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!


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.