A hook to grab onto: Creating context cues in online instruction

In a recent meeting, I found myself yet again wondering if I had already shared a particular bit of news with my colleagues or was I thinking of the previous meeting? My schedule, probably much like yours, is usually full of meetings. In the pre-pandemic world, my schedule reflected a mix of online and in-person meetings that were peppered in among the classes I taught (almost exclusively in person), hallway chats, and so on. A meeting frequently also meant a change of scenery, whether just down the hall or across town. These days, my physical surroundings from meeting to meeting are largely unchanged: I’m typically at the makeshift desk in my makeshift home office. Just the link that I click on changes. Even on the days when I’m physically on campus per our rotating schedule, meetings still happen online from my office. 

It’s no great surprise that the sameness of my physical environment contributes to my sense that time is simultaneously sticky and slippery. Yet it felt like a moment of realization to first recognize its impact on my ability to recall–or perhaps situate is the better word–details. In such moments of memory lapse, I’m struck by how much I have typically relied on context cues from my physical space to trigger my memory. I might think back to how a room was configured, where I was sitting, where my colleagues were sitting, and so on in order to make a connection or dig up a detail. As I frequently find myself in the same chair at the same desk overlooking the same window, I no longer have such easy triggers to help me differentiate. 

As my information literacy instruction schedule kicks into high gear for the semester, I now find myself wondering how the sameness of physical space is impacting students. My institution is currently offering in-person and online classes. We’re doing all of our information literacy instruction online. Of course, the impacts of the pandemic on student learning are broad and deep. Here I’m thinking, though, specifically about the physical space from which students are engaging in their online classes and its impact on their experience, as well as their perception of their experience.  

This all makes me think back to an interaction I had with a student at my former institution a number of years ago. In that library, we frequently scheduled information literacy instruction in the library’s main computer lab. Often, then, students would visit the same space for any research instruction. On one occasion while chatting with a student before class began, he said to me that he already knew what we were going to do that day because he had been in this lab before. When I probed further, I learned that the student had attended sessions led by different librarians for courses in other disciplines. Yet the student assumed that he already knew what our class would entail. This student’s comment could mean many things, of course. Perhaps the comment suggests that the student was already able to transfer important takeaways about the research process from those sessions to the project at hand. Or perhaps the comment suggests that the student perceived all library research tools and strategies as the same and wasn’t able to distinguish between them in the nuanced way that librarians perceive them. But the student’s comment specifically referred to the association he was making between the content/learning goals and the physical space leading me to infer that the sameness of the space primed the student to think that he was about to learn the same material or participate in the same activities. 

With this new lens on my own online experience, I’m thinking anew about this student’s comment. I’ve often reflected on how a physical classroom, meeting room, or library area is arranged to promote (or inhibit) engagement and communication or guide behavior, but I haven’t before given much thought to how our spaces (whether physical or online) perpetuate a feeling of sameness or carve out a feeling of uniqueness. As our students connect to what may feel like an endless string of Zoom rooms and with no ability to influence the physical spaces from which our students are connecting, I’m now thinking about the small moves I can make to help create a hook for students to grab onto–the little things I can do to help situate a memory, trigger recall, and facilitate connections. In addition to thinking about the learning goals to guide our session and the active learning experiences to achieve them, then, I’m also thinking more about how I pose questions, design slides, format handouts, even modulate my voice to help facilitate context cues and triggers for students. How do you create hooks for students? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

If our spaces could speak, what would they say?

Over the summer, we updated a small lounge area in my library. We had multiple goals for this project; chief among them was to add seats in our often packed-to-the-gills library and also reduce noise problems that the area seemed to foster. Previously, this area was home to two clusters of chairs separated by a tall double-sided bookcase. Each cluster included four lounge chairs and a coffee table. The updated area now seats twelve rather than eight (not a huge difference, but meaningful for our small library) with four work tables and eight chairs overlooking a courtyard plus four lounge chairs. We removed the bookcase that bisected the area and also repurposed the shelves lining the walls to now feature a browsing area of periodicals and displays, rather than the general collection, and an assortment of succulents. The new space is more open and brighter with a more modern sensibility.

Now that we’re a few months into the semester, it’s gratifying to see how consistently and heavily students are using the space and to observe significant changes in how they’re using the area. In the previous configuration, students who didn’t know each other would be reluctant to sit together in the clustered chairs so just one or two filled seats would deter students from using the other open seats. At other times, large groups of students would gather on and around the clustered chairs to loudly socialize, disrupting students working in nearby spaces. Now, it’s not unusual to find every seat in the area filled. Students appear to be using the space for various purposes in very close proximity: working individually or with a friend, tutoring each other, meeting with group project collaborators, and relaxing. When working or chatting with friends and collaborators, they generally speak in lower voices. While I expected the new furniture would have some impact, it’s been surprising to see the degree of impact. With just a few changes, the space has been transformed.

Meanwhile, other areas in our library continue to be beset by noise conflicts (which I’ve reflected on before). We are brainstorming other ways to improve our current space while also advocating to expand our library with a Learning Commons model in collaboration with our learning center and other departments. Reflecting on the aesthetic and configurations of our current and (hopefully) future spaces is making me think more and more about how space design influences users’ attitudes and guides their behavior. 

I was chatting with a colleague in the English department recently about this and she offered this term: rhetoric of space. I find the phrase–new to me in this context–a meaningful lens because it helps me focus on the explicit and implicit messages embedded in our spaces. It helps me consider the values our spaces communicate, the behaviors and attitudes our spaces foster and impede, and the interactions our spaces support and hinder. I think frequently about how the configuration of a classroom impacts students’ participation or a meeting room impacts engagement between colleagues. But how do our other spaces also condition us? This means not only asking how our students want to use a space, but also how does the space shape their expectations and use? 

What is the rhetoric of your spaces? What is the rhetoric of the spaces you want to create? If these spaces could speak, what would they say? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Pulling back the curtain: Conversations about process and information literacy

My colleague Kate Morgan and I developed a series of panel discussions this past year that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We invited campus faculty and staff to select a piece of research or creative work and discuss some aspects of its making. By sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we hoped panelists would reveal their steps and stages, as well as the skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to their processes. By increasing the transparency of their works’ component parts, we aimed to help faculty and students recognize and discuss the role of information literacy and digital literacy in research and creative experiences. We also hoped that uncovering process would make research feel more approachable for our students. This idea germinated from a seed I first explored in this post a few years ago.

In our planning meetings with panelists, we shared some questions like the following to help them prepare their remarks:

  • How did you ask questions?
  • How did you identify a path for your research?
  • How did you validate and support your ideas?
  • How did you engage with other scholars’ work?
  • How did your work change course during the process?
  • What attitudes were important to your process?
  • What skills and tools were key to your process?
  • How did you draw conclusions?
  • What were your hesitations, fears, and missteps? How did you manage/overcome them?

I find it interesting that many of the panelists chose to share stories related to their professional paths rather than discrete projects. They talked about their early and adult life experiences, their undergraduate experiences, and their transitions to graduate school. While panelists spoke less about research strategies and tools than I had originally imagined, they spoke more about choices they made, attitudes they cultivated, and about how personal and professional interests and choices cross-pollinated. In so doing, they illustrated skills, practices, and attitudes key to information literacy development such as: how they came to understand authority and develop expertise; affective aspects of their research and writing processes; how they negotiated ambiguity, formulated questions, and synthesized ideas; and how they honed mindsets for curiosity, inquiry, and reflection.

I’m excited by the success we had with this first iteration: attendance at each session was high, the audiences were engaged, and conversations buzzed in hallways and offices well after the sessions ended. I believe that by engaging students, faculty, and staff in conversations about inner workings and rough edges, this series took a productive step toward transforming our perspectives on how we participate and create. Yet, I’m left wondering if the centrality of information literacy in the series was quite so apparent to everyone as it was to me. Did we truly pull back the curtain in such a way as to build a shared understanding of those oh-so-foundational information literacy skills, behaviors, and concepts?

So as we look ahead to the next iteration of this program for the coming academic year, I’m thinking about some of the goals at the heart of this series, particularly our goal to broaden our campus community’s awareness of the scope and nature of information literacy as well as the library’s role as a partner in teaching and learning processes. I’m reflecting on how information literacy is so closely intertwined with critical thinking, metacognition, and a growth, rather than fixed, mindset. And I’m reflecting on how I can better uncover the relationship between these inherently linked strands and how to make my thinking and my process more transparent for others.

How do you talk about process and information literacy? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Weaving It Together

Image from "Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving" by E.A. Posselt is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.
Image from “Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving” by E.A. Posselt (1899) is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.

I recently finished writing my narrative statement for my second year tenure review file. It felt like pulling teeth. The statement required me to weave together the aspects of my work as well as my research and service to tell a meaningful personal story about my professional purpose and goals. The other sections of the file–the description of accomplishments, presentations and publications, committee work, etc.–were a piece of cake by comparison. I’m not sure why the statement felt quite so difficult, but, boy, did it ever.

All my teeth-gnashing about my narrative statement made me think about a program I developed with colleagues this semester, a series of panel discussions that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We developed this program in order to celebrate the work of our faculty and staff. Even more importantly, though, the idea for this series grew out of a desire to share stories within our campus community about how we engage in research and creative work. We wanted to host conversations about process, not just product. In sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we were hoping panelists would reveal their steps and stages, but also the information literacy and digital literacy skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to each project. I was excited about the potential of this panel series because I think uncovering process is not just interesting, but empowering. And by increasing the transparency of their component parts, we hoped these kinds of research experiences might feel more approachable to our students.

In conversations with panelists as we prepared for the series, we offered guiding questions they might consider as they prepared their remarks like the following: How did you take your first steps?, How did you ask questions?, How did you identify a path for your research?, How did you engage with other scholars’ work on the topic to develop your own?, How did your work change course during the process?, What attitudes were important to your process?, What skills and tools were key to your process?, How did you gather/organize/analyze data?, How did you draw conclusions?, and What did you learn along the way?.

I had imagined panelists would likely select a particular publication or project and discuss some aspects of its development. Instead, most chose to talk about their undergraduate experiences and their entry into graduate work or their field. Panelists described choices they made, challenges they encountered, and how their paths changed over time. Embedded in each of their stories, too, were practices and perspectives related to information literacy that seemed to me to have been crucial to their process.

What strikes me most now, though, is how each panelist interpreted the program theme and the guiding questions and how they chose to tell the story of their work. When my collaborator and I asked our colleagues to talk about their research processes, I didn’t give much thought to how personal their stories might be. As I reflect on the difficulty I felt in drafting my narrative statement, I’m thinking about the balance I, too, was trying to strike. I’m thinking now about how we weave together process and purpose, personal and professional to help focus and understand our work.