Category Archives: Teaching

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.

Dear diary: Using a reflective teaching journal for improvement and assessment?

A few months ago, I posted about how I’ve shifted to using more constructivist activities and formative assessments in classes. I wrote about how I think these pedagogical frameworks have helped me to strengthen student learning and engagement. I said things about how–by developing opportunities for students to experiment in classes with tools, strategies, and concepts in order to construct their understanding, at least in part–they can deepen and expand their learning. And I wrote, too, about how these activities serve as informal assessments of students’ knowledge, such that I can adjust instruction in real time to better meet students where they are. I’m still feeling rather enthusiastic about all of this. I’m sure there are a million ways for me to do this better still, but in every instance so far this has been an invaluable shift in my thinking and teaching, not to mention a welcome revitalization for my frame of mind.

The data I’m informally gathering have helped me learn a lot about my students and my teaching. About where they’re coming from and how they approach and interpret concepts and strategies. About what I assume or where we don’t connect. I worry, though, that I’m not maximizing the data. I want to grab hold of it a little more and put it to more use. The activities, approaches, and assessments I’ve been doing, though, are largely informal and the data sometimes feel fleeting and anecdotal. Without tangible artifacts of student work (such as worksheets, write-ups, polls, quizzes, or papers) to ground my analysis, I’ve been struggling with how to do that. Couldn’t I somehow compile it across classes for broader understanding of student learning? If I could analyze it more rigorously, could I better gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogy? I want to use it more thematically and systematically to inform improvements I can make in the classroom, assess and document students’ learning, and (hopefully!) demonstrate the impact of instruction. So how do I effectively turn this into recordable data for documentation, analysis, and reflection?

At a session at the ACRL conference this past spring, it was suggested to me that I try using a reflective teaching journal. If you’re like me, the skeptical (or even cynical) voice in your head just kicked in. A reflective teaching journal? Maybe it sounds a little hokey. I admit that it did to me. But then I started thinking about the intensively qualitative nature of the data I’m interested in. I started thinking about how productive reflection often is for me. And then I read Elizabeth Tompkins’ article, recommended to me by a colleague, which opened my eyes a bit to what shape(s) a teaching journal might take.

In “A reflective teaching journal: An instructional improvement tool for academic librarians,” Tompkins reviewed relevant literature and described her own experience keeping a journal to document and reflect on instruction. A reflective teaching journal isn’t the same as a diary or a log, Tompkins noted. A journal brings together the “personal reflections” of a diary with the “empirical descriptions” of a log in order to “examine experiences, and to pose questions and solutions for reflection and improvement.” Tompkins reviewed a variety of journaling methods, as described in the literature:

  • Hobson (1996) used a double-entry format to “separate out descriptive writing from reflections. For example, an author would describe an experience on the left side of the journal while placing his or her reflections on the right.”
  • Shepherd (2006) used guiding questions to “make sense of complex situations.” For example:
    • “How do I feel about this?”
    • “What do I think about this?”
    • “What have I learned from this?”
    • “What action will I take as a result of my lessons learned?”
    • “What have I learned from what I’ve done?”
    • “What have I done with what I learned?”
  • Gorman (1998) concentrated on “concrete issues that were problematic in his classroom.” The journal also “served as a record keeper, capturing his students’ progress before and after he instituted new instruction techniques.”
  • Jay and Johnson (2002) classified three levels of reflection: descriptive, comparative, and critical.
    • “Central to the descriptive phase is asking questions about what is taking place. […] It is crucial to find significance in the problem under consideration. It is important to separate out the relevant facts with sufficient detail to avoid jumping to conclusions.”
    • “Comparative reflection involves looking at the area of concern from a variety of viewpoints. […] Examining a situation from the outlook of others may result in uncovering implications that may otherwise have been missed.”
    • “Employ critical reflection to search for the deeper meaning of a situation. […] Contains an element of judgment, allowing the practitioner to look for the most beneficial method of resolving a problem. Ideally, critical reflection will lead the educator to develop a repertoire of best practices. […] Not the ‘last step,’ but rather ‘the constant returning to one’s own understanding of the problem at hand.’”

Still not convinced? If this seems cheesy or prescriptive, I feel you. Or maybe it seems like nothing special. Tompkins cited one critic who “dismisses reflection as a trendy buzzword for merely thinking about what one is doing.” What’s the big deal, right? To me it’s partly about intentionality. As E.M. Forster wrote, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” I want to increase and focus my attention and devote more time and mental space to processing. Time and mental space are always in short supply, it seems, so the structure of a journal feels like it might force my hand. It’s also about data collection. I want to try to move from the instance and the anecdotal to the bigger picture and the systematic. In her article, Tompkins concentrates on using journals for instructional improvements, and therefore the instructor’s perspective. Students are inherent therein, but I hope to spotlight the student perspective and learning more.

So I’m going to give it a shot. I’m not yet committed to any single approach, other than the doing of it. So far, I seem to tend toward models of guiding questions with descriptive, comparative, and critical lenses. I plan to experiment with different structures, though, as described by Tompkins and others–or make it up as I go–and see what works, as long as I can work toward the goals I have in mind:

  • Document what I’m doing and learning so that it’s less transitory
  • Direct and heighten my attention to what I care about in the classroom, what works and doesn’t, what helps students
  • Facilitate my thoughts on how to teach better
  • Capture evidence of student learning in individual classes and across classes
  • Consider how this work demonstrates the value that the library and librarians contribute to student learning
  • Generally try to connect some dots

Your thoughts? How do you grab hold of your daily teaching and learning experiences and make meaning of them? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

One Instructional Philosophy to Unite Them All

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Nicole Pagowsky, Research & Learning Librarian and Instruction Coordinator at the University of Arizona Libraries. You can find her on Twitter at @pumpedlibrarian.

When I first thought about writing this post, I considered how boring it would sound to read an article about a library’s instructional philosophy. Who is going to be racing to read that? I mean doesn’t it kind of seem like recycling in a way? We all know we should be doing it but it’s not necessarily exciting, and do we know for sure if those supposed recyclables aren’t actually just getting mixed in with the trash and dumped in a landfill? Analogies aside, having an instructional philosophy for our library is essential and I want to talk about why that is and then share what we developed.

With a library re-organization comes new roles, along with the continually changing roles of librarianship as a field. The University of Arizona Libraries have undergone a re-organization over the past year from functional teams to a liaison model (I was an Instructional Services Librarian, now a Research & Learning Librarian). To facilitate a cohesive instruction program that would align all liaisons, library faculty created an instructional philosophy that positions shared pedagogy as inherent in our new work. This is an important first step in establishing an instruction program: what can we all agree on, and what can we all reference, as we build our teaching roles as liaisons? We should also be thinking about how faculty view us: what they expect of us and what they don’t (and why). Having a shared instructional philosophy can be one way to signify that we truly are educators and partners. Clearly, one document will not solve everything, but it is one step toward aligning our roles, improving our teaching, and changing faculty expectations.

Aligning our roles

We felt that developing a shared instructional philosophy was important to revamp and revise how we envision ourselves as educators, and how we can communicate this to campus. Although we all have different liaison assignments and focus areas, how can we approach a library instruction program collectively? With varying disciplinary needs for instruction the details of our approaches might be different. However, we’re aligned through bigger-picture goals, expressed in our pedagogy. By connecting this pedagogy with activities such as curriculum mapping, we can then enable a point-of-need program to reach students across campus with scaffolding and differentiated instruction through collaborations with faculty as we continue to move away from the one-shot.

Improving our teaching through praxis

With library practice and instructional technologies often in flux (because that’s just the nature of things), a philosophy with an evidence-based link to theory and reflection can help ground us even if our practice changes. By actively linking theory to practice, we are then engaging in praxis. Praxis, as Freire and hooks have described it, is theory into practice–action!–through reflection. Action embodies our values. And theory makes it possible to question and examine what values we hope to put into action. So we don’t want to divorce theory from practice, nor do we want to emphasize the importance of one over the other. Our instructional philosophy doesn’t view theory and practice as mutually exclusive but wraps them up together into praxis to guide our work as educators.

Changing faculty expectations

Often, disciplinary faculty don’t think of librarians as necessarily interested or capable instruction collaborators. These expectations carry weight, primarily because how we’re perceived influences what’s expected of us. We need to transform these inaccurate impressions of us as teaching partners. In the educational psychology literature, this is referred to as “expectation effects” and is linked to “impression management.” This has been studied extensively when looking at the impact of teacher/student expectations on student success.

So, what do we do about this? Centering a critical philosophy to our information literacy pedagogy is one way we can work to transform our image and campus expectations. Critical pedagogy is not simply moving away from skills-based instruction to bigger ideas–although that can be part of it–but a main focus here is on examining power structures (see Stommel, 2014 for an expanded definition to provide more grounding). When looking to information literacy instruction specifically, this can be teacher/learner power structures, publishing and access power structures, or larger societal issues of cultural hegemony, racism, sexism, etc. and how that’s reflected in higher education and the research process. This aspect of critical librarianship can also include an examination of librarian/faculty power structures. Why are we thought of as helpers and assistants more often than collaborators and partners? It’s not like this is a new question–in fact this conversation has been going on since the 60s–but it continues to receive attention because although we might realize what the problems are, solutions are more difficult to achieve.1

If faculty have incorrect or uninformed expectations of us through the lens of this power structure, it will color perceptions and maintain our assumed role as just “helper,” subsequently maintaining how we are able to approach teaching. This is part of what gets us relegated to the one-shot. If faculty won’t interact with us fully to understand what we do and our capabilities as educators, their expectations will remain the same, and our relationships–and teaching approaches–won’t change. Of course programmatic instruction and collaboration with faculty take work and require relationship-building, which is not instantaneous. Being able to navigate these power structures while understanding how they hinder us should be considered a piece of the puzzle. By having a library instruction philosophy document that liaisons can share, we can explicitly show what we’re capable of doing, as a way for faculty to better understand our roles as educators.

What we learned

The process for this document went through several iterations. We had a good amount of debate back-and-forth on content and wording, because we certainly didn’t all agree on everything off the bat. I began the document and wrote out what I felt could be some main points of focus to guide our instruction. These were either things we already have been doing, or things that I thought we could be doing. Of course having one person begin a document makes it skew more in one direction, but it was an approach that helped get the process going. The hope was to develop something that was not quite a manifesto, but to collaboratively create something that would guide and inspire. The document was then shared with our instruction group (within our department) for discussion and revision. Then, we shared it with our whole department and again had some discussion and revision. We all compromised to create a truly shared philosophy. Some of us feel more strongly about certain points than others, but this is something we can use to situate and clarify our abilities as educators to campus. After we accepted it for our purposes, we thought it would be useful to share it with other departments in the library who do instruction (Special Collections and the Arizona Health Sciences Library liaisons). These two groups felt the document represented their interests, and at this point we’re using it to serve as a focal point for driving our new instruction program forward, and an official piece in our constellation of guiding liaison documents for the UA Libraries. Although a philosophy is meant to be longer-lasting, this document is also fluid in that we are open to change as we continue to learn and progress in our instructional program.

University of Arizona Libraries’ Instructional Philosophy

  • Information literacy, multi- and cross-disciplinary, is critical to student success and lifelong learning
  • Teaching the research process is complex and involves collaboration with instructors or other campus partners through sustained, integrated, and programmatic approaches
  • We will provide learning opportunities at the most effective points in a student’s educational career, where our librarians’ time and expertise can have the greatest impact
  • We strive to provide opportunities for students to engage in transfer of learning through our collaboration with campus partners
  • Because knowledge is contextual and socially constructed, impacting the idea of neutrality that libraries are associated with, we encourage deeper examination of the research process and asking difficult questions
  • We strive to be inclusive in our instruction, taking into account differences of all types and also being aware of intersectional diversity
  • Students have the right to transparency in their learning, where librarians use their expertise to teach as guides rather than gatekeepers
  • Teaching within the affective domain (emotions, values, and attitudes) has importance alongside skills, knowledge, and abilities within information literacy
  • Because technology can erase as well as create barriers, we will be informed and selective about what technology we use and will avoid an “educational technology as solutionism” mindset
  • We teach what we value, not value what we teach, and are focused on the greatest benefit to students and campus through information literacy

Readings that support our philosophy

Blog posts:

Char Booth on information privilege and pedagogy

Cathy Davidson on how a class becomes a community

Barbara Fister on why the research paper isn’t working

Audrey Watters on ed-tech solutionism

Articles and Books:

Accardi, M. T., Drabinski, E., & Kumbier, A. (2010). Critical library instruction: Theories and methods. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press.

Cahoy, E. S., & Schroeder, R. (2012). Embedding affective learning outcomes in library instruction. Communications in Information Literacy, 6(1), 73.

Detmering, R. & Johnson, A. M. (2012). “Research papers have always seemed very daunting”: Information literacy narratives and the student research experience. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 12(1), 5-22.

Egea, O.M. (2014). Neoliberalism, education and the integration of ICT in schools. A critical reading. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 23(2), 267-283.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Pagowsky, N. & DeFrain, E. (2014). Ice ice baby: Are librarian stereotypes freezing us out of instruction? In the Library with the Lead Pipe

Ward, D. (2006). Revisioning information literacy for lifelong meaning. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(4), 396-402.

  1. See Leigh & Sewny, 1960; Garrison, 1972; Biggs, 1981; Harris, 1992; Hardesty, 1995; Radford & Radford, 1997; Church, 2002; and many more for explanations about how feminized work, stereotypes of neutrality and social awkwardness, and a doctor/nurse-like paradigm influence faculty interactions and exist in expectations. I also integrated this research into a larger presentation on these topics as a keynote for the 2015 Wisconsin Association of Academic Libraries annual conference. []

A Conceptual Model for Interdisciplinary Collaboration

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Laura MacLeod Mulligan, M.L.S., Information Services Librarian, and Dr. Adam J. Kuban, Assistant Professor of Journalism, both at Ball State University.

Academic buzzwords such as “interdisciplinary” and “collaboration” get paid ample lip service in university administration strategic plans and current scholarship, but practically speaking it can be difficult to begin or sustain such a partnership. With strong faculty support, public services librarians can become embedded in courses, revise assignments, review student output, and assess student learning—playing a more meaningful role in the physical and virtual classroom. We wish to reveal our methods of interdisciplinary collaboration—specifically what has given it longevity and made it successful. From evidence grounded in aggregate literature and personal anecdotes, we have developed a conceptual model for effective collaboration that could apply to any interdisciplinary partnership.

Our conceptual model

Our own collaborative efforts began in January 2012 in order to revise the curriculum of an introductory journalism research course for undergraduates in the Department of Journalism at Ball State University. This ultimately led to the creation of an innovative, technology-based capstone exercise that exemplified the nexus of screencasts with library database instruction. We have also embarked on a research study that assesses the same students’ comprehension of information literacy concepts à la ACRL’s new Framework for Information Literacy. One of our current projects is a practical consideration of interdisciplinary collaboration (in particular between library professionals and faculty in the disciplines).

Scholars who collaborate rarely read literature about collaboration before they begin endeavors. Even if you wanted to brush up on best practices for successful collaboration, you would have to wade through case studies and data surrounding discipline-specific scenarios. We began this project with a conceptual model based on personal anecdotes (i.e., a “model-first” approach) simply because it is natural to begin with “what has worked for us.” Please see our full paper from the 2014 Brick & Click conference for a full literature review where we discuss trends and themes in the literature and make recommendations for further reading. As we read others’ stories and studies and noticed patterns in what led to successful collaboration, we looked for areas of support as well as additional attributes that ought to exist as elaboration to the initial model presented.

We identified and organized a non-discipline-specific conceptual model outlining the (1) workplace conditions; (2) qualities/attitudes; and (3) common goals that have enhanced our collaborative, interdisciplinary experience and could thus serve as a model for any faculty-librarian partnership. To help unpack the importance of these three facets, we sketched a visual depiction of it (see figure 1) and also shared personal anecdotes from our experiences (see table 1).

Conceptual model
Figure 1: Our conceptual model for successful interdisciplinary collaboration

Two of these elements can be controlled: (a) favorable attitudes and personality qualities toward interdisciplinary engagement and (b) common goals determined between the involved parties. The third element—(c) workplace conditions—is largely out of the collaborators’ control but still impacts the partnership. When all three facets come together, we believe successful collaboration can occur. In the event that one facet is absent or lacking, we believe that collaboration can still function but may be difficult to sustain.

Table 1. Qualifiers for a three-faceted conceptual model for successful collaboration

Workplace Conditions Qualities/Attitudes Common Goals
  • Regular communication
  • Standing meetings
  • Physical space
  • Administrative support
  • Cooperative—able to compromise
  • Equitable—respect for roles
  • Trust—perceived competence
  • Shared vulnerability—safe setting to explore, inquire & critique
  • Enthusiasm—desire to continue collaboration
  • Identify individual strengths
  • Select conference & publication venues that “count” for both, or alternate
  • Establish research “pipeline” & philosophy
  • Articulate/update timelines

Workplace conditions

Essential to our collaboration has been regular communication. Keeping a standing meeting throughout the year has given us at least an hour per week to touch base, bounce ideas off one another, strategize, delegate, and debrief ongoing tasks. Booking a conference room in the university library gave us a neutral space in which to talk, think, and work without distraction. Having a coffee machine, audio/visual equipment (including a projection screen and speakers), and a large table made us feel comfortable and well equipped for any task—whether it be critiquing student screencasts, sketching out a four-foot-by-eight-foot poster, drafting correspondence to journal editors, or working side-by-side on separate computers.

Arguably most important in this facet is apparent administrative support. We are fortunate to have current supervisors who embrace our collaborative endeavors, valuing it in subsequent reviews and evaluations. Without it, the interdisciplinary collaboration would likely end, as one or both would deem it too high-risk to continue.


We have found that if there are common emotional qualities, a collaborative relationship can remain collegial and productive. In our experience, the following stood out as ideal qualities: a cooperative and compromising attitude; respect for and equitable treatment of individual collaborator roles; trust in one another’s competence; ability to be vulnerable, open, honest, and willing to learn; and an enthusiasm for the projects pursued.

Collaboration among faculty and librarians sometimes results in the librarian acting in a supporting role to help execute the vision of a faculty member. In our collaboration, the roles are refreshingly equitable, leaving each person feeling like a co-leader. For example, Adam would not finalize student grades in his introductory research course without receiving feedback from Laura regarding their capstone projects (i.e., screencast database tutorials) in case there were incorrect aspects related to the library resources that she, as an information professional, could identify. This arrangement sustains the momentum and collegiality longer than a leader-follower partnership.

Common goals

While research styles and philosophies differ from discipline to discipline, we discovered that we share similar interests in information literacy, critical thinking skills, student engagement, and assessment driven by qualitative data. Projects stemming from these research interests have been undertaken more easily because of mutual pedagogical interests and shared research methods. We have been able to identify professional development activities that “count” for both of us, and we alternate the focus of activities to make for an even distribution. For example, after presenting at a journalism educators’ conference in summer 2012, we took a derivative of the material to a state library conference in fall 2012 to share our work with that audience. We’ve come to call this our “research pipeline,” and it keeps our activities equitable and interdisciplinary.

What’s missing from the model?

Once we had consulted the literature, one noteworthy qualifier emerged that deserves mention in an ongoing effort to conceive an evolving model that reflects effective interdisciplinary partnerships.

It seems oxymoronic that literature acknowledges the benefit of interdisciplinary scholarship, advocating that “it likely yields more innovative and consequential results for complex problems than traditional, individual research efforts” (Amey & Brown 30), yet institutionalized traditions within academia continue to stymie interdisciplinary efforts. Amey and Brown explain that graduate students who identify with a specific discipline spend years being socialized into that culture, being taught to maintain a particular research identity lodged within the confines of their discipline. In a qualitative study by Teodorescu & Kushner, untenured junior faculty understand the theoretical benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration but feel compelled to abstain from it until after tenure, viewing it as a high-risk activity. KerryAnn O’Meara, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, issues a call to action via an essay written for Inside HigherEd: “Let’s not assume all candidates must make their case for tenure and promotion based on one static, monolithic view of scholarship.”

Similarly, LIS programs may not adequately prepare their students for interdisciplinary endeavors. Kim Leeder notes that “librarians are not initiated into [their] fields in the same way that faculty are: by reading scholarship, identifying [their] own specific area(s) of specialization, presenting at conferences, and building a network of colleagues whose interests overlap.”

This phenomenon could fit under the Workplace Conditions (resulting from administrative attitudes out of our control) or the Attitudes facet of the model (where it impedes expression of vulnerability in an attempt to solve problems and work together toward solutions).


Postsecondary educators want students ready for an integrated marketplace. Programs of study require students to complete coursework outside of their chosen major(s). Experiential, immersive, and/or service learning are topics of discussion at conferences about college teaching. It seems that, as educators, we recognize the globalization of society and the overlapping nature of most occupations, and we want our students to have diverse, interdisciplinary experiences—thus it seems prudent to adopt a similar mindset for our own scholarly endeavors. We should set an example for our students, valuing efforts to “reach across the aisle” and emphasizing interdisciplinary opportunities.

We believe our conceptual model could assist others as they begin to embark on interdisciplinary initiatives. In time, facets and qualifiers will evolve, transforming the notion of what equates to successful interdisciplinary collaboration.

Facilitating student learning and engagement with formative assessment

Information literacy instruction is a big part of my job. For a little context, I teach somewhere in the range of 35-45 classes per semester at my small liberal arts college. While a few of the sessions might sometimes be repeats for a course with multiple sections, they’re mostly unique classes running 75 minutes each. I’ve been teaching for some time now and while I’m a better teacher than I was ten or five years ago or even last year, there’s always plenty of room for improvement of course. A few months ago, I wrote a post about reflection on and in my teaching, about integrating “more direct discussion of process and purpose into my classes […] to lay bare for students the practice, reflection, and progression that complicates [information literacy] work, but also connects the gaps, that brings them closer to crossing the threshold.” Each year, I’ve been devoting more attention to trying to do just that: integrate process and purpose into my classes to improve student learning and engagement.

It didn’t start out as anything momentous, just a little bit all the time. Initially, it was only a small activity here or there to break things up, to give students a chance to apply and test the concept or resource under discussion, and to scaffold to the next concept or resource. I would demo a search strategy or introduce a new database and then ask students to try it out for their own research topic. I would circle the class and consult individually as needed. After a few minutes of individual exploration, we would come back together to address questions or comments and then move on to the next resource, strategy, or concept. This appeared to be working well enough. Students seemed to be on board and making progress. By breaking a class into more discrete chunks and measuring the pace a bit, students had more of a chance to process and develop along the way. Spacing out the hands-on work kept students engaged all class long, too.

For some time, I’ve started classes by reviewing the assignment at hand to define and interpret related information needs, sometimes highlighting possible areas of confusion students might encounter. Students expressed appreciation for this kind of outlining and the shape and structure it gave them. I felt a shift, though, when I started asking students, rather than telling them, about their questions and goals at the outset of a class. Less Here are the kinds of information sources we’ll need to talk about today and more What kinds of information do you think you need to know how to access for this assignment? What do you hope that information will do for you? What have been sticky spots in your past research experiences that you want to clarify? I wanted students to acknowledge their stake in our class goals and this conversation modeled setting a scope for learning and information needs. We then used our collective brainstorm as a guiding plan for our class. More often than not, students offered the same needs, questions, and problems that I had anticipated and used to plan the session, but it felt more dynamic and collaboratively constructed this way. (Of course, I filled in the most glaring gaps when needed.)

So why not, I finally realized one day, extend the reach of this approach into the entire class? While scaffolding instruction with small activities had helped students process, develop, and engage, I was still leading the charge at the pace I set. But what if we turned things around?  What if, essentially, they experimented on their own in order to determine something that worked for them (and why!) and shared their thoughts with the class? What if we constructed the class together? Rather than telling them what to do at the outset of each concept chunk, I could first ask them to investigate. Instead of demonstrating, for example, recommended search strategies and directing students to apply them to their own research, I could ask students to experiment first with multiple search strategies in a recommended database for a common topic in order to share with the class the strategies they found valuable. The same goes for navigating, filtering, and refining search results or for evaluating sources and selecting the most relevant or for any concept or resource for that matter. Why not, I thought, ask students to take a first pass and experiment? We could then share ideas as a class, demonstrating and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of their tactics along the way, collaboratively building a list of best practices strategies. Students could then revisit their work, applying those best practices where needed.

This kind of experiment-first-then-build-together-then-revise approach is simple enough, but its advantages feel rather significant to me. It makes every class exciting, because it’s—in part, at least—unique and responsive to precisely those students’ needs. Of course I have a structure and goals in mind, prepared notes in hand, but it’s a flexible approach. While it’s not appropriate for every class, the low stakes/low prep makeup is readily applicable to different scenarios and content areas. The students and I are actively involved in constructing the work of the class together. Everyone has a chance to contribute and learn from each other. In particular, more experienced students get to share their knowledge while less experienced students learn from their peers. The expectation to contribute helps students pay attention to the work and to each other. Its scaffolded and iterative design helps students digest and apply information. Its reflective nature reveals for students practice and process, too; it models the metacognitive mindset behind how to learn, how to do research. I don’t mean to get too ebullient here. It’s not a panacea. But it has made a difference. It’s probably no surprise that this kind of teaching has required a degree of comfort, a different kind of classroom leadership, and a different kind of instinct that would have been much, much harder to conjure in my earlier teaching.

While I wasn’t aware of it initially and didn’t set out to make it so, I now recognize this as formative assessment. Not only do these small activities increase opportunities for engagement and learning, they serve as authentic assessment of students’ knowledge and abilities in the moment. They provide evidence of student learning and opportunities for action immediately. With that immediate input, I can adjust the nature and depth of instruction appropriately at the point of need. All in a way that’s authentic to and integrated in the work of the class.

The informality of this approach is part of what makes it flexible, low prep, and engaging. It’s such a rich site for documentation and evaluation of student learning, though. I want to capture the richness of this knowledge, demonstrate the impact of instruction, document students’ learning. But I’m struggling with this. I haven’t yet figured out how to do this effectively and systematically. Some formative assessments result in student work artifacts that can illustrate learning or continuing areas of difficulty, but the shape my implementation has so far taken results in less tangible products. At the ACRL 2015 conference a few weeks ago, I attended a great session led by Mary Snyder Broussard, Carrie Donovan, Michelle Dunaway, and Teague Orblych: “Learning Diagnostics: Using Formative Assessment to Sustainably Improve Teaching & Learning.” When I posed this question in the session, Mary suggested using a “teacher journal” to record my qualitative reflections and takeaways after each class and to notice trends over time. I’m interested in experimenting with this idea, but I’m still searching for something that might better capture student learning, rather than only my perception of it. I’m curious to read Mary’s book Snapshots of Reality: A Practical Guide to Formative Assessment in Library Instruction, as well as Michelle and Teague’s article “Formative Assessment: Transforming Information Literacy Instruction” to see if I might be able to grab onto or adapt any other documentation practices.

Do you use formative assessment in your teaching? How do you document this kind of informal evidence of student learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.