Category Archives: Teaching

Peer Coaching for Professional Learning

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Marisa Méndez-Brady, Science Librarian, and Jennifer Bonnet, Social Sciences & Humanities Librarian, at the University of Maine.

Finding the time and resources to devote to professional learning can be a challenge, especially at institutions that are less geographically proximate to the broader library community. The University of Maine is a land and sea grant institution in the rural town of Orono, where opportunities to engage with peers at other colleges and universities take a concerted effort and may require additional financial resources to participate. While these constraints limit our ability to go to as many conferences as we would like, one day a year our department attends a gathering of Maine academic librarians where colleagues across the state present ideas that generate excitement and lead to further exploration.

During the 2016 Maine Academic Libraries Day, Bowdoin College librarian Beth Hoppe made a strong case for using the ACRL Framework to embrace non-prescriptive practices in our teaching, as part of a critical pedagogical approach to working with students.

Following this talk, we couldn’t stop thinking: how might we enhance the delivery of information literacy concepts in our own library instruction by more deliberately incorporating critical pedagogy? Motivated to improve our teaching techniques and extend our professional learning, the two of us embarked on a peer coaching project. Over the course of three months we used a study group model to brainstorm, design, and implement a suite of lesson plans that centered the diversity of student voices and experiences in our instruction sessions.

Peer coaching is commonly used in K-12 learning environments, and is a technique lauded by the instructional design community for its broad applicability. It is a non-evaluative, professional learning model in which two or more colleagues work collaboratively to: design curricula, create assessments, develop lesson plans, brainstorm ideas, problem solve, and reflect on current pedagogical practices (Robbins, 2015).

Although peer coaching can be formalized within a department or unit, we participated in an informal method known as the study group model, where two or more people engage in collaborative professional development for learning (PDL) around a subject of interest. We chose this model because it offers flexibility when it comes to constraints on time or finances, providing a sustainable method for professional development during the hectic instruction schedule of a typical semester. The graphic below illustrates different approaches to utilizing peer coaching for professional learning.


To shape our peer coaching project, we consulted instructional design literature, which (1) emphasizes the importance of creating professional learning that is individualized to the specific learning context and audience for the learning, and (2) focuses on content, pedagogy, or both (Guskey, 2009). We also integrated the three key components of effective peer coaching: a pre-conference to establish the goals for PDL; the learning process; and a post-conference to assess the PDL process.

The pre-conference in the context of peer coaching consists of meeting to establish PDL goals based on participant interest and applicability to one’s praxis. Our pre-conferencing took a two-pronged approach. First, we established an overarching goal to use the ACRL Framework to develop learner-centered teaching outcomes. Then, we held individual pre-conferences focused on the following Frames: (1) research as inquiry, (2) scholarship as conversation, and (3) searching as strategic exploration. We selected three upcoming instruction sessions (i.e., already scheduled in the library) that would be opportune for trying out new pedagogical approaches.

After we set each agenda, we turned from pre-conferencing to the learning process, which involved three study group meetings to design our lesson plans. In advance of each meeting, we selected relevant articles to read and reviewed two to three corresponding lesson plans in the Community of Online Research Assignments. The lesson plans we chose not only engaged with the Framework but revolved around students’ interests and experiences, which helped us consider teaching techniques that were non-prescriptive in practice and drew on critical pedagogical concepts. We then used the scheduled meeting time to adapt these lesson plans to fit the goals of our upcoming instruction sessions.

“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.” – bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom

The first lesson plan involved a teach-in that asked students to share their decision-making process when searching for information in both open and licensed resources (ACRL frame: research as inquiry), and was targeted at an upper-level undergraduate communications and marketing course. The second lesson plan focused on deconstructing citations and reverse engineering bibliographies, and was designed for an upper-level undergraduate wildlife policy class (ACRL frame: scholarship as conversation). The third lesson plan used one piece of information from a vaguely-worded news article as a jumping-off point for finding related information across various media, which we co-taught for a student club on campus (ACRL frame: searching as strategic exploration). Although these lesson plans were designed for specific contexts, they are broadly applicable across disciplines and academic levels.

We further engaged with critical pedagogy in a post-conference that succeeded each study group meeting. In the peer coaching context, the post-conference acts as an assessment of the study group experience for us (the learners) and emphasizes the role of self-reflection in gauging our own learning. Building on the work we started in the classroom (via each lesson plan), we took a feminist pedagogical perspective to self reflection that involved open-ended questions about process and practice, and addressed our own PDL outcomes.

“Feminist assessment is inherently reflective, and reflection itself is a feminist act.” Maria Accardi, Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction

We hope to continue using peer coaching in other areas of our praxis. Peer coaching offers a low stakes, low-cost option for professional development that leverages existing resources, draws on the interests and skills of colleagues, and allows for higher frequency contact among participant learners (versus a traditional yearly conference). We also found that the informal structure of the study group model supports flexible implementation and facilitates home-grown continuing education opportunities that are targeted to specific issues we face at our library.

So often, we absorb ideas at conferences, webinars, or through informal conversations. Yet, actualizing these ideas in our own institutional environments can be challenging due to issues like time, motivation, and support. Next time you discover a novel approach or way of thinking about your praxis, we encourage you to try peer coaching! We’d love to hear from you about how you use this professional learning strategy in your own environment.

A Revised Model for First Year Seminar IL Integration

In December I wrote about possible changes to our librarians’ involvement in our college’s first year and transfer liberal arts seminar. As victims of our success, our instruction model has become unsustainable. Teaching and support of this course leaves us with little mental energy for our other teaching and librarian responsibilities, which is problematic when those of us who teach have multiple liaison departments to support, not to mention our own research interests and library projects. We could, of course, teach this seminar and nothing else, but there is so much opportunity for course-integrated instruction and embedded librarianship at the major/minor level of study, that focusing only on the first year/transfer seminar would be a huge disservice to students and the college curriculum.

We’re in a transition period. I’m planning to take a sabbatical in August, the faculty member overseeing the seminar program is changing, and we may have a visiting librarian working with us in the fall. We’ve also been working much more closely with our colleagues in the Writing Center this year, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years now, as they are, in a word, AWESOME. It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new with our seminar involvement, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.

Instead of assigning librarian liaisons to each of the seminars, who then teach a minimum of two classes per seminar, we’re adopting the “train the trainer” approach that our colleagues in the Writing Center were wise enough to push through last year. We’re leading workshops for both faculty and seminar peer mentors (upperclass students who take the class and provide academic and social support to new students). And we’re doing this jointly, with the Writing Center, which I am so glad is finally happening. I think it makes a lot of sense, and will hopefully encourage faculty to better interconnect our college’s four core liberal arts skills–writing, oral expression, information literacy, critical thinking–rather than viewing them as discrete concepts. Our hope is that with these workshops, and a supporting Seminar Toolkit (in a libguide, of course), faculty and peer mentors will have a better understanding of writing and information literacy as a developmental process rather than a checklist. The toolkit will contain learning activities, sample assignments, and lesson plans from the librarians, Writing Center faculty, and faculty who have taught seminar in past years. There is so much overlap between teaching writing and teaching information literacy, and I’m glad that we’re finding ways to approach our faculty peers together.

I’m particularly excited about teaching and working with the seminar peer mentors. They’re bright, engaged students who the first year and transfer students really look up to and respect. They have a lot of social capital that we aren’t using to maximum benefit, and better still, they have a relationship with the seminar students. Peer teaching and learning was a major theme of my ACRL 2017 conference, and I was able to find some well-developed examples of peer learning programs in practice.

  • Danielle Salomon, Casey Shapiro, Reed Buck, Annie Pho, and Marc Levis-Fitzgerald have an excellent conference paper on the Embedded Peer Specialists program at UCLA, which, in their words, “combines the academic context of academic librarianship with the scalability of peer learning services.”
  • Rachel Gammons, Alexander Carroll, and Lindsay Inge wrote about the Research and Teaching Fellowship at the University of Maryland, a 3-semester teacher training program for MLIS students in which fellows in their third semester provide mentorship and training to incoming junior fellows.
  • Rosan Mitola, John Watts, and Erin Rinto presented alongside student Peer Research Coaches Kameron Joyner, Jason Meza, and Katia Uriarte about the peer-assisted learning program at the UNLV Libraries and extensive Peer Research Coach training program.

One thing these presenters and writers all seemed to stress (which is something I’ll need to keep in mind) is that this peer-assisted learning/ train the trainer approach won’t really mean less work. It takes a lot of time, planning, and emotional / mental energy to empower student-teachers (because really, that’s what they are) and ensure their continued development and growth. But all of the librarians involved in these programs seem to agree that the benefits–a more empowered student cohort, wider educational reach, meaningful interaction with smaller groups of students–are substantial. I am feeling very much indebted to these colleagues who presented at ACRL 2017 and hope that I’ll be able to share successes and failures from my own attempts at figuring out a new way to involve the library in our first year and transfer seminar program.

Information Literacy and Fake News

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Information Literacy and Faculty Outreach, and Scott Dunn, Associate Professor of Communication, at Radford University.

One day in September, a relative emailed me a link and asked, “Should I share this on Facebook?”  I took a look at the linked article, which had an extremely loaded-language headline and made some brutal accusations about one of the presidential candidates.  I didn’t recognize the news source hosting the article, and none of the more mainstream news sites mentioned the story. I visited my go-to fact checkers, like PolitiFact and Snopes, but found nothing about the article topic or the site. I told my relative that I couldn’t verify anything in the story or the site, so I recommended she not share it further through social media.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first real engagement with what came to be called “fake news.”  Since the election, much has been written about this phenomena, with Politifact calling it the 2016 Lie of the Year.  Librarians have pointed out that acceptance of fake news shows a weakness of information literacy skills, and have published suggestions on how libraries can counteract fake news here and here (to name just a few). The Stanford study has added fuel to the discussion, suggesting university students have very weak evaluation skills.

Of course, as just about any instruction librarian will tell you, source evaluation is a complex skill. As Mike Caulfield so eloquently argues in his piece, Yes, Digital Literacy. But Which One?,  an information seeker needs a certain amount of subject expertise to truly judge whether a source on the topic is credible. And in this NSFW article, Chuck Wendig explores some of the problems of convincing people to read an article that goes against their worldview with an open mind.

But as an instruction librarian, I’m not ready to throw in the towel. Our students are going to read fake news, and I think we can encourage them to approach sources critically. As I posted to the ILI-Listserv in September 2016:

We have a solid lesson plan for evaluating Web sites  but I’m looking for one that focuses on news sites.  For example, there were a lot of conflicting reports about what actually happened during Trump’s visit to Flint last week. How could the average person figure out which story to trust?  What can we teach in a one-shot that would help students to evaluate the media?… My ideal lesson plan could be taught to freshmen in a 50-minute workshop, would be very hands-on, and would not leave them thinking, “All media are biased, therefore you can’t trust any of them.”

I discussed my quest with a few colleagues. My conversation with Dr. Scott Dunn, professor of communication, was the one that gave me the most traction. Scott’s research interests include politics and mass media, so he had been watching the fake news about the presidential election with interest. He understood my concerns that common suggestions for evaluating sources often centered on superficial characteristics, such as whether the site looked professional, or used criteria which were not as appropriate for news sites, like the URL’s top-level domain name (.com, .edu, .org). I proposed that readers needed to analyze the content of the stories themselves and look for hallmarks of quality, but I wasn’t sure what those might be, or what would be realistic to expect from your average, non-expert reader.

We first grappled with a definition for “fake news.” While it initially seemed to mean hyperpartisan stories, did it also include intentionally fake ones, like the satirical Onion? What about stories that turned out to be false, such as The Washington Post’s (now corrected) story about Russians hacking into the electric grid?  More recently, people have begun using the phrase “fake news” whenever a story doesn’t fit their world view. As Margaret Sullivan wrote in her piece, It’s time to retire the tainted term fake news, “Faster than you could say ‘Pizzagate,’ the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”

Rather than focus on identifying fake news, then, we decided it made more sense to teach students how to recognize good journalism. This dovetailed well with my initial instinct to focus on the quality of the content. Scott and I, with some help from the Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, developed these tips:

  1. Avoid judgments based solely on the source. Immediately following the election, there were numerous attempts to quantify which sites were trustworthy, such as Melissa Zimdars’ False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources and infographics that attempted to showcase media outlets’ biases. The methodology used to classify sources is often opaque, and it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with all the Websites purporting to be news. Many sites may also have a range of credibility. Buzzfeed has published some strong political pieces, but it also pushes listicles and silly quizzes, making it hard to say it’s always an authoritative source.
  2. Refer to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. While it is written for journalists, many of the principles are ones a reader can identify in a story, such as whether the author seemed to verify facts; took care not to oversimplify or sensationalize a story, even in its headline; and explained why anonymous sources needed to be unnamed.
  3. Differentiate between perspective and bias. Having and writing from a point of view is not the same as cherry picking your facts and twisting a story unfairly. We should be able to read something that doesn’t fit our own world view with an open mind, and not automatically reject it as “biased.” We should also help learners understand the difference between editorials and commentaries, which are intended to be argumentative and express strong opinions, and news stories, which should not. Good news journalism will not mix the two.
  4. Find the original source of the story. Many sites will harvest news stories and then repackage them without any additional research or reporting. Like a game of telephone, the farther away you get from the original report, the more mangled and corrupted the story becomes. Often the original story will be linked, so you can just click to access it.  Encourage students to read this story, rather than relying on the secondary telling.
  5. Check your passion. If a story incites you, it may be too good or too outrageous to be true. For example, the pope did not endorse Trump OR Bernie Sanders. These stories can be created by satirical sites and then picked up by other outlets, which treat them as straight news; or they can emerge from the darker Web, feeding conspiracy theories like Pizzagate. Fact checking is essential for readers of these stories, using all of the above best practices.

Now how could I put all of this into a one-shot? In addition to my online research, I talked through my (somewhat stream of consciousness) thoughts with the other members of the library instruction team, who provided strong feedback and guidance. I collaborated with my colleague, Alyssa Archer, who brought her experience with critical pedagogy to the final lesson plan.  All that was left for us to try teaching it! I’m pleased to share that Alyssa and I taught the class multiple times in the fall, and have shared the resulting lesson plan, Evaluating news sites: Credible or clickbait? on Project CORA. We weren’t able to include all of the tips, but we continue to discuss how to incorporate them in future workshops.

I feel like the “fake news” phenomena is one that just keeps morphing and growing. I could probably write a whole lot more about this but I’m more interested in hearing what you think. How do you think information literacy can counteract the post-fact narratives- if it can at all? What tools and techniques do you recommend?

Straight talk: Inviting students’ perspectives on information literacy teaching and learning

My colleagues and I received a grant from our regional consortium to develop information literacy continuing education opportunities for faculty, librarians, and other stakeholders at our institutions. As part of this initiative, we’re planning a one-day symposium during which participants can share successes and challenges in information literacy teaching and learning and that inspires intercampus dialog about our future teaching practices. We plan to include faculty and librarian presentations, discussions, and workshops. I’m especially excited about our plan to organize a panel of undergraduate students. We want to convene this panel so that we can hear directly from students themselves about information literacy teaching and learning. Some of the most interesting pedagogical conversations I have are with students about their perspectives on their own teaching and learning experiences and development. I’m eager to find more ways to facilitate these conversations.

We’re still in the early planning stages and are just beginning to think about how to invite students to participate in the panel and in what areas we want to focus the discussion. I’m so far thinking about posing questions like the following to the student panelists to help guide the session:

  • What information literacy teaching practices, learning experiences, and assignments have helped you learn and grow best?
  • What have been barriers to your information literacy development and successes?
  • What information literacy-related strategies, concepts, or skills have been most confusing or troublesome? Why? Have you been able to overcome those roadblocks? If so, how?
  • Do you think of yourself as an information consumer, creator, or both? How so?
  • What strategies, habits, or attitudes do you practice that help you plan, monitor, and assess your information consumption and creation?
  • What advice would you offer to other students information consumption and creation? About information literacy learning?

If you were to convene a panel of undergrads (or perhaps you already have), what would you want to ask students about information literacy? What do you want an audience of faculty to hear from students about information literacy? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Alternative Library Instruction Models, or What Happens When You Want Back Out

I’ve been an instruction librarian since 2007, and over the years my perspective on library instruction has shifted from

How can I convince my liaison department faculty to schedule a class?
How can I make my classes more scaffolded within the curriculum?
How can I possibly do all of this teaching in one semester and get my other work done too?

The more experienced librarians reading this blog post might cry “BURNOUT!” but I am beginning to think that there’s a larger structural issue with library instruction programs like mine (and perhaps like yours as well).

The Set Up

I work at a small, public, liberal arts college that prides itself on its focus on teaching, undergraduate research, and close academic relationships between faculty and students. Librarians are 12 month tenure-track faculty, and although we don’t typically teach credit-bearing courses, we are heavily involved in the traditional “librarian-as-guest-lecturer” model of library instruction. I use the phrase “library instruction” because as much as I want to say we have an “information literacy education” program we aren’t quite there yet. My colleagues and I work with every section of incoming first year and transfer student liberal arts seminars (required for all new students) as well as multiple classes in multiple liaison departments. We’ve hit a point where our seminar involvement pretty much takes over our entire existence each fall semester, to the detriment of our other teaching, to say nothing of our other professional responsibilities, service, and scholarship. I’ve tried creating banks of activities based on our much-reduced information literacy learning outcomes so that my colleagues could plug-and-teach more easily, but the uniqueness of each seminar section makes it difficult to follow any kind of scripted lesson plan for all sections.

If the world is as wonderful a place as I hope it to be, I will likely be on sabbatical next academic year, leaving my colleagues–or, if we’re lucky, a visiting librarian–to absorb my teaching responsibilities (sorry, friends). As my library’s unofficial instruction coordinator, I realize that even with an extra teaching librarian we’d still be stretched far too thin to actually make a dent in the amount of work we put into these seminars. So…

What’s a Library Instruction Coordinator to Do?

I was professionally “raised” on the library instruction model that praised getting into as many research-based classes as you possibly can, because doing so would help students become better researchers and faculty better understand the importance of information literacy. I don’t buy this at all anymore. I feel like it puts librarians in an odd (perhaps even subservient) role and just isn’t pedagogically sound. What’s the point of teaching ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME? That just leads to repetition and, well, burnout.

That said, curriculum mapping is hard. Unless information literacy is built into the college’s curriculum from the top down (see Champlain College’s Core Curriculum sequence for scaffolding IL dreams), Major and Core Curricula are often unwieldy and not necessarily conducive to sequential information literacy integration. Plus doing so is not  a guarantee that teaching loads for librarians will be manageable and sustainable.

I know some libraries have pulled out of face-to-face instruction for first year courses like seminars and English Composition altogether, in favor of web-based tutorials or LMS embedded modules. Others hire one person to do all instruction for that particular course, and still others, like mine, split up the course load among all teaching librarians.

One way that our first year and transfer seminar is unique is that each section has a dedicated Peer Mentor–an upperclass student who takes the course and serves in this oddly defined role of part teaching assistant, part model student, part emotional support person. A visit to Swarthmore College last month, which has a wonderful peer research and information associates program, has me thinking about ways in which the Peer Mentors could take on many of the more mechanical teaching tasks that we as librarians are doing now. This would include things like introducing students to the discovery layer, databases, catalog, and interlibrary loan. We could then, as a library faculty, develop assignments, activities, and lesson plans to share with seminar instructors to integrate information literacy into their pedagogy.

I wonder if that’s going against one of librarianship’s sacred cows. Non-librarians teaching information literacy???? Gasp! Cringe! Ack! But I think it would free my colleagues and I up to work more thoughtfully with our liaison departments both in and outside of the classroom and develop a pedagogy of information literacy that best meets their needs.

My goal for the spring is to investigate pedagogy / library instruction models at other small colleges for ideas and inspiration, and create a plan for fall 2017. I’m curious to hear from readers who are perhaps in similar instruction predicaments. What’s worked for you?