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.

What Does Teaching Online Look Like Now?

This is not a post about tools and software for teaching online, holding class lectures via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, editing on-the-fly instructional videos, or developing interactive lessons in Articulate Rise 360.

Yes, my colleagues and I are doing these things and trying our best at them. But we are also anxious, tired, busy, scared, distracted, lonely, overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. You get the idea. We’re all doing the best we can under the circumstances and finding joy in the little things: Playing Animal Crossing, watching our child’s face light up when they figure out a tough math problem from the homeschooling curriculum, holding video chat parties with friends, texting while watching Drag Race together, etc.

We’re also teaching and interacting with students and faculty who are feeling all the same feelings and doing all the things they can stay healthy and comfortable. So what does that mean for all of us librarians now (or continuing to) teach online? What does, or what can, our teaching online look like now?

It is:

Compassionate
Students may have children, parents, or extended family at home. They may be dealing with hunger, food insecurity, safety issues, or depression. They are likely scared, worried, and anxious about their health and the health of those they love as well as their ability to participate in a class successfully. In short, we don’t know students’ situations and we can’t make assumptions about their state of mind, internet access, health, or well-being.

What we can be is empathetic and compassionate. We can build in allowances knowing situations are less than ideal right now. Move from making things mandatory to making things optional enrichment. Do away with synchronous anything and let people learn at their own pace as they are able to do so. We can stop creating hard deadlines and look at ways to learn together.

Pared down
We don’t need to cram in all the content we normally would in a session or in a semester class into the online classroom. What do students really need to know? NO, REALLY? You may find that it is FAR LESS than what standard curriculum dictates.

My son’s teacher sends us a grid every week and asks us to pick a few activities to complete. It’s self-directed, a fraction of what they would learn in the classroom, but it’s enough. My partner is re-evaluating his class content and stripping it way way wayyyyyy down to just the essentials.

Messy
The videos, lessons, webinars, and learning objects we create are going to be messy and unpolished and that is good! We might excuse them by saying, “This is not my best work,” but it is amazing work. It’s the best work we can do during a global pandemic and that work is worth celebrating.

Connected
If ever there was a time to focus on the human side of online learning, this is it. Don’t make it just about the content. Focus on the students. Give them time and opportunities to connect to one another and to you.

How are you tackling online learning during this time?

Metaphors That Resonate

This Change magazine article, “#HashtagPedagogies: Improving Literacy and Course Relevance Through Social Media Metaphors,” which suggests using social media vocabulary to describe academic concepts that are familiar to faculty and professionals, but not students, has been rattling around my head this month.

The author, Micah Oelze, models his strategy by choosing a central hashtag for lectures and discussions, and teaches students to apply Instagram vocabulary, like hashtags and @ signs, as note-taking symbols in the margins of readings. He says, “By borrowing language from social media, longstanding critical reading strategies can be taught in a way that feels intuitive for students of the millenial and Z generations.” I like how he repurposes the @ sign (used on Instagram to tag other users) to relate another author’s ideas to the text at hand, which supports the “Scholarship as Conversation” frame.

Oelze says this social media language is second-nature to many students, which is why the metaphor is so successful.

“When educators point out the overarching principle and label it with #, something powerful happens. As an automatic reflex, students recognize this is no longer actual text, but rather a concept, one that is distinctively searchable and can be applied to any number of relevant cases.” 

In the classroom, I’ve compared subject headings to hashtags, particularly the hyperlinked subject headings in many of our databases. But I like that this article takes it a step farther, having students organize and “curate” class topics by choosing the hashtags themselves. This is no different than creating metadata or assigning subject headings, but without the scholarly name for it. 

In order to comprehend new information they’re reading, students must be able to make connections that are text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world. Forming connections between the reading and oneself is one of the easiest to teach, and there are excellent prompts to get students thinking about how a text might apply to the world. But I see students struggle to master synthesizing sources with other texts and their own arguments in papers. Using hashtags to track overarching concepts is one great way to practice this text-to-text connection.

A student’s research process, the way they organize information, is an important component to their success. I’m interested in the literal ways that they go about a school project: Do you use Google docs, or citation managers like Noodlebib? Do you write your draft on paper first? Do you outline, or highlight as you read?  I’ve found that the students that have some type of research process, a routine they consistently follow for each project, are more prepared for assignments and able to build on their skills over time. 

In the one-shot classroom, I encourage students to consider their research process. “How I organize my research might not be the best way for you to do it. But it’s important for you to discover the way that works best for you.” When students take ownership over their process, confidence and efficiency emerge. 

If hashtagging your way through a scholarly article helps you connect the concepts, that’s great. A single metaphor won’t resonate with every student, so I’m always looking for new ways to describe this important part of college success. This article got me thinking, and I recommend checking it out! 

Are there ways you communicate scholarly concepts to students so that they’re less intimidating? What are some metaphors you’ve used to translate academic jargon into relatable language?

Image: Pexels

Will this work?

In May 2017, I had an idea. I wanted to create a credit-bearing course, one that would provide students the foundation they needed to be peer research consultants (PRCs) within the libraries. The class would have the same vibes as writing tutor classes that are taught across the United States and called many different names (for example ENGL 250 at Penn State, Topics in Composition at Coe College). As a concept, the class made sense to me. Instead of cramming initial PRC training into a few weeks, we could have the space within a course to really dive into ideas and prepare students. It could also be a way to expose students to research through the lens of librarianship. 

In 2017, I had no clue about how to put together a semester long course, or the process at Penn State to get an actual class on the books. The course was a pipe dream, one that rattled around in my head, and had me jotting down stray thoughts in various notebooks and online documents. I would write out “Week 1” through “Week 16” and attempt different combinations of course content. My first drafts were a bunch of one-shots sessions, strung together, somewhat haphazardly, but with brief moments of clarity.

The more I thought about the class and the more I tinkered with it, the more I wanted to make it happen. About a year ago, I paired up with my colleague, co-teacher, and friend, Claire, and we started to take steps to get the course approved. At a large research institution, nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Beyond documentation around learning objectives, assessment techniques, and a rough course outline, we also had to find 15 people to consult on our course. After these consults, we submitted it into the ether and eventually, our proposal made its way up the Liberal Arts chain. Finally, in November, it reached our Faculty Senate.

We found out the class passed with little fanfare. It was approved in a committee meeting and we found out from a colleague in the group who sent us a Slack message. It was December and our immediate thought was, “crap, now we have like six weeks to put a course together.” Luckily, Claire and I had one another, and a framework we had continued to tweak while the course was being reviewed. LST 250: Peer Tutoring in Research was official and on January 14, we taught our first class.

This class is all about turning a research idea around and around. We were inspired by Allison Hosier’s 2019 article in College & Research Libraries entitled “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study: A Proposed Metaconcept and Its Practical Application.” It probably wasn’t an article we needed our students to read in the first week, but it has helped us find the core of the class. We focus our energies on a topic, of our choice, and spend the semester researching it from all angles. The goal is that by the end, the students are really knowledgeable in a topic they care about, and also deeply understand their own research process, embedded within their discipline. If you can understand how research works, then I believe you can help someone else through that process. Of course, the question always is, “Will that actually work as a course?”

So far, I think so. This week we wrote research questions on whiteboards and made concept maps. We explored databases we recommend students “try first” and talked about how that could set us up for a certain research journey. We also read LIS articles that spoke of students in strange, disconnected, deficit-like ways around their ability to do research. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about the students we teach, how we think about their research process, and how those attitudes influence our work. This class seems like a natural extension to the work I’ve been doing with students and finding ways to keep them in the center. 

A friend asked, “How’s it going professor?” and while that still feels weird to be a professor, things are good. We’re four weeks in and I have a much better understanding of what readings will work than I did a year ago. While the first few classes felt like 75 minutes was too much, we’re now scrabbling at minute 70 to finish class on time. I haven’t taught many one-shots so far this semester, but I imagine my presence will be different. I feel more confident in leading a class, and some of that is probably due to regularly teaching twice a week. The course is a challenge, and I need that in 2020. I feel lucky that I get to tackle the course with Claire and we can navigate these credit-bearing waters together. I can’t believe it has been almost three years since my initial idea; a lot has changed in the evolution of the course, but I look forward to where the course will go. If you’ve taught a credit-bearing class before, do you have any advice? What has worked for you in the past? What do you wish you would have known before you started? 


Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash