All posts by Kim

Just Thinking: Starting and Failing

It’s hard for me to believe that this time last year I had just completed the on-campus interview for my current job, and then a few days later walked in my masters graduation ceremony. As my first year as a librarian winds down and the adrenaline rush of the academic schedule starts to wane, I find myself feeling… reflective and rather tired. Last week, it was a nice surprise to find several ideas circulating around the web to boost my energy and my spirit to push through the end of the semester and maintain momentum to plan summer projects.

“Start small… but start.”

While attending ACRL 2013, I was blown away by the awesome, inspiring, and interesting work my colleagues across the profession are producing. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a “little fish in the big ocean,” surrounded by those more experienced and more successful than me. Although I enjoyed the opportunity to co-facilitate a roundtable discussion, I couldn’t help but wonder when I’ll move on to bigger opportunities and when my CV will start to look less like a new librarian’s, and more like a tenure-track professional’s.

And then this week two of my favorite library blogs reminded that life sans banana slicer (or other badge of honor) is still pretty darn good, and that striving for success in my daily work is valuable as I continue to take small steps working towards larger goals. I also attended Maryland’s Council of Academic Library Directors meeting, where Debra Gilchrist reminded librarians that it’s better to “start small, but start” than to never start important, potentially daunting, projects at all.

Upon closer examination, I can already look back to see several instances where starting small has begun to pay off. For instance, while I’ve lept at the opportunity to apply my undergraduate degree, previous work experience, and natural interests to my duties as the Psychology department liaison, it’s been more difficult to get “into” the department than I originally imagined.  Last December I was allowed five minutes at the beginning of a Psychology department meeting to introduce myself to the faculty (and then I was promptly asked to leave). Though I was skeptical five minutes would make any sort of a difference, right after the meeting I received two quick email questions from psychology faculty members. And the following semester, two faculty members I had not personally met contacted me to help find and recommend resources to be used in a Psych 101 course redesign. A small, but growing start.

“Failing forward.”

Of course, there are several instances where “starting” something does not lead to completely positive results. I don’t personally care for the word “fail” (for me, it carries a negative connotation of dejection), but failure is a natural part of risk taking. The problem is we like to focus so much on success I think we brush aside that most learning comes from failure. And this year as I’ve happily watched my colleagues present papers, give lectures, win scholarships, lead professional associations, and achieve promotion, it’s been equally helpful to talk with them about what has not gone so well. The classes that fell apart. The requests that were denied. The proposals that were not accepted. Because, quite frankly, working through problems and disappointments with successful people that I admire reminds me that success if often the product of perseverance through, and learning from, failure.

This idea was summed up nicely last week when a tweet appeared in my Twitter stream reminding me to “fail forward.” How can learning from failure propel you forward?

While I was catching up with a graduate school friend at ACRL, I learned that a paper we submitted with fellow graduate school colleagues had been reviewed and rejected for potential publication. Although this was not entirely unexpected, the news still stung. A few days later, my friend sent along the reviewers’ comments and in the 10 or so minutes I spent taking a preliminary pass at the mostly constructive criticism, I learned more about the practicalities of the peer review process than I have in any single sitting since my undergraduate years when I learned about peer review for the first time. And now, as we pick through the comments and strategize options for moving the project forward (or not), I’m learning about picking priorities in my work – which parts of the project are worth further time, and which are simply no longer a priority for me. And while “failure” stings, I now feel more prepared to anticipate some previously overlooked research pitfalls as I turn my attention to new endeavors.

Looking forward to Summer

So, as classes wind down and my summer rapidly fills up with those projects that get neglected or pushed off in the heat of the semester, many of which have no clear starting point or are the result of a previously failed attempt, I am re-energized through recommitting to these two goals – start small, and fail forward.

Flipping Out: Reflections Upon Landing

Last month, I shared my plans for creating “flipped” library instruction sessions. Now, after wrapping up my last flipped session, along with several conversations with my colleauges, and the opportunity to co-facilitate a “Flipped Classroom” faculty workshop, I am still digesting and evaluating all that I have learned. However, there are a few key takeaways that are bubbling to the forefront of my mind and actively shaping the rest of my instruction this semester.

“Did you know the whole section would be about my topic?”
Or – Understanding the flipped classroom as a vehicle for active learning

As I planned my flipped sessions, I struggled with understanding how flipped instruction is related to “active learning” and/or “problem-based learning. The library instruction program at my university already places a heavy emphasis on incorporating active learning exercises into our sessions, and we regularly attempt to tie library instruction directly to the course research assignments. This means that as I worked on my flipped session, I found myself modifying some existing in-class activities to promote deeper levels of understanding, rather than starting from scratch.

In one class, I had enough time to ask first-year students to search the catalog for a book about their research topic, go into the stacks to find their book, bring the book back to class, and then debrief about the experience with their classmates. It was much more effective, and quite frankly more fun, to talk about LC Classification and Subject Headings after one student spontaneously exclaimed – “I picked TWO books about my topic because I realized THE WHOLE SHELF was about sports technology!”

After this experience, I’ve come to understand my flipped classroom as a vehicle for creating additional space for active learning in the classroom. Of course, there is no such thing as “the” flipped classroom, and other interpretations of the flipped classroom abound. For me, the providing students with a pre-class “lecture” foundation on which they can build upon with active learning in the classroom was more successful than trying to cram both tasks into the regular class time.

“Oh… those videos before class weren’t optional?”
Or – Students might not complete the pre-class work. And that’s O.K.

Of course, this ideal “flipped classroom as a vehicle for active learning” assumes students come to class prepared. And a frequent concern about the flipped classroom is: “What if students don’t complete the pre-class work?” Unfortunately, there will always be students who come to class unprepared, and considering what the consequences will be for students if they don’t complete the pre-assigned work is important. Our students are smart – they learn quickly whether preparing for class is really necessary. Designing in-class assignments which require the prior knowledge gained through the pre-class homework is one way to show students it’s worth their while to come prepared.

In practice, other “consequences” for failing to complete pre-class work may mean students must complete the pre-class materials during in-class time before they are allowed to continue to the more interesting and challenging application exercises. We know some students may still struggle through class, since exposure to the pre-class activities does not necessarily guarantee students achieved any level of mastery with the material. In my sessions, I tried to purposefully use group activities in-class to emphasize peer learning, assuming students who completed and understood the material could be models for students who did not. Additionally, students were encouraged to review pre-class video materials if needed, and to ask questions as they worked through their activities.

The short quiz I paired with my pre-class material helped me monitor how many students completed pre-class work and how well they understood the material. In each of my flipped class sessions, over 3/4 of the students completed the work before class; I considered this to be a relatively high success rate. It was also helpful to go into the in-class session knowing the bulk of the class had at least attempted the pre-class work and where the problem areas we really needed to adress might be.

“But… aren’t you going to talk first?”
Or – Students are also curious about the lack of direct lecture in class.

Students often comment in their course evaluations or session feedback that library instruction should include more time for activities and less time devoted to lecture. As a new instructor, I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that creating active-learning based instruction that allows students to “discover” answers to questions or build their own skills is frequently harder than falling back into the “sage on the stage” routine. Of course, there is also no guarantee that students will use class time appropriately when given the requested discussion or problem-based activities. So I was extremely interested to find out how students would respond to the lack of direct, in-class instruction in the flipped sessions.

During my first flipped class, I decided to give a “quick” review of the pre-class material before students started on their activities. Big mistake, since the “review” quickly turned into a regular lecture. However, during my second flipped class I simply asked students to come in and get started on their activity, reminding them they should work together and review the video materials or ask questions, as necessary. At first, they were confused about not starting with a lecture, however they eventually dove into the activity with success. And encouraging students to first attempt the activity allowed me to eventually review only the concepts that the majority of the class was consistently struggling with (for instance, correctly combining both “ANDs” and “ORs” in a complex database search). Overall, this session was much more enjoyable for both myself and my students, and it was one of the few times I left our session confident that class time was used to its fullest advantage.

Talking about teaching has value.

My final point of reflection is not limited to “flipped instruction,” but has grown out of conversations with my colleagues inspired by our participation in the flipped project. Given heavy instruction loads, faculty or student expectations, and other pressing projects, it’s easy to fall back into comfortable patterns of the same ol’ library session. Sometimes, simply carving out the time to talk about teaching seems like a luxury we cannot necessarily afford. Given the increasing emphasis on instruction in academic libraries, our mission to arm students with multifaceted critical information skills, and the trend toward providing evidence that our instruction adds value to the library and our parent institutions, deeper discussions about teaching and pedagogy can’t just be a luxury – they should be the reality.

I am lucky to have a job where I am encouraged to think about teaching, talk about teaching, and take calculated risks to grow as an instructor. Incorporating new pedagogical strategies like the “flipped classroom” is just one example of how this might happen.

Flipping Out: Preflip Planning

One of my current professional goals is to experiment with new ways to improve my library instruction sessions and grow as an instructor. So when our residency librarian decided to lead a group of instruction librarians to test the “flipped classroom” in library instruction, I welcomed the opportunity to discover how “flipping” might transform my classes. Given the previous interest in “flipping” here at ACRLog, I’ve also decided to share a bit of my planning, implementation, and reflection to continue the discussion about “flipping out” in the library world.

At first, re-envisioning my instruction sessions was a bit overwhelming – although I am still a newbie library instructor, I spent a great amount of time last semester crafting lessons and developing my own teaching style. I can only image how daunting this may seem to more experienced instructors who have honed their own lessons and style over several years of teaching!

Although I’ve used different lesson planning methods during graduate school classes and in my first semester of teaching, (e.g., Backward Design and Madeline Hunter’s model), I had trouble using these methods to plan my flip. Pretty soon, I found myself falling back to the “5 W’s” -  Who, What, When, and Why - to organize my thoughts. My considerations for each question are below.

Photo: By Ted Hood (Courtesy of State Library of New South Wales)

WHO: Who are the students in my flipped class? Who is the professor? Which class will lead to the most successful flipped experience?

If considering only learning outcomes and session materials, nearly any of my instruction sessions could be flipped. However, since the professor for my assigned freshman seminar class is equally interested  in trying out new instruction techniques, I decided his class would be a good match for the trial flipped sessions. Due to his support and investment in the process, I feel confident he will actually distribute pre-class materials to students and will motivate students to complete the assigned pre-class work. (As an added bonus, I also have three, 75-minute instruction sessions with this class, which leaves a cushion to “catch-up” if for some reason the entire flipped experience falls apart.)

WHAT: What are the student learning outcomes? What will students learn through pre-class materials? What activities will students complete during class to cement learning?

Answering these questions has been the most difficult part of planning my flipped classroom. During my “regular” classes, I already try to involve students with hands-on, active learning experiences whenever possible. The challenge with the “flip” has been to make those activities more complex, pushing students to deeper levels of learning, as well as to identify what types of pre-class background students need to successfully complete those activities. Our residency librarian presented this as “What are the basics students should come to class knowing? What are the complexities that in-class sessions will address?”

Like many of the librarians in our “flipping” group, I am using the library’s existing collection of online tutorials as the basis of my flipped materials. I decided to give students 2-3 short videos to watch before class to cover  basic skills, like the “click-by-click” mechanics of searching a database and the beginnings of constructing a search. Then, in-class activities will challenge them to apply those skills to their group research project at increasingly challenging levels.

WHERE: How will flipped materials be organized and delivered to students?

I’m already a big fan of using Google Forms to collect student feedback at the end of instruction sessions. Since I wanted to pair the pre-class videos with a measure of how many students completed the activities and how well they understood the material, Google Forms once again turned out to be an easy solution. For each flipped session, I created a Google form with links to videos along with quiz questions, and the course professor will distribute the form to students before our session.

WHEN: When should students complete pre-class activities?

The week before our in-class session, students will have access to the pre-class materials. Any earlier and I worry the connection between pre-class videos and in-class activities would be lost. This decision was fairly easy to nail down, and getting the date on my calendar is a good reminder finish materials with enough time to review the plan with the professor, distribute to students, etc.

WHY: Why is “flipping” an method I want to try for library instruction?

Although “flipping” is one way I’m fulfilling my goal to explore new instructional techniques, the deeper I dig into planning, the more I think it’s a model that can be useful in library instruction. Most of the librarians I work with or have observed are already moving away from lectures and database demonstrations. But it’s hard to jump into more complex applications and exploratory activities during a traditional 50 or 60 minute class if students don’t have a basic foundation on which to build advanced skills. Off-loading the procedural instructions, like how to navigate the library’s website or basic catalog searching, to pre-class activities can free up in-class time for librarians to help students work through more complex activities.

My flipped experiment is also allowing me to carve out a chunk of in-class time to address additional material, including brainstorming and concept mapping. Last semester, I noticed students in the seminar struggling to craft a manageable research question, which later affected their ability to construct effective searches and to evaluate information for it’s relevancy to their topic. This semester, since I’m providing some of the procedural instruction outside of class, I can accommodate more hands-on experiences into the class and set students up for better guided learning.

Ready, Set, Go!

The first round of pre-class materials is going out to students this week, and our first in-class session is next week! I am excited for student responses to the pre-class material to start coming in and to dive into the full flipped experience. I’m planning to report back in March with my thoughts about how the flip unfolds!

Do you have experience with the flipped classroom? What considerations do you think are vital when planning “the flip?”

Not as simple as “click-by-click”

One of the projects I inherited as emerging technologies librarian is managing our library’s collection of “help guides.” The online learning objects in this collection are designed to provide asynchronous guidance to students when completing research-related tasks. Over the last few months, my focus has been on updating existing guides to reflect website and database interface changes, as well ensuring compliance with federal accessibility standards. With those updates nearly complete, the next order of business is to work with our committee of research and instruction librarians to create new content. The most requested guide at the top of our list? How to use the library’s discovery service rolled out during the Fall 2012 semester.

Like many other libraries, we hope the discovery service will allow users to find more materials across the library’s collections and beyond. Previously, our library’s website featured a “Books” search box to search the catalog, as well as an “Articles” search box to search one of our interdisciplinary databases. To ease the transition to the discovery system, we opted to keep the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes, in addition to adding the “one search box to rule them all”; however, these format search boxes now search the discovery tool using the appropriate document type tag. Without going into the nitty gritty details, this method has created certain “quirks” in the system that can lead sub-optimal search results.

This back-story leads to my current question about creating instructional guides for our discovery system – how do we design screencasts to demonstrate simple searches by format?

So far, this has boiled down to two options:

  1. Address the way students are most likely to interact with our system. We know users are drawn to cues with high information scent to help them find what they need; if I’m looking for a book, I’m more likely to be drawn to anything explicitly labeled “Books.” We also know students “satisfice” when completing research tasks, and many are unfortunately unlikely to care if their searches do not retrieve all possible results. Additionally, whatever we put front-and-center on our homepage is, I think, a decision we need to support within our instructional objects.
  2. Provide instruction demonstrating the way the discovery system was designed to be used. If we know our system is set up in a less-than-optimal way, it’s better to steer students away from the more tempting path. In this case, searching the discovery system as a whole and demonstrating how to use the “Format” limiters to find a specific types of materials. While this option requires ignoring the additional search options on our website, it will also allow us to eventually phase out the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes on the website without significant updates to our screencasts.

While debating these options with my colleagues, it’s been interesting to consider how this decision reflects the complexities of creating  standalone digital learning objects. The challenge is that these materials are often designed without necessarily knowing how, when, or why they will be used; our job is to create objects that meet students at a variety of point-of-need moments. Given that objects like screencasts should be kept short and to-the-point, it’s also difficult to add context that explains why the viewer should complete activities as-shown. And library instruction are not usually designed to make our students “mini-librarians.” Our advanced training and interest in information systems means it is our job to be the experts, but our students to not necessarily need to obtain this same level of knowledge to be successful information consumers and creators.

Does this mean we also engage in a bit of “satisficing” to create instructional guides that are “good enough” but not, perhaps, what we know to be “best?” Or do we provide just enough context to help students follow us as we guide them click-by-click from point A to point B, while lacking the complete “big picture” required to understand why this is the best path? Do either of these options fulfill our goals toward helping students develop their own critical information skills?

No instruction interaction is ever perfect. In person or online, synchronous or asynchronous, we’re always making compromises to balance idealism with reality. And in the case of creating and managing a large collection of online learning objects, it’s been interesting to have conversations which demonstrate why good digital learning objects are not synonymous with “click-by-click” instructions. How do we extend what we know about good pedagogy to create better online learning guides?

 

Thoughts on Weeding

As much as I enjoy the technology-focused projects I work on as an emerging technologies librarian, I also don’t spend as much time as I might like with our print collection. Since I am also a our psychology liaison, I do have collection development responsibilities which require a better familiarity with relevant areas of the collection. I see the books quite a bit while roaming around the library or helping students locate materials during reference and instruction interactions, but I don’t always have regular occasions to just browse our stacks. This means it was a rare treat for me to spend about an hour of quality time in my liaison area’s reference section this morning.

My time with the books was not all fun and games. Due to space constraints and collection reorganization within the library, we need to reduce the size of our physical reference collection. Which means – that’s right! – I was weeding.

Weeding (or “deselection”) can be controversial and anxiety provoking. But it’s also a necessary reality for academic librarians who manage an infinitely growing body of information while faced with limited resources (time, money, space, etc.) to manage such information and a mission to curate collections that are useful and relevant within the context of our institutions.

As I was working with this subsection within our larger reference collection, I realized there are several reasons why weeding may be a particularly important learning activity for new librarians.

You learn what is in the collection.

Of course, there may be half-a-dozen other ways to learn what is in your collection. Simple browsing may be one way. Another may be discovering gems during other routine duties. And through my reference and instruction activities this semester I’ve certainly spent time looking for books on particular topics and gained a greater sense of some of our more popular materials. However, I find that picking up each book in turn and evaluating its place within the context of the rest of the collection gives me a much more intimate connection to the the collection as a unit.

You learn what you don’t have.

During a recent lunch discussion, one of my colleagues referred to weeding as “pruning.” I like this analogy, because weeding can lead to growing and strengthening the collection. Although I was looking to remove items, I also learned which topics are covered in the collection but need updated or more balanced information, and I found areas which should be completely revamped. For instance, I chose to pull an older volume on human intelligence. However, as I moved through the rest of the section and later checked our catalog for e-reference sources, I discovered this item was the only reference work about intelligence available in the collection. Given that “intelligence” could be a topic in several different courses across our social science curriculum, it’s an important gap to fill. Knowing this, I can seek out alternatives for replacement.

You learn to identify good places for new resources.

Since, as discussed above, I found myself needing to replace items removed to the collection, weeding led to a search for new material. Although I remember learning about finding quality, authoritative materials in graduate school courses on reference services and collection development, it was definitely no substitute for real-world librarian-esque shopping. Particularly in the reference collection, where cost of materials can be significantly higher than materials for the general collection, learning where and how to find the best materials is a vital skill for new librarians learning to curate useful and authoritative collections.

You learn from your colleagues across the library.

For me, weeding led to a lot of questions. Of course, there are questions about how to evaluate materials and what type of information should be used in making deselection decisions. There are then additional questions about the process for physical removing items for the collection. And there are questions about selecting and purchasing new materials. These questions have been great conversation starters to learn from more experienced colleagues, and are a significant reason to talk to people in several different departments (reference and instruction, technical services, etc.).

 

Since I was working with a relatively small subsection of the reference collection to begin with, I did not remove more than a handful of books. And several of those will be moved to the stacks or are available electronically, so the net change in the collection is relatively small. But, in just an hour or two, I gained a greater understanding of the types of reference materials available within my liaison area, as well as the areas which need more attention in the future. I learned more about collection development at my library and enjoyed several conversations with my colleagues regarding the state of our collection and the complexities of deselection. Although it is a bit daunting, particularly as a new librarian, to be responsible for deselection decisions, I’m inspired to continue investigating further collection development and analysis projects within the general collection.