Intentional teaching, intentional learning: Toward threshold concepts through reflective practice

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jennifer Jarson, Information Literacy and Assessment Librarian at Muhlenberg College.

This fall marked the start of my tenth academic year as a librarian. It startles me, to say the least, to count up the years and arrive at (almost) ten. Having spent the majority of my career so far at a small college, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in a wide variety of projects. As a public services librarian, though, my attention has most frequently been directed to reference, instruction, and all things information literacy. It’s no surprise that, six-ish weeks into the semester, information literacy instruction is on my agenda and my mind.

Just the other week, a faculty member and I were chatting about our past versus present selves in the classroom. A critical eye back over the years dredges up some pretty squirm-worthy memories. Because they were performed in front of an audience of students and faculty, these mis-steps are especially embarrassing to bring to mind. I cringe to recall, for example, some excruciating moments in early years in which I droned on about the minutiae of search strategies, students’ eyes glazing over, drool practically trickling down their chins. I’m grateful, then, to look back and also recognize successes and, more importantly, evolution in my teaching. Perhaps it’s just those most awkward and agonizing of moments that best surface the need for change and fuel experimentation with alternate approaches.

For many, a protocol of reflection and experimentation, of trial and error, seems a natural drive. Yet demands on our time and attention might cause us to repeat an ineffective session because we don’t have the time to examine its inadequacies and restructure. Our many competing obligations might prevent us from effecting the more wholesale change we sometimes desire. In an effort to promote the “intentionality” of my reflection and experimentation, as Booth (2011) might say, and to pay it more of the attention it deserves, I’ve been compelling myself to make space for it, adding it to my to-do lists, to my annual goals. In years past, themes of my reflection-for-self-improvement-in-the-classroom regimen have included, for example, scaffolding skills to slow the pace adequately for students’ development and enhancing student engagement through more constructive (and constructivist) in-class activities. This intentional reflection is giving me the perspective and head space to uncover my assumptions and shortcomings and to motivate improvement, rather than revisit the same practice again and again for no good reason.

I don’t mean to claim that I’m reinventing any library instruction wheels. Far from it. But I do hope I’m oiling its sometimes rusty squeak for a smoother, more productive and engaging ride that takes us all (student, faculty, and librarian alike) a little further down the pike. As are you, I don’t doubt. How I will feel in another ten years when I look back on yesterday’s class or today’s blog post, even, is up for grabs. But on we march. And thank goodness for this drive forward, for the chance to reflect, learn from these shortcomings, and try again. Moment to moment, class to class, semester to semester. Small or large, these steps trend toward progress.

As I reflect on my practice in this particular year, then, I think that what I’m trying to teach—and where I’m still coming up short—is the practice of reflection. Too often, I know I have focused on the how at the expense of the why. I long ago moved beyond the point-and-click method of library instruction. Yet despite my efforts thus far to model, scaffold, and construct our way toward information literate, a connecting piece seems to be still sometimes missing. When I look back now to find my in-class nods to the what for, I better recognize their nuance and how hard it must have been for inexperienced students to catch them, decode them. While my modeling and scaffolding certainly have had the why at their core, many students haven’t had the frame of reference to recognize its presence. I want to uncover for students the habits of mind—the “knowledge practices” and “dispositions,” so to speak—of information literacy, not just the clickpaths to mimic it.

So this year I’m looking to add reflective, metacognitive moments to help expose rationales, purposes, and processes for students. With the metacognitive mindset made visible, I hope students will develop a more flexible information literacy lens to apply to their future paths. I think this is a strength of the new (draft) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education: highlighting the reflective practice and metacognitive mettle at the core of information literacy. Metacognitive awareness is, no surprise to us, inherent in information literacy skills and development; the new draft framework helps us to enhance its prominence.

Now to the business of actually doing this. How, you might ask? Good question. I wish I had more answers. So far I’m trying to integrate more direct discussion of process and purpose into my classes. I’m trying to lay bare for students the practice, reflection, and progression that complicates this work, but also connects the gaps, that brings them closer to crossing the threshold. And I’m trying to work with faculty to extend this work beyond the limitations of single, isolated library sessions. I see some successes so far, but it feels more than a little premature to claim I’ve conquered such a problem. By their nature, these concepts and this work are complex and protracted. For now, I am (mostly) satisfied to be working on it.

I feel I can’t so much as stick a toe into these waters without at least a nod to their expansiveness. I imagine you recognize, too, the shared roles of librarians and faculty in this kind of information literacy instruction. These are not topics and goals isolated to a one-shot instruction session. This is the work of not one class, but many. This is the work not only of librarians, but of faculty, too. We work to establish the library as a leader in information literacy on our campuses, but it’s also our aim to recognize the extensive information literacy work that takes place outside the library-instruction-specific classroom. Our ambitions to promote shared faculty and librarian understanding of information literacy, common investment in students’ learning, and opportunities for collaboration and curricular development are ever more relevant.

As I recognize the role of intentional reflection in my own development, then, I’m struck to see its place of primacy in my teaching goals, as well. I might typically brush this aside as a self-apparent truth requiring no further deliberation. In my reflection-oriented state, though, I’m more inclined to pause for a moment and consider the parallels of these themes in information literacy teaching and in information literacy learning. With my ongoing push (some days it’s a bit more like a shove) into an intentionally reflective practice, I’m aiming to improve student learning as a more effective, responsive, and flexible instructor. I’m simultaneously aiming for a congruent push toward a reflective and metacognitive student mentality to tip their scales toward greater engagement and transformation. As Townsend, Brunetti, and Hofer (2011) wrote, it’s these “big ideas that make information science exciting and worth learning about.”

What about you? What are you uncovering and developing in your pedagogy? What roles have reflection, metacognition, and threshold concepts played in your instructional evolution? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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