Category Archives: Instructional Design

Small Steps, Big Picture

As I thought about composing a blog post this week, I felt that familiar frustration of searching not only for a good idea, but a big one. I feel like I’m often striving (read: struggling!) to make space for big picture thinking. I’m either consumed by small to-do list items that, while important, feel piecemeal or puzzling over how to make a big idea more precise and actionable. So it feels worthwhile now, as I reflect back on the semester, to consider how small things can have a sizable impact.

I’m recalling, for example, a few small changes I’ve made to some information evaluation activities this semester in order to deepen students’ critical thinking skills. For context, here’s an example of the kind of activity I had been using. I would ask students to work together to compare two sources that I gave them and talk about what made the sources reliable or not and if one source was more reliable than the other. As a class, we would then turn the characteristics they articulated into criteria that we thought generally make for reliable sources. It seemed like the activity helped students identify and articulate what made those particular sources reliable or not and permitted us to abstract to evaluation criteria that could be applied to other sources.

While effective in some ways, I began to see how this activity contributed to, rather than countered, the problem of oversimplified information evaluation. Generally, I have found that students can identify key criteria for source evaluation such as an author’s credentials, an author’s use of evidence to support claims, the publication’s reputation, and the presence of bias. Despite their facility with naming these characteristics, though, I’ve observed that students’ evaluation of them is sometimes simplistic. In this activity, it felt like students could easily say evidence, author, bias, etc., but those seemed like knee-jerk reactions. Instead of creating opportunities to balance a source’s strengths/weaknesses on a spectrum, this activity seemed to reinforce the checklist approach to information evaluation and students’ assumptions of sources as good versus bad.  

At the same time, I’ve noticed that increased attention to “fake news” in the media has heightened students’ awareness of the need to evaluate information. Yet many students seem more prone to dismiss a source altogether as biased or unreliable without careful evaluation. The “fake news” conversation seems to have bolstered some students’ simplistic evaluations rather than deepen them.

In an effort to introduce more nuance into students’ evaluation practices and attitudes, then, I experimented with a few small shifts and have so far landed with revisions like the following.

Small shift #1 – Students balance the characteristics of a single source.
I ask students to work with a partner to evaluate a single source. Specifically, I ask them to brainstorm two characteristics about a given source that make it reliable and/or not reliable. I set this up on the board in two columns. Students can write in either/both columns: two reliable, two not reliable, or one of each. Using the columns side-by-side helps to visually illustrate evaluation as a balance of characteristics; a source isn’t necessarily all good or all bad, but has strengths and weaknesses.

Small shift #2 – Students examine how other students balance the strengths and weaknesses of the source.
Sometimes different students will write similar characteristics in both columns (e.g., comments about evidence used in the source show up in both sides) helping students to recognize how others might evaluate the same characteristic as reliable when they see it as unreliable or vice versa. This helps illustrate the ways different readers might approach and interpret a source.

Small shift #3 – Rather than develop a list of evaluation criteria, we turn the characteristics they notice into questions to ask about sources.
In our class discussion, we talk about the characteristics of the source that they identify, but we don’t turn them into criteria. Instead we talk about them in terms of questions they might ask of any source. For example, they might cite “data” as a characteristic that suggests a source is reliable. With a little coaxing, they might expand, “well, I think the author in this source used a variety of types of evidence – statistics, interviews, research study, etc.” So we would turn that into questions to ask of any source (e.g., what type(s) of evidence are used? what is the quantity and quality of the evidence used?) rather than a criterion to check off.

Despite their smallness, these shifts have helped make space for conversation about pretty big ideas in information evaluation: interpretation, nuance, and balance. What small steps do you take to connect to the big picture? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

When is the Struggle TOO Real?

One of the advantages of having a partner who happens to be a math professor is that we can talk academic shop. A few weeks ago, over a serious dishwasher unloading, we started talking about a recurring theme manifesting itself in our college’s faculty Facebook group: toughening up college students. From debates about trigger warnings to conversations about cultivating students’ grit and comfort with failure, our colleagues are consistently inconsistent about how we should help college students succeed in academia and life. I’ll lump myself and my partner into this group, too. As a faculty we want to be sensitive to student needs and life experiences, but we also don’t want them to fall apart if they get a bad grade on an exam. We want them to make a real attempt at solving a difficult problem or tackling a challenging project on their own before asking for help, but we also recognize that many students have serious outside stressors (economic, familial, emotional, etc.) that might prevent them from giving their all to their studies.

For years librarians have been chanting that “failure is good” because it is a signal of attempted innovation, creative practice, and learning (particularly when applied to information literacy instruction). We want our students to learn from their mistakes, which means they have to make them first. Math education is no different. There’s a small but mighty push for experiential and problem-based learning within the discipline that wants students to learn from their mistakes. As my partner and I discussed this we couldn’t help but wonder:

At what point is the struggle too much?

Earlier in the day he’d met with a student who claimed she was working on one homework problem for 4 hours. Earlier that semester I’d met with a student who spent an entire weekend looking for research in the wrong places with the wrong search terms. I’m all for giving it the old college try, but in both cases, this just plain excessive struggle for little reward. As a librarian who has been doing this job for a while, I have a good sense of when I’ve tapped my intellectual well. I know when to ask for help. My partner does, too. Most academics know when to take a step back, take another approach, or ask a colleague for suggestions. But this is a learned skill. We like to think of it as tacit knowledge–students have to experience failure to know when they are failing the right way as opposed to just struggling unnecessarily–but is it really? Does the experience alone help them gain this knowledge? Or can the struggle just be too real for some students, leading them to eventually equate math or research with pointless stress?

I think the key in the library classroom is not to focus on failure but to focus on process: Model, practice, repeat–over and over again. It’s a challenge when so much of students’ grades depend on a final product (an exam, a paper, a presentation, etc.) and often requires a shift in emphasis from the professor. By modeling a process–a step I think we (and I know I) often overlook in our attempts to make our classrooms spaces for active learning–we give students a sense of what struggle can look like. Granted, there’s no one standard process for research, and we don’t want to imply that there is one, but making our thinking and doing visible to our students can go a long way towards demystifying research. We get stuck, we back-track, we try again, we struggle, but we are never alone when we do so. It’s something I try to stress to all my students in hopes that they too feel like they never have to struggle alone.

Standing in Front: The Lecture in One-Time Library Instruction Sessions

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Amber Gray, Social Sciences and Humanities Librarian at the University of Maine.

There’s been some discussion lately, quite a bit of it spurred by a recent New York Times editorial, about the potential benefits or detriments of the lecture format as well as the potential benefits or detriments of interactivity and active learning in the classroom. I, like many people, believe that both lectures and active learning are useful tools and are useful in different contexts, but what I’d like to discuss here is the unique utility of the lecture format in the one-time-only library instruction session.

Before I continue, I want to be absolutely clear that I am in favor of finding new and interesting ways for students to learn in a classroom environment. If you are looking for a piece of writing that rails against flipped classrooms and active learning, you won’t find it here. I think all these different methods can be and are very useful in a classroom setting. The point that I want to make is that, while flipped classrooms and active learning are great, there are some elements of the lecture format that may be particularly well-suited for the type of one-time library instruction sessions that we as librarians may give in conjunction with college and university classes.

You’ll notice that I used the term “one-time” to describe library instruction sessions, and I think this particular phrase is crucial in distinguishing the work of a semester-long class from the type of instruction librarians often give. A professor, instructor, lecturer, or teaching assistant has a class for a certain period of time at least once a week for a certain number of weeks. A librarian often has a class once for a certain period of time, and whether or not she sees any of those students again is a matter generally left to the individual students. The amount of time a librarian has in which to present is also dependent on the professor; some professors are happy to schedule an entire class session with the librarian, while others prefer a brief twenty- or thirty-minute overview.

Regardless of the amount of time the librarian has, what the librarian presents tends to be defined by the requirements of the class—whether there are any research projects the students will have to conduct, for example, or whether they have to find scholarly articles about a particular topic. And, in what I think is an essential element of the library instruction session, the librarian often has specific resources, research strategies, and tools that the students need to know about by the time the instruction session is over.

This is where the usefulness of the lecture format comes in. In a lecture, the instructor (a librarian, in this case) stands before a class and gives them information they need to know. Especially for library instruction sessions that are twenty minutes or half an hour long, information needs to get to the students in the most efficient way possible, and I would argue that the lecture is one of the best ways in which to do this. A librarian doesn’t have the time the instructor has; there is no additional meeting in which the librarian can share material there wasn’t time to cover in the first meeting. This single meeting has to give the students the tools they need for the rest of the semester; some of the students may contact me for additional information, but I can’t assume they will, and almost certainly some of them won’t. The lecture is, to me, one of the best tools for getting information across in a direct and efficient way, particularly if I’ve got a limited time frame in which to accomplish this.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a lecture is the answer to everything, or that it should be used exclusively instead of any other teaching style. If a professor brings in a class for two hours, I’m not going to lecture to them for two hours. I’m going to talk with them for perhaps forty or forty-five minutes, and the rest of the time can be used for active learning, individual research, questions, or whatever else might be most helpful for this particular group. But even in a longer instruction session, I think that a lecture is a good method of giving students the tools they need to begin.

Lectures are useful, but they can also be difficult, and they tend to require periodic revision. Some of the most successful instructors I have known have used the lecture format, and they change and refine their lectures every year, with the continued inclusion of material that works and the excision of material that doesn’t. As with creating any other type of lesson plan, creating informative and interesting lectures is an iterative process. But when a lecture goes well, it is incredibly satisfying, and students leave the session energized, knowing more about what they need to be able to do their own academic work.

Library instruction is a constantly changing and innovating field, and I think that’s wonderful. I also think that one of the most important aspects of innovation in relation to instruction is, along with creating and working with tools and techniques that are new, being able to use them in conjunction with tools and techniques that aren’t, like the lecture. The teaching styles at our disposal can be as expansive and as varied as we want them to be.

The Making of an Instructional Design Librarian

I’m now in my sixth month and second semester as a tenure-track Instructional Design Librarian, which is a new position at my library. In December I completed my second master’s in Educational Technology (specializing in instructional design) so now I can call myself an instructional designer with confidence. I’m a new academic librarian AND a new instructional designer, and my job is to wear both of those hats, often at the same time.*

I spent a lot of fall semester figuring out exactly how an Instructional Design Librarian should fit in at my institution. Figuring out my role(s) and mastering the intricacies of the tenure-track handbook has been an enormous, time-consuming challenge. (Spoiler: I’m far from having it all figured out).

Instructional Design Librarians, Please Stand Up

As far as I can tell, there aren’t a whole lot of people like me – at least, title and primary responsibility-wise. There are oodles of instruction librarians, lots of emerging technology librarians, many online/distance education librarians – and multitudes of librarians that have taken on instructional design/educational technology as an additional duty or interest. I discovered this last group in the wonderful Blended Librarian Online Learning Community, which offers fantastic webinars. A term coined by Steven J. Bell, the “Blended Librarian”

first combines the traditional aspects of librarianship with the technology skills of an information technologist, someone skilled with software and hardware. Many librarians already demonstrate sound technology skills of this type. To this mix, the Blended Librarian adds the instructional or educational technologist’s skills for curriculum design, and the application of technology for student-centered learning (2003).

My position and skills certainly fall under this definition. I think that a large percentage of academic librarians have at least some of these skills. Sometimes I say I have the librarian job of the future (at least for academia) and I think that more and more librarian jobs will require these skills going forward.

Taking Stock

When I started this job, I realized my new library desperately needed new and innovative ways to reach more students. Only 23** librarians (including me) serve 38,000 students and 2,000 faculty. Our YouTube page hadn’t been updated with fresh content in years, and there were no communal, reusable learning objects*** to speak of. After settling in last fall (truly settling in will take years in this position), I started my work by doing lots of brainstorming. It was clear from the start my time is limited. Since I am wearing “two hats,” I have to carefully manage my time to fully attend to my librarian duties (liaison subjects, instruction, reference hours, tenure-track work) while striving to make enough time for instructional design. I talked about keeping a work diary in my last post, but I use the same online notebook to sketch out loads of ideas. Holy cow, do I have a lot of ideas: badges, learning object repository, an information literacy curriculum customized for our campus, interactive tutorials, design workshops for librarians, instructional videos, assessment plans… I’ve also been instructed to work on improving my library’s existing online resources, namely, LibGuides.

Last semester, I strove to meet everyone that works in our very large library building and to meet the instructional designers on campus. Our campus has an Academic Technology Center (ATC, which falls under IT), the Faculty Development Center (FDC), a resource called Online Academic Strategies and Instructional Support (OASIS), as well as the University Extended Education (UEE) department. Each of these has one or more instructional designers, and confusingly these centers tend to overlap in their offerings. I spent a lot of time tracking down needed software – Camtasia for the videos, Adobe Captivate for interactive tutorials. My office computer died once and had to be replaced. I had to figure out which librarians I had to talk to about getting YouTube access and my own corner of the website for tutorials (still working on my own corner of the site, but I want to have a mini-repository of learning objects like that from University of Arizona libraries).

Jumping In

In my ACRLog posts so far, overwhelm is a prominent theme for me. So I started small. My library is currently suffering through a stacks closure due to an earthquake last spring, so I created a brief video on how to page materials. By consulting with librarians, I came up with a shortlist of other basic videos and developed two more on searching for library materials. I also took a course on Universal Design for Learning, while concurrently taking a course on writing a journal article in twelve weeks, both through our Faculty Development Center. Per my assignment sheet, and my personal interest, I’ve also been working hard collaborating with another librarian to revamp our assessment model (using the draft ACRL IL framework) for the information literacy component of our campus’ First Year Experience (FYE) program.

Partly due to the stacks closure, and partly due to coming re-organization and major renovation, I moved to a new office the day before winter break. I’m now consolidated in the same hallway as all of the other instructional designers on campus – from ATC, FDC, OASIS, and UEE (holy alphabet soup!). I’ve already learned a lot from them and am excited about the possibilities for collaboration and promoting the library and its resources. Under a grant last week, we were all able to attend two days of training on Quality Matters and our university system’s version, Quality Online Learning and Teaching. I was inspired to think about ways to develop and offer rubrics to allow librarians to self-evaluate learning objects.

Now on to Spring Semester

I continue to work hard on the assessment redesign for our piece of the FYE program (my colleague and I are presenting a poster at SCIL Works, and we submitted a poster proposal for ACRL, look for us if we get accepted! [Edit: Accepted for virtual con]). We’re also working on a grant proposal for release time to assess the pilot once it’s completed. I’m meeting with librarians to talk about developing videos/tutorials for their subject areas. I’m working on developing resources to help students and faculty use library resources like eBooks and streaming video. I’m working with members of our library’s Open Access Team to create presentations on utilizing open educational resources. I want to work with librarians to improve their instruction and their instructional materials, and I’m planning to employ social justice themes in information literacy instruction. I’m also following the critical librarianship community, as I’m from a blue-collar background and sometimes feel out of place in academia.

I get asked a lot what I do as an Instructional Design Librarian. I am certain that my answer will change as I embark on new projects and as I explore new possibilities, but I have come up with a short-ish answer. My new elevator-length job description/mission statement is that I endeavor to design and develop reusable learning objects that can be embedded into online learning environments, and to inculcate effective instructional use of educational technology among campus faculty.

Yep, that’s a mouthful.

Reference
Bell, S. J. (2003). A Passion for Academic Librarianship: Find It, Keep It, Sustain It–A Reflective Inquiryportal: Libraries and the Academy3(4), 633-642.

*I want a button that says “ASK ME about cognitive load!” Because IMHO many, if not most, librarians excel at inflicting cognitive overload in their instructional materials.
**Give or take a few positions in flux.
***At my in-person interview for this position, I was required to teach my audience how to create a reusable learning object (in 20 minutes or less, yikes!). I taught them to make an educational slideshow using myBrainShark and assessed their learning with Poll Everywhere.