Tag Archives: student engagement

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.

Musings on Outreach as Instruction

Last week, librarians from many branches of our university gathered for a Teaching Librarians Retreat. The retreat was organized and hosted by a few wonderful colleagues, who I cannot thank enough for their efforts and a fantastic event. The goal for the retreat was to promote a community of sharing, peer support, and ongoing learning among UI librarians who teach, and was a chance to reflect on the year and find colleagues with similar interests and concerns about teaching. Making dedicated time for sharing and reflection is especially important in an institution as large and with as many librarians as ours.

We broke out into discussion groups for part of the retreat, and my group gathered to talk about “outreach as instruction.” What struck me first as we each shared our thoughts is that “outreach” can mean so many different things. We had people contributing to the conversation from perspectives of social media, events and programming, marketing, digital badges, special collections, working with student organizations, and outreach to faculty vs. students vs. the community.

My take on “outreach as instruction” and why it matters has to do with the limitations of one-shot sessions and ways we can expand the impact of instruction beyond traditional methods. One-shot sessions are valuable as point-of-need instruction for academic coursework, but relying solely on them is limiting: only a fraction of students receive library instruction, and a number of them may not be particularly interested in the General Education required course that brought them into the library. This is where I think outreach can be powerful – in the many possibilities to connect with students outside of a classroom setting, while still teaching something. Here are a few ideas on how to go about doing that:

  1. Connect over something interest-based, rather than academics-based. For example, I’ve heard of academic libraries having knitting sessions (which is also closely tied with stress-relief activities during finals week), but it could be something else. The draw to participate is something of general interest that can also be connected to research and resources available at the library.
  2. Communicate with student organizations, and let the student leaders know how the library can support their group and members. This can lead to tailored teaching opportunities for students who are involved and invested in a group that may not get this attention and instruction otherwise.
  3. Use the collection creatively. We’ve found ways to do this by using images from the Iowa Digital Library on buttons, postcards, and Valentine cards. Those are all short and simple activities that can naturally lead to learning something new about a variety of resources. (You can see the Valentine’s activities here.)

Those are just a few ideas, which clearly come from my perspective as an Undergraduate Services Librarian (and barely crack the surface of our group discussion at the Teaching Librarians Retreat). For you, “outreach as instruction” could mean building on relationships with faculty, an emphasis on social media, or something else. Outreach itself is a broad concept with multiple definitions, but that also means there are so many variations and opportunities for librarians to engage with their users and community.

When I hear “outreach as instruction,” I think of how we can connect with undergraduates in ways other than in the classroom for a one-shot session, and incorporate what I like to call “nuggets of information literacy.” What does it mean for you and your library?

Focusing the Mind, Practicing Attention in the One-Shot Library Session

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jill E. Luedke, Reference & Instruction Librarian at Temple University.

Scenario: Students arrive at the library instruction session, get seated, and log on to a computer. Where is their attention? Is it on what I have to teach them? More likely, they’re distracted by competing priorities like assignments, rent, relationships, work, or the allure of some electronic device. It seemed no matter how I would package the content, many of them were still unable or unwilling to receive what I was presenting. I realized that to be more effective, I first needed to focus the students’ attention.

As a teacher of lifelong research skills, it’s part of my responsibility to give students tools to help them handle their frustrations and preconceptions about research. How could I expect students to process what I was saying if their brains weren’t ready to receive the information? I began the experiment of devoting a few minutes of my sessions to guided mindful meditation. My intention by having students meditate at the beginning of class was not to turn them all into Buddhists. It was to help clear their mind-clutter and reduce their research stress. This practice in mindfulness was about preparing them to be receptive learners.

That may sound like quite a feat, but as a practitioner of yoga and meditation I had experience with the immediate and lasting benefits of these types of practices. Whenever I was stressed or feeling overwhelmed, I could take a few moments in my office to close my eyes, breathe, and “let go” before heading out the door to teach a class.

In class, I avoid the stigmas and stereotypes associated with meditation by referring to it as an “exercise” or a “practice.” I frame it in the context of addressing research stress. Watching the students, sitting with their eyes closed, is sometimes my only opportunity to know whether or not they are actually paying attention to me. Afterwards, we’re more ready to move forward with the rest of the curriculum.

I’ve noticed that engagement in my classroom activities has improved through the incorporation of meditation, especially when they notice their instructor participating. I’ve also found it to be a useful way to form a connection with students in the one-shot class. The responses I’ve received so far have been anecdotal, but positive. I frequently have one or two students who thank me or comment how much they liked the “meditation” (they give it that name). Inevitably, one or two students don’t participate in the activity, but they still sit, quietly, waiting patiently. One instructor told me, “At first, I thought, this is way too hippy dippy for me, but then I just went with it, and it was awesome.”

Good instruction may require incorporating unconventional pedagogical practices. For me, my teaching was influenced by a learning environment that wasn’t a traditional classroom. Trying something off-beat could appear misplaced. However, if this new technique is applied with authentic intention it can transform the classroom experience for both the teacher and the student.

I discovered that by leading meditation, my authentic self is a little brighter in these instructional sessions. Conducting something so “hippy dippy” in this unexpected context leaves me a bit exposed, but I’ve noticed it’s been a way for me to offer a little of myself to my students. I’ve found that this type of vulnerable offering says more about me than a story I could tell about myself in an effort to “connect” with my audience. I continue the personal mindful practices that help me be more present for my students. Complementing this, I’ve found the more I lead mindful practices for my students, the more focused and attentive we all are to each other. If deviating from the traditional notion of class time results in a more productive learning experience, then this is an experiment I intend to continue.

Further Reading:

Brown, P.L. (June 16, 2007). In the classroom, a new focus on quieting the mind. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/16/us/16mindful.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Parry, M. (March 24, 2013). You’re distracted. This Professor can help. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Youre-Distracted-This/138079/.

Tugend, A. (March 22, 2013). In mindfulness, a method to sharpen focus and open minds. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/your-money/mindfulness-requires-practice-and-purpose.html?smid=pl-share

Context Matters

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Catherine Pellegrino, Reference Librarian and Instruction Coordinator at Saint Mary’s College. She blogs at Spurious Tuples.

Ever since I went to ACRL’s Institute for Information Literacy Immersion program in the summer of 2009, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the library instruction session with no demonstrations of databases. “What?” you say, “how could that possibly work?” Well, there are lots of variations on this teaching model, but the basic idea is that students learn better by doing than by being lectured at, and many of our traditional-aged college students are very good at figuring out user interfaces. So you set them up in small groups, have them figure out the database(s) on their own, and then the small groups report back to the class as a whole.

I’ve heard anecdotal reports from other librarians that this method works very well for them, but when I tried it with the students at my small liberal arts college, it kind of flopped. In fact, our students almost seem to want to be told about things, rather than figure them out on their own. One of the comments that I get fairly regularly on post-session assessments is “I wish you had gone into more detail about [database].” So for now, I’m not doing no-demonstration classes, although I’d like to find a way to make it work for our students, on our campus. And thinking about how to make it work for our students got me thinking about larger issues of campus cultural contexts.

When Maura contacted me about writing this guest post, I had just returned from a visit to my friend Iris Jastram, who is a reference and instruction librarian at Carleton College in Minnesota. While there, I had noted some differences between Carleton’s students and the students at my own college. Those observations spawned a conversation between Iris and me, and got me thinking about those same issues of campus cultural contexts, and how they affect information literacy instruction. So that’s what I thought I’d write about here.

Iris writes, on her own blog and elsewhere, about some of the things she can do with her information literacy instruction: she can explain to students how scholars index their own literature, and how to use that internal indexing to the students’ advantage in searching efficiently and effectively. She also works with students to help them find ways to uncover the specialized vocabulary that researchers in their disciplines use — both so that they can use that vocabulary effectively when searching for scholarly literature, and also so that they can use it when entering into that scholarly conversation themselves.

In short, Iris is able to tap into a campus culture and mindset where Carleton students, regardless of their ultimate career plans, are able to conceptualize themselves as apprentice scholars, and she’s able to use that to do things in her classroom that don’t work in mine.

I work at Saint Mary’s College, a Catholic women’s liberal arts college in Notre Dame, Indiana (just outside of South Bend). On the surface, we’re very similar to Carleton: about 1400-1500 students, small liberal arts college in the Midwest. But under the surface, there are some key differences: our professional programs (education, business, social work, and nursing) account for a large number of our students, while Carleton has no professional programs. Nearly all of Saint Mary’s science majors enter with the intention of going on in health professions (about half of them keep that intention through graduation) while only a small fraction of them go on to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the sciences.

More importantly, though — and this is what I observed on my visit to the Gould Library — Carleton College has a campus culture of intense engagement, of students who dive into their studies with gusto, of students for whom whatever is in front of them right now is the most important thing they’re working on. It’s not necessarily that they’re smarter — and my friend Marianne Reddin Aldrich’s observations about the students at her own liberal arts college helped me frame this issue — it’s just a campus culture of being really into things, whether they’re academic or otherwise.

That’s something that Saint Mary’s doesn’t precisely have, or if our students have it, it’s not visible in the classroom. (Our students are very committed to a lot of things, including a lot of service and volunteer work, and their religion and personal faith development, so perhaps those areas are where it’s visible, but those aren’t areas that I see in the library or in the classroom.) So when Iris said that when she “geeks out” over some really cool, powerful, or obscure database tool, it establishes a bond between her and her students, I had to reply that when I geek out over a similar tool, it actually distances me from my students.

And that brings me to the point that all these conversations and observations led me to: a question about how to engage these students, on this campus. What motivates them? What gets them as 100% engaged as the students at Carleton and Colorado College? What pedagogical strategies enable them to learn independently in the classroom? And I realized that I really don’t know. I know a lot about what “they” (whoever “they” are) say about “millennials,” but I’m realizing that local campus and classroom cultures also have powerful effects on students and their learning. So I’m trying to figure out how I can learn more about what drives our students: one thing I’m planning to do is engage in a semi-structured program of observing master teachers on our campus by auditing classes. But I need to find more ideas and strategies.

What engages your students? And how did you find that out?

A Full Day of Information Literacy

Last week I went to the ACRL New England chapter’s Library Instruction Group (NELIG) annual program Meeting Digital Natives Where They Are: New Standards for the New Student. This was my first conference entirely devoted to library instruction, and it was great to have the opportunity to think and talk about information literacy all day.

The morning started off with keynote speaker John Palfrey, Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School and author (with Urs Gasser) of Born Digital. The book reports on the results of their interviews, focus groups and surveys with the oft-discussed millennial generation, exploring the way these kids relate to information, one another and institutions. I won’t recap the book (or transcribe the piles of notes I took), but here are a couple of takeaways I found most relevant for academic libraries:

  • Credibility is a huge issue for us adults: we fear that kids are highly susceptible to misinformation on the internet. But Palfrey’s research found that most kids don’t use information from Wikipedia verbatim or uncritically. Most use it to get an overview of a topic, and then head to the references at the bottom of the page to find more information. I use Wikipedia like this all the time in my teaching so I found this to be quite encouraging.
  • The digital generation has an incomplete understanding of intellectual property. It’s true that many of them do download and share music illegally (and they realize that it’s illegal). But they don’t know that there are legal ways to use copyrighted materials–fair use–so they hesitate to use them to remix or mashup content. This is a great opportunity for librarians to help students learn about ethical use of information.

I haven’t read the book yet, but after seeing Palfrey speak I’ve added it to my summer reading list. There’s some innovative supplemental material too: they asked kids to create podcasts interpreting each chapter of the book. The video he shared with us was fascinating and well worth a watch.

Next there were two breakout sessions, each with multiple presentations. Full disclosure: I was a presenter in the first session, where I discussed a classroom game I’m developing to teach students how to evaluate information. Many thanks to all who attended my session and contributed to our lively discussion. The one down side is that I missed the other presentations, though I caught up with them on the program website and NELIG blog.

During the second session I went to The Big Picture: Visual Storytelling in Library Instruction, presented by Nicole E. Brown and Erica Schattle of Emerson College. They shared an innovative approach for library instruction that uses images to tell a story to introduce students to research. They present information to students in three ways:

1. their slides contain images (only!): first a few slides to introduce a metaphor for research (in this case, learning to swim), and then several that illustrate the process of research
2. their spoken narrative describes the steps taken while doing research
3. their handout provides details on information sources students can use for their research during the library session

By modeling the process of research they were able to inspire students into action, and after this short introduction students spent the remainder of the session actively searching for information on their topics.

The final session featured Clarence Maybee and Charlotte Droll from Colgate University who presented The Crossroads of Learning: Librarians and IT Professionals Banding Together to Embed Information and Technology Literacies into Undergraduate Courses. They described two student projects–a podcast and a poster session–in which librarians and instructional technologists collaborated with course professors. Both the podcasts and the poster session encouraged students to step out of their comfort zone and added a public dimension to their work. Students were more engaged with these projects than with a typical research paper, and seemed to work harder, too.

By the end of the day I was fading fast, since I had to wake up at 5:30am to get the train up from NYC. But I was glad I went: it was a fantastic program (kudos to the organizers!), and I really enjoyed spending the day geeking out on information literacy. I came away with lots of ideas for my own instruction, too, and I can’t wait to try them out.