Active Learning and Teaching the Teacher

Ever since I attended ACRL’s Immersion Teacher Track about a year ago, I’ve been trying to incorporate more active learning strategies into my classes—and surprisingly, it’s been a lot of fun! One unintended benefit of these activities has been the opportunity for me to see inside the minds of students by seeing and hearing how they reason their way through this crazy journey we call research.

A couple weeks ago, I did a workshop for juniors and seniors enrolled in a music management course that requires students to write a large research paper. One problem the professor and I encountered in prior semesters was that students struggled with assessing and using their sources properly. For example, they sometimes have problems discerning when a source is heavily biased.

In an effort to get students thinking critically about assessing their sources I came up with a group activity. Each group had a different research topic with three sources. The sources ranged from peer-reviewed articles to a search in Twitter for “Skrillex” and “dubstep.” I asked students to incorporate the CRAAP test (–the brainchild of the brilliant librarians at CSU Chico), which stands for currency, relevancy, authority, accuracy and purpose. After utilizing the CRAAP test, students were instructed to decide if (1) they would use the source for each paper and (2) how they would use it. Following the activity, each group presented their topic and three sources to the rest of the class.

I’m hopeful that this activity will eventually prove to have any effect on this group’s ability to assess and use their sources. We shall see. Nevertheless, I can definitely say that it taught me a lot about students’ perception of sources of information. Here were a few of my notable observations:

  1. Autobiographies and interviews: While students were able to recognize the value of these as primary sources, they didn’t seem to understand how a musician’s statements regarding his/her own success could not be completely trusted.
  2. Blog posts: Students were really suspicious of blog posts—and they should be! But they didn’t immediately see the utility of a blog post as evidence of public opinion.
  3. Twitter: Musicians use Twitter to connect with their fans, but students didn’t recognize the potential for using it to monitor trends in music genres or musicians.

This activity made me realize how I subconsciously make assumptions about how students think. For whatever reason, I thought students would be better at discerning how to effectively use unconventional sources. I also wonder to what extent their responses were informed by what they thought I (the librarian) wanted to hear. Regardless, I am pleasantly surprised to discover how active learning activities can be used to teach the teacher.

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