,” and I think that will be a good time to give this a test run before trying it on any real, live freshmen.

References

Diekema, A. R., Holliday, W., & Leary, H. (2011). Re-framing information literacy: Problem-based learning as informed learning. Library & Information Science Research, 33(4), 261-268. doi: 10.1016/j.lisr.2011.02.002

Karen L, S. (2002). Loyalty, harm and duty: PBL in a media ethics course. Public Relations Review, 28(2), 185-190. doi: 10.1016/s0363-8111(02)00125-x

Kenney, B. F. (2008). Revitalizing the one-shot instruction session using Problem-Based Learning. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 47(4), 386-391.

 

Instruct and Delight?

This week I’m reading articles about active learning.  The first one I read, “Is Active Learning Like Broccoli?” discusses the results of a study  that found that students who experienced active learning reported increased retention of material and engagement, but actually enjoyed the class less than the non-active control group.  The surprising part of this study wasn’t that students learned more–it was that they didn’t have fun once they were engaged with the material.  One of the assumptions I have about active learning if we can get students to engage in a meaningful activity that helps them think critically about the material, they will automatically enjoy the learning process.  I’m not expecting unrestrained glee in response to a library session, but they should at least enjoy it more than sitting there passively listening…right?

Students in this study were in large lecture Intro to Psychology classes, and those in the active learning groups were required to meet with a group and perform experiments related to the material outside of class, while their non-active counterparts had a workbook they had to fill out individually.  I think the outside class group work aspect might have been a major reason for these students reporting less enjoyment of the class, but there are still parallels to library instruction.  I took a couple large lecture Intro to Psych classes as an undergrad, and my expectation was to sit anonymously in class and listen to my professor, do some reading at home, and take scantron tests every so often.  It wasn’t a revolutionary educational experience, but it was kind of relaxing compared to a lot of my other classes.  Similarly for library instruction, I think a lot of students expect to come in, hop on facebook for a little bit, and glean any information that might be useful for an upcoming assignment as they scan their friends’ updates.  Library Day means they are temporarily released from the pressures of their “real” class–no reading, no professor staring them down expecting them to say profound things in class discussion.  So if they come into the library session and actually have to do stuff and think…that might be a bit of a surprise.  But if active learning helps them engage with the material and retain the information, does it really matter if they like it?

To a certain extent, I think the answer is yes.  Especially for library instruction.  In the practicum this semester, I think one of the best things I’ve seen library classes do is show beginning students that the library is approachable and inviting.  So if there’s a mean librarian at the front of the room making them do an activity that’s miserable, that’s not going to help.  In most of the classes I’ve observed and taught, though, one of the main activities is having students use the library databases to start their own research, and then report back to the class on a volunteer basis.  It gets the students to engage with the material we’ve covered, and it’s not scary or painful.  But it also doesn’t have a big glam factor.  Students probably won’t leave the library exclaiming about how much fun they had.  If they know how to use the resources and feel comfortable returning to the library for help, though, I think that counts as success.

Some of the next articles I plan to read discuss active learning techniques with more “bells and whistles,” which I think can be effective in some cases.  More to come soon!

References:

Smith, C. V., & Cardaciotto, L. (2011). Is Active Learning Like Broccoli? Student Perceptions of Active Learning in Large Lecture Classes. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(1), 53-61.

Snooki in the Library (Or, Using Popular Media in Library Instruction)

Teaching is winding down for the semester, so for my practicum this week I read some articles about library instruction.  I picked two fun ones to start out with that deal with using pop culture to teach information literacy skills.  “It Came From Hollywood” by Nedra Peterson discusses how popular media clips can get students more emotionally engaged in the library session and thus help them retain more information.  “Teaching with The Situation” by Amy Springer and Kathryn Yelinek discusses–you guessed it!–how to use ideas and issues from The Jersey Shore to spice up library instruction.  Both of these articles had some excellent examples of activities to structure around a video clip from a movie or TV show.

I think it can be easy to throw a short media clip into a library session as a desperate attempt to prove that the library is “cool.”  But Peterson’s article made two good points that show that popular media in library instruction has a deeper significance.  For one, what we see in the movies and on TV shapes our ideas about a lot of things, including how we think about research, accessing information, and the library (66).  Along those same lines, movies and TV shows can elicit an emotional response from students, and emotional engagement can help students retain more information (67).

But even with those ideas in mind and excellent intentions, librarians need to ensure that student are interacting with the ideas presented in the video clip.  I thought these two articles had some really creative ideas about how to get students to engage with the clips, beyond just waking up for a couple of minutes to laugh at some antics on Jersey Shore and then tuning out again when the library databases come up.

Peterson’s article suggested that students take notes on what the character does when she is researching–how she started, what keywords she found, how many different sources she used (Google, books, friends, personal experience, maybe even the library!?).  The article included an example of a chart that students filled out after watching a clip from The Ring that outlined the keywords, access points, and information formats the character encountered.  In several of the freshman-level classes I observed this semester the librarians did a similar excercise with a clip from Twilight that shows Bella doing research to discover that Edward is a vampire.  (The clip they use is slightly longer, but this one gives the general idea.)  Afterwards the students are prompted to discuss the process Bella went through: starting with a broad search in Google, finding background information on websites that leads her to a book, drawing from personal experience, etc.  That usually wakes students up a little bit and is a good lead-in to talking about how research is an iterative process, but the integration into the class ends there.

Springer and Yelinek’s article talks about how to integrate a Jersey Shore theme throughout an entire class.  They include several examples, but my favorite is from an Intro to Management class where students have to find articles on management topics and company and industry profiles through library databases.  The class starts with a clip where Snooki is complaining about the tanning tax increase, and then the librarian shows how to find articles and profiles about the tanning industry.  Then, students choose are divided into three teams: Team Situation, Team Vinny, and Team Pauly D., and they have to find information on an industry related to the character’s interests.  What I like about this example is that the popular media source is used throughout the entire class, and there is an activity that requires student engagement in small groups.

While I think this sounds like a very successful class, I have some reservations about not addressing the students’ actual topics in the class.  I think it can be very useful to have students talk about the topics they are using and then practice search strategies for those topics, and I’m torn between giving time to that activity (which has varying levels of success based on students’ interest-level in the assignment and/or impending doom of a deadline) and focusing on the popular example (which, when done well, will have a high level of success in engaging students and ensuring that they remember the material).  Peterson anticipates this conundrum and argues that it is better to dedicate class time to a media example and have students get more out of the session (69).  I think it’s a judgment call based on the type of class and the nature of their assignment.  If the assignment is non-existant or in the distant future, heavy reliance on popular media might be an extremely effective teaching tool.  But if students have solid topics and a nearby-deadline, the probably won’t need Snooki’s help to get engaged with library resources.

Overall, I really like the idea of using pop culture in library instruction.  It’s definitely a hot topic right now–there’s been a thread going on the Information Literacy listserv about “Popular Culture References to Research as Messy and Iterative” that has a lot of good responses.  And I found the motherlode at cinfolit, which has examples that address research anxiety, plagiarism, peer review, evaluating sources, and Wikipedia, among others.  There are a lot of good ones, but I really liked Colbert’s “Truthiness” to talk about authority of sources, and 30 Rock’s Janis Joplin Wikipedia clip.

 

References

Peterson, N. (2010). It came from Hollywood. College & Research Libraries News, 71(2), 66-74.

Springer, A., & Yelinek, K. (2011). Teaching with The Situation. College & Research Libraries News, 72(2), 78-118.

If at first you don’t succeed…

…there’s always another library class to be taught?  Last week I taught two of the same instructor’s English 101 classes.  It was a tricky situation to begin with: they hadn’t seen the assignment or picked topics, the due date was relatively far-off, and the topic was food politics, which of course ruffles some feathers (no pun intended).  Oh, and the first one was at 8 am.  It wasn’t a complete disaster, or really even a disaster at all–which I think means I’ve learned something about library instruction this semester!  Yea!  But, it wasn’t the greatest.

What I really liked about this experience was that I had an immediate chance for a re-do.  There was an hour before the next class, so I sipped some coffee, woke up a little, and thought about what might make it better.  The assignment was to write a cause and effect analysis based on some aspect of food politics–so, the example we were working with was “The increase in fast food companies marketing to children has led to rising levels of obesity in America.”

One of the first things I did in the first class was to build keywords from this thesis, since it’s a pretty complicated one.  I knew that most of the students probably wouldn’t start with this coherent of an argument, though–they would scan down the list of issues provided by the instructor, pick one, and then try to figure out what they could argue about it.  But since the students hadn’t even seen the assignment, I thought it would be good to do the keyword-building excercise first, since it would at least give them an idea of what the assignment was asking them to do.  And, as I said earlier, it wasn’t a complete disaster.  They contributed ideas and I think that excercise can be really helpful.  But it seemed like putting the cart before the horse.

Before the second class I asked the instructor if he would like me to do anything differently, and he mentioned I might do that activity later.  We also decided that it would be helpful for him to give a brief intro to the assignment at the beginning of the class, which eliminated the need to start with the cause-effect example anyway.  Just those two little changes improved the class a lot.  We started out just getting background info on the fast food industry, and then built up to what their argument would eventually look like and did the keyword example, and then used those keywords in the library databases.  At the end of the class when I gave them time to search on their own I could tell that this class was actually using the resources we had discussed and starting to think about their topics.

I think having experiences like this one can help prepare for improving similar classes in the future.  For instance, in this case I probably should have just asked the instructor to intro the assigment at the beginning for both classes.  In some cases when the students don’t have topic in mind it’s simply because there’s no assignment, but in this case it was just a matter of timing.  The assignment had just come into existence and the instructor hadn’t had time to discuss it yet.  All he needed was three minutes of the library session, which I was happy to give.  I think it helps to try to think through any possible “quick fix” scenarios like that while planning classes, especially if it’s looking like there are several negative factors.

Last week I also helped Jenny with a 300-level English class.  I did an assessment at the beginning where they could use those fancy clicker things (I think it’s called Turning Point?) to respond to questions about what kind of library instruction they’d had in the past and what they already knew about research.  There was a bit of technical difficulty, but it’s a cool idea to get them to interact during assessment.