Good Library Assignments, part 2

So if bad assignments are not better than nothing – what makes them good? Not what are the rules of good assignments, because tired of rules, but yes, there are some principles, or maxims or truisms that come to mind.

I bet these aren’t all of them either, but they are the ones I’ve synthesized from my thinking:

  1. Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.
  2. The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.
  3. The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.
  4. Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  5. Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  6. Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Right now, I’m thinking about the first four. In fact, I would say the things on this list are a little bit apples and oranges. The first two are obviously coming from those assignments that throw in a “use the library” requirement, or a “use peer reviewed sources” requirement, or a “you must use print journal articles” requirements or even a “you must use ERIC” requirement.

(Though that print articles thing is getting a little long in the tooth. I know, I know, it still happens but not like it used to)

The next two are getting at some reasons why I think that faculty add those requirements.

So let’s dig in a little more and think about how these themes mesh with what we know about how students use information, go about research, and approach assignments.

Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.

The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.

As I said, these are mostly about requirements within assignments, and I think the more interesting place to examine them is in the reasons why. But I also think that these cover those — “I just want them to go to the library and touch the books” assignments. And here’s the thing – those assignments don’t work either.

A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time reading about library anxiety, which is a topic that I find resonates well with faculty audiences. At least a little of this is because of the Library Anxiety Scale – because that scale has been tested and validated and used in many circumstances it means when I say “we know” it gives me a familiar type of expertise — we know, because in my field, we have done this research.

The two features of library anxiety that I tend to emphasize are these:

  1. It’s situational – like white coat hypertension – it only kicks in in certain situations. And those situations? When students actually need to use the library to complete a task or solve a problem. On my campus, everyone studies in the library (no, not really, but we’re packed most of the time). But the way library anxiety works means that a student could come to the library every single night, could have “their” own chair, or carrel or study room and still, as soon as they actually had to use the library to write a research paper, destructive anxiety could kick in.
  2. It’s characterized by a sense of “I should know this” – accompanied by a sense of “everyone else does know this.”

Given these realities, it’s pretty easy to see why an assignment that is designed to get students into the library to touch the resources isn’t going to help. And if it’s an ill-designed assignment, where they’re not going to find the thing they need to touch – then it’s going to do damage.

And even if we have the stuff, if the assignment is written in such a way that it assumes students have had experiences with information that they have not had (reading paper newspapers), or that they know things they don’t know (research is published in things called journals) — it will make things worse.

When students already think “everyone else knows this but me” then an unfamiliar term like “peer review” or “LC” will send them over the edge. Barbara Fister’s recent post on Inside Higher Ed gets at this point in a much more practical and detailed way.

Feelings matter. In particular, how we feel about our ability to solve problems — our confidence — matters.

The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.

I was working on a book chapter earlier this year – a textbook chapter for composition students. And one of the things that the editor and I had a lot of back and forth about was just this. She was bringing me information from the composition faculty who had reviewed the book about how they wanted this to be simpler, or that to be simpler.

And I would say back, yes I know that they would like X, where X = whatever shortcut we were talking about here: evaluation checklists, peer-reviewed journals ticky boxes, callout boxes explaining why library databases were better — I get these requests too.

I get why people want shortcuts. I really do. Especially in composition where the topics come from across several disciplines and you’re dealing with a whole bunch of discourses that you have no particular experience with — teaching how to find, recognize, use and choose information sources is really hard. I get why they don’t want to fall down the rabbit holes I fall down into when I try to teach “what is peer review and why should you care” quickly and efficiently. But still, at the end of the day, suggesting that there are shortcuts around thinking, evaluating and choosing don’t do students any favors.

I have a couple of short slideshows I use when I want to “show” people how difficult it is to navigate our information landscape as a student.

  • One shows the first page of four different articles. I lead off this one with the question: “which articles were peer-reviewed.”
  • One shows five screenshots of newspaper websites. For this one, the question is “what type of source is this.”

Both of those exercises are designed to illustrate how much we (faculty) already know about information and publishing and how we use that knowledge to make these calls — we’re bringing tacit knowledge to the table that many of our students don’t have.

The last one is a little different. It pulls out a set of sources easily found in library databases — it includes a partisan blog, a news aggregator, a newsletter, a small newspaper and some others. This one is designed to illustrate the no-shortcuts piece.

When I hear faculty complain that “my students just went to Google” I actually wonder how often their students ACTUALLY went straight to the library databases they were told to use? Given that they can easily find Google-like sources using Summon (and Lexis-Nexis, and Academic Search Premier, and so on) it has to be that some of these maligned students actually did use the library. The issue isn’t that they went to Google instead of the library – the issue is that they didn’t know what to do with what they found – and that’s an issue in both contexts.

Requiring something isn’t the same as teaching it

It would be great if we could just require what we wanted and know that students would be able go out and figure out what we meant, what we wanted, how to deliver it — and find the whole process enriching and interesting enough to carry into the future. We all know that’s not realistic.

When it comes to research, though what needs to be taught, and how much time and effort it takes to teach it can come as a surprise. I’ve linked this old post from Dr. Crazy’s excellent blog here more than once – but I think it does such a great job of communicating just how deep the rabbit holes go when you start teaching students about research and information. There are so many unwritten rules that define good practice in academic communication, and so many things we can easily assume are common knowledge — once you start unpacking those things for students, though, you can quickly find yourself lost in a web of “but to understand that, you need to know this — a full day just to teach MLA style? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Library anxiety is one reason why there’s a problem when we don’t unpack the requirements in our assignments, but it’s not the only one. This one looms especially large in those “bad assignments” that are categorized by mis-matches — between the requirements and the students’ ability levels or between the requirements and the point of the assignments themselves.

I’ve talked about student development before, at length, and I won’t do so here but tl:dr – students don’t come to college thinking about knowledge and knowledge creation the same way their teachers do. They’re not supposed to – they’re supposed to develop that way while they’re here. So when we require sources that have one set of epistemological assumptions embedded within them (like peer-reviewed articles) and we don’t unpack those assumptions, then students will try and fit the new sources into their current way(s) of knowing. When the sources don’t fit (as they inherently won’t) then they think the sources are just a series of hoops they have to navigate to make teachers happy.

If you, like me, think there’s value in the work scholars do, this should be worrying.

The thing is, unpacking those assumptions is a huge job — let’s look at the “you must use a peer reviewed article” requirement. This rabbit hole will take you almost all the way to China. To really understand and use these articles you need to know:

  • Scholars do research. Not “research paper” research but other types of original research.
  • Scholars frequently write articles about individual studies, which examine specific things – not every dimension of a topic.
  • Research is usually (but not always) reported in things called journals.
  • Scholars argue, but in a particular way. They aren’t necessarily trying to win (and end) a conversation when they argue — there’s always another question and that’s not a flaw.
  • The same scholars who write the articles in journals also review other people’s articles for quality.
  • When scholars review for quality they don’t repeat the experiment to see if it’s true.
  • Scholars continue examining and evaluating the quality of an article after its published.
  • Scholars belong to professional communities called disciplines.
  • Disciplines develop rules or best practices about conducting and reporting on research.They’re not all the same.

That’s a huge amount to unpack and you can’t really expect students to “get it” if you just mention it it once (even if you do so at length). And it doesn’t even get at the fact that most students don’t have the domain knowledge to read these articles critically.

So a huge part of “good library assignments” if figuring out what you, as the teacher, actually have the capacity to support. Can you devote a full day to teaching MLA citations? Can you spend a week on scholarly knowledge creation?

And there’s still another level to “teaching it” that’s equally important, and just as labor-intensive: feedback. Students need feedback on the choices they make when it comes to information sources and their research process. And they need the opportunity to apply that feedback and try again. Some colleagues and I did a small research-process study last summer (soon to be published in portal, if you’re interested) and our students reported that they rarely get feedback on the sources they choose. And this finding wasn’t a surprise.

Students know how to do school. It’s not hard for them to figure out what really matters — when teachers don’t invest time on the front end explaining a requirement, and don’t give meaningful feedback on the result – they’re quickly going to realize that they don’t need to put any real effort into meeting that requirement. That’s why we hear “as long as you put the web sources fourth or fifth in the bibliography, and the EBSCO sources on top you’ll be fine.”

It’s almost like teachers and students have silently agreed that library databases are going to be shorthand for quality. As long as students go through the motions of using them, then we’ll consider that requirement checked off and focus on other things.

But it doesn’t help them when they actually need information to solve problems or make decisions, and it doesn’t do us any good if they ultimately decide the work that scholars do and that librarians preserve, repackage and make useful is useless.

I was talking to a faculty member who teaches a class for first-years called science myth busters – and told me about an approach he uses that I think has a lot of potential across a lot of disciplines. He spends a full day teaching about the concepts of correlation and causation before he has students read research articles (and news reports about research). Then, when they read the articles, they analyze them — just on that concept. They consider how the news reporters understand it, and how the scholars talk about it.

What I love about this is that it gives the students a structure they can use to start to approach these sources like someone engaged in knowledge creation would — it gives them language they can use, and a concrete task to complete. It’s manageable for the instructor, and it’s meaningful for the student. And many fields or areas of study have key concepts that could be used in a similar way.

See, Project Information Literacy (and about a million other studies) tell us that students tend to stick with what they know. Once they have a research-process hammer, then they’ll try and turn every research problem into a nail. They’ll stick with the same type of sources, with the same research tool, with the same processes and methods. They port them from high school and will only adapt them as they need to.

I think a huge part of what we’re (the big we – the higher ed we) are about is getting them to expand beyond what they’ve done before- to consider different types of evidence, more complex processes and to build a bigger toolbox. But trying something new is scary. Feelings matter – and we have to create an environment that makes them feel they can do it. Skills matter – we have to give them the tools to do it. And practicalities matter – it has to be worth their while to do it too.

There will be one more part – hopefully tomorrow — but I’m heading out for some Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a few hours so it might be Monday.

Good library assignments, part 1

I’m putting together a workshop tomorrow for teaching librarians about good research assignments — so I went looking to see what else has been written on the topic. I found lots of good stuff (I’ll talk about that later) but mostly what I found were rules — do’s and don’ts — embedded into pages about “when to ask for library instruction.”

(I bet you can predict what the rules are).

But here’s the thing – I break the rules all the time. In the last five years I have:

  • Taught classes without the faculty member present!
  • Said. “okay, sure!” when I was asked for a scavenger hunt activity.
  • Scheduled workshops for classes that don’t have research assignments, and which aren’t going to have research assignments.
  • And in one memorable case – integrated a scavenger hunt into a workshop for a class that was in the library without their instructor, that was a third again too big for every student to have an hands-on computer AND that didn’t have any kind of research assignment.

I mean, I don’t break rules for the thrill of breaking rules. And it’s not like we have anything so structured as “rules” here anyway. But I know them, just like we all know them, which means that even though I had good reasons for doing all of those things, I felt I had to figure those reasons out and justify those choices.

But I realized this morning that … I’m tired of rules. Or, maybe it’s more that rules make me tired. The effort to control and regulate a bunch of external conditions to make the one-shot — which has a bunch of moving parts that are uncontrollable — work is really tiring.

(And the rules have a nasty little unstated flip side — the one that says if all of the rules are followed, then the only reason why the one-shot isn’t awesome is librarian failure. That exhausts me even more.)

So in thinking about “good library assignments” the last thing I feel like doing is coming up with more rules. That’s right, not even “no scavenger hunts.”

I’m trying to pull together 3 pieces of interconnected thinking here. I don’t think I’ll talk about them all today – but I am hoping they’ll cohere if I talk about them. Here they are:

War stories: Thinking over “bad library assignments” I have seen – what are the broader categories?

  1. Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate a thing that my library does not have.
  2. Assignments that require students to do a thing in an outdated or inefficient way.
  3. Assignments with no immediate payoff – that serve only an unknown future need.
  4. Mis-matches — between assignment requirements and students’ cognitive development.
  5. Mis-matches — between the assignment requirements and the audience/ rhetorical purpose of the assignment.

Truisms: What are some things that are usually true (from my experience) about research assignments and teaching research?

  1. Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.
  2. The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.
  3. The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.
  4. Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  5. Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  6. Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Expertise: What do we know about how students interact with research assignments that many others on campus do not?

  1. Library anxiety is real, has cognitive consequences, and can’t be fixed by requiring students to enter the building or touch the books.
  2. There are a lot of terrible sources available in library databases and on library shelves.
  3. Students will stick with what they know.
  4. Topic selection is difficult and stressful, and can be a barrier to student success on research assignments.
  5. Sometimes, it’s trying to do the right thing that leads students to do the wrong thing.
  6. Teachers and librarians have had experiences with (and built up a body of knowledge about) research and information that their students have not.

I’m going to dig into this more tomorrow, I think but for now – what do these things have to do with the rules above?

The faculty member present thing – probably nothing.  I agree that an active, involved faculty member makes my sessions better.  But I also have a lot of faculty at this point I’ve been working with for a long time — if someone I’ve assignment-designed with, taught with and published with needs to go to a conference the same week that her students need the library, I’m going to say yes.

But the rest – the rest do relate.  Because basically, I don’t think that a thrown-together research assignment, a mediocre research assignment, or a research assignment that’s separate from the class and will never be talked about again is going to make my session better.

And when we’re thinking beyond my individual session — then, a bad research assignment is going to make things worse.  So at that point, I have a couple of options – do the session without one (which I’ve done) or say, “no thanks, not this term” (which I’ve also done).

Why do I think they make things worse?  Because there are implicit messages buried in each of those “bad assignment” characteristics — let’s revisit?

Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate a thing to be successful — and my library does not have that thing (or enough of that thing).

Subtext:  Libraries don’t have what you need.  And perhaps even worse – librarians don’t know what you need and cannot help you.

Assignments that require students to do a thing in an outdated or inefficient way.

Subtext: People who use libraries do so because they don’t know the best way to do things.

Or, as a colleague and I used to say “let’s teach them – whatever you do, DON’T use library resources!”  This actually came from an assignment that never happened.  We wanted students to get an overview of the topic before going to scholarly sources (as you do) and we thought we might be able to embed a discussion about the differences between traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia in the unit (yeah, yeah, it was 2005.  It was how we thought then).

We opened up our online Encyclopedia Brittanica, took a stack of student research logs, and started plugging in the words and phrases that they’d used in their initial searches.  And OMG were the results ever terrible.  We compared twenty-five student searches (because rigor) but we knew after five that we were never going to send people to the Brittanica because we’d be sending the implicit message – “whatever you do, DON’T use library resources.”

Assignments with no immediate payoff – that serve only an unknown future need.

Subtext: 

Mis-matches — between assignment requirements and students’ cognitive development.
Mis-matches — between the assignment requirements and the audience/ rhetorical purpose of the assignment.

These are two different things, but the subtext I’m worried about is the same:  You have to use these sources, processes, and tools here in school, but once you graduate you’ll never use them again.

So what did I miss?  Plus, more to come.

Research Immersion?

From Lee Bassette in last Thursday’s Inside Higher Edabout the Digital Humanities Summer Institute

I am excited because I am surrounded by people who are interested in similar research and skills as I am. I can talk about my project with people who a) actually know what and who I am talking about and b) are as excited by it as I am. People are interested in me and know me as a researcher, respect me as a researcher. My professional identity at home is so wrapped up in being a teacher, it’s nice to have this important other part of me recognized and, dare I say it, validated. I have a real intellectual community, not just a theoretical one.

I have lots of professor friends on other campuses who talk about this kind of isolation, but not librarians. When we talk about the issues of solo librarianship, we’re usually talking about something else — not about being the only metadata person, or instruction librarian, or archivist in the place.

And as librarians, we have both a (sometimes potential) research self, and a (usually actual) practice self — I could easily imagine that there are some librarians who are alone in their research interest, even with plenty of professional peers. Who needs this kind of shared experience more than us — what would it look like? Research Immersion?

So, according to TechCrunch in 2010, Bill Gates thinks that by 2015, people won’t have to go away to college anymore because

Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world…. It will be better than any single university.

Fast forward to this year and Harvard and MIT launch edX, designed to bring an interactive course experience to anyone with an Internet connection (so, not just lectures) – building a “global community of learners” and strengthening programs back on campus as well.

Online education and it’s potential to disrupt college as we know it is a talked-about thing, is what I am saying.

But despite that, I have never really thought about this.

(via Walking Paper)

It’s kind of a longish video with a pace that is measured, or slow – so if you didn’t read it basically it seems to be a platform that manages online course offerings – potential teachers can upload their classes, potential students can find and sign up for classes.  There’s some consistency in offerings – they’re all one-day, in-person workshops that cost $20.

Here’s the thing, I can see this working with enough critical mass — but I’m not sure I can see it working on a college campus.  But I think it should work on a college campus – like, I can see it working on a campus that’s not all that different than the ones we have.  Why?  Well, reasons…

  1. We have a lot of really smart students who know how to do stuff.  We also have a lot of really smart faculty and staff who know how to do stuff, but I haven’t figured out yet if it works better in my head to be something bringing the whole community together – building a learning community that encompasses the physical community — or if it’s better as a student-teaching-students thing.
  2. We have students (and faculty and staff) who have a lot of interests – who want to learn how to do stuff.
  3. We talk a lot about high impact educational practices – those practices that increase  student success and engagement.  What’s important about these practices isn’t so much “if students get these experiences then school will be easier for our students” so much as “if students get these experiences then they’ll develop the networks, resources and resilience to get through the tough parts, stay in school and ultimately figure out how to succeed.  Taking on the teaching role doesn’t directly fit any of these practices, but it seems to fit in spirit — basically, if the teaching feels like it’s part of what makes the community the community, then participating would increase attachment to the community.

But on the other hand, other reasons …

When school pressures hit, there’s very little that survives. Which is what I mean when I say I can see this working on a college that is similar but not exactly the same as what I see outside my window.  (or what I would see if I had a window).  Basically, what I mean here is that I find it hard to see our students finding time for this kind of, well, dabbling a lot of the time — they can use working out or even parties as a legit reason not to study — one keeps you healthy and the other keeps you in friends – but taking a class on fixing your bike?  No, that I can’t see being treated as a legit reason not to focus on the classes and learning you’re actually paying for.

And I’m not sure what that means – I can easily see something like this working with my students just after they leave college.  Well, not easily, but realistically, I can imagine this kind of ecosystem taking root.  In college, on the other hand, it’s a lot harder.  I’m not sure what I think about that.

But here’s the thing – this seems like a great thing for libraries to manage.  This is information literacy, browsing, exploration and curiosity.  Exactly the kind of thing we are all about in college – but think about the ecosystem we build to support it.  What’s missing?  This kind of collaborative sharing of expertise — the people networks.

Which brings it back to he discussions of online learning I started with  – see, I’m pulling it back around.  Seriously, I’m as surprised as you are.

One thing that got me (and really, almost everyone else) two years ago when that Bill Gates quote appeared was just what a top-down, boring view of education it suggested — sitting in front of lectures, absorbing the knowledge =/= education.

And I’m a known lecture defender, but seriously – what made college worth it for me was the people.  And not just the faculty, though they were important, but my peers as well.

Which is why I think, on one level, that I couldn’t stop thinking about this community-teaching model after seeing it this morning.  Because it’s using technology to develop the community, but it gets at something that could only work on campus – that reflects part of why I love our campus community (and all of the campuses and communities I’ve been a part of).  It gets at part of the reason why, even though I had to do a distance library degree, I chose a program where I had classmates.

Of course, I learned a lot from my classmates, and of course I learned a lot from my interactions with faculty.  But even more than that – those relationships (especially with peers) are what created the culture of learning that existed in my college experience — the expectations, the standards, the ideas about what was worth your time and what weren’t – -those things were all social, shared values that we gave each other.  Some campuses did it really well, building a culture that really pushed me beyond where I would have been on my own.  Some, well, showed me how great I used to have it.

Even though I think it wouldn’t work – I keep trying to think about why it would.  Because a college that developed the kind of culture where that kind of sharing and learning was possible, was rewarded, was considered important enough to do even alongside the classes you’re paying for — that would be really cool.

babies, bathwater, whatnot…

Two recent rants have caught my eye, interestingly both from people who seem to have recently attended SXSW, a conference to which I’ve never been (but always wanted to go).  Anyway, one calls for “flipping the conference” and the other wholeheartedly agrees.

Before I start, let me say that I doubt either of these posts is really calling for eliminating all broadcast-type lectures or presentations from all conferences anytime or anywhere forever and ever.  Just like I don’t think that people who call for flipping the classroom – the discourse both of these pieces are riffing on — are talking about replacing lectures so much as using them better.  There’s a big difference between throwing out lecture altogether and recognizing that the teaching shouldn’t end there (and sometimes shouldn’t start there).

So this isn’t a “someone’s wrong,” rant so much as I don’t hear this expressed very much, and I think expressing it is important – there’s a continuum here, after all, and if the endpoints skew to one side then the conversation is affected.

This is the side that I never see expressed.  I like lectures, sometimes.  I think there’s a place for them.  I like some of the things that are “the problem” in these conversations and I am going to tell you why.

1. Remember, we’re all different.  

Both of the above pieces refer to this one shared assumption – that the really important thing about any conference is the “discussion, debates and conversations.”  And I think a lot of people express this, and believe it and for them it’s true, but for me (and not just me, I think) — It’s not.

I’ve come out before as a pretty serious introvert and I’ve got to tell you, two or three days filled with nothing but discussion, debates and conversations sounds like my idea of hell.  Okay, yes, I can imagine many worse things than that so maybe not hell, but seriously, it would take me at least a week to recover from something like that.

(Note.  I am not exaggerating for effect.)

For a quick primer on what I mean when I say “introvert” watch this:

To me, the best part of any conference is many things.  Sometimes it’s an inspiring keynote, sometimes its a meaningful conversation with someone from my home state over drinks half a continent away, sometimes its an idea that came to me in the middle of a talk on a topic I never would have sought out and am only being exposed to because it was the most interesting-looking paper in an underwhelming session.  You see what I mean?  It’s ideas and they come from everywhere and I don’t want to limit where I might run into them.

Lectures can be a super-effective way to get a lot of ideas out there to a lot of people really quickly.  Do I think we should build in time for reflection, time for discussion, time for debate?  Yes, of course I do, but don’t throw out the lectures.  See, I don’t need to do all of my thinking and all of my learning AT the conference.  Sometimes I want to get exposed to as much thinking and as many ideas as humanly possible while I’m there and I’m okay with doing some of my thinking and processing and conversation on my own time.

And here’s the thing, I think there IS value in giving busy professionals some space in their work lives to stop doing everything else, to focus on ideas and content for a few days.  Sometimes that means taking advantage of that shared space to talk, to discuss and debate.  Sometimes it means time to think, to reflect, to listen.  There’s value in providing a space where people who are passionate about the same things can share the experience of hearing new ideas or learning new things.

2. We don’t do the reading 

Because that shared experience is essential to making those conversations, debates and discussions about something, or at least about something new, isn’t it?

And here’s the second thing – I don’t think we’re going to do that in advance, on our own time.  I have been responsible for leading conference events and workshops and discussions that provided people with advance readings before and I am pretty confident in my blanket statement that no one ever does them.  I mean, let’s face it, there’s not gonna be a test.

(Okay, Jane does them, but then she has to catch everyone else up.)

We come to the conference, with our pens (or iPads or laptops), ready to absorb the knowledge* but I’m guessing that prepping in advance rarely goes further than what we can get done on the plane ride, if that.  And lectures are a GOOD way for lots of us to get that shared experience, to absorb that knowledge that can be our jumping off point.

Lectures don’t suck.  Bad lectures do.  Now, are bad lectures worse than bad active learning exercises?  I don’t know, I can get stuff done during a bad lecture without being actively rude, which is something I value.  I can think and reflect on the good ones.  Ask my co-workers how many projects have been started by emails I wrote from bad talks about ideas I got during bad talks.  (Spoiler alert!  A lot)

(Note.  I’m not advocating for bad lectures.  But maybe bad lectures > bad other stuff.)

Bad discussions, though, those are tough.  And a lot of times, they’re bad because there’s no shared content pushing them forward – because my class didn’t do the reading so it’s a series of unconnected “here’s what I think” statements – oh wait, that’s another topic.  But it’s not entirely another topic.  Discussions grounded only in a set of possibly connected individual experiences, not in a shared reading, or talk or idea – those can become deadly unfocused or reflect not much more than the loudest voice in the room.  It takes a lot of skill to facilitate discussion and spark conversation.  We don’t all have that skill.

*Bonus points for catching that reference

3. Let me be inspired

Because just like we all learn in different ways – we all teach in different ways.  Some people are great at facilitating discussion, creating debate and pushing the room to collaboratively developed insights but everyone isn’t.  Some people need time to deliberate practice and prepare to be their most effective and I don’t want to shut any of these people out of the conversation.  Isn’t there room for all?

It’s common in these discussions to talk about how none of the learning that really stuck with us from college came from lectures – it all came from more active work done (usually) outside the classroom, etc.  Well, okay. Some of my most memorable learning in college happened in lecture halls, listening to some truly fantastic speakers.  I think about those historians, political scientists and (in one case) psychologists every time I hear the anti-lecture conversation start up because I think the world is better place with those people doing what they do best.

And here’s the last thing – people like to be inspired and they are INSPIRED by good talks.  Look at the tweets from just about any conference and you’ll see tons of excited OMG I am so inspired comments – occasionally sparked by conversation but more often sparked by speakers.  Passionate, skilled, awesome speakers.

 

 

Peer Reviewed Monday – Expertise Reversal Theory

ResearchBlogging.org
Okay. So I am pretty sure that the actual article I am pointing to here (probably behind a pay wall – sorry) is not peer-reviewed.  It is the editors’ introduction to a special issue of the journal Instructional Science.  In this introduction they tell us that there are five empirical research reports and two commentary pieces in the issue, but this piece is neither empirical research nor peer-reviewed.

So, take a look at the whole issue, if your access to Springer journals is sufficient.  If not, I will summarize!

So, expertise reversal theory.  Sounds fancy.  I have definitely heard much talk about its theoretical context – cognitive load theory.  That shows up all over the place in library instruction circles. I was in an airplane during the opening keynote at WILU last week, but from what I heard (and I heard it a lot – the keynote must have been really good) the “brain guy” talked about the kinds of things that come up in conversations about cognitive load theory.

Expertise reversal theory is a subset of this research.  It suggests that the very same things that reduce cognitive load in novice learners can actually increase cognitive load in expert learners, or in learners with more domain knowledge.

The implications of this for library instruction seem immediate and obvious.

In the classroom.  How many times have we talked about the problem of the class that seems to be equally divided between the students who have never been pointed to a database and students who have been to the library classroom four times this year?  You can’t pitch your presentation to the experts in that scenario, and depending on what you have to do for the novices, you might find yourself saying “well, hearing it again won’t hurt them.”. This theory suggests that maybe it will.

On the web. This is, of course, the really significant place where we have to think about the possibilities this theory raises,  Who makes Beginning and Advanced online help possible?  (okay, maybe Zotero but who else?)

I have been thinking about my tutorial posts from last year, because they were part of a larger process that Hannah and I presented on at WILU.  One of the main takeaways I took from the craft tutorials was the way that they assumed that the people using the tutorials brought with them a body of knowledge, and that idea runs throughout this discussion of expertise reversal theory.  The authors argue that the most important cognitive factor in learning is prior knowledge:

Studies of expert-novice differences in cognitive science have clearly demonstrated that learner knowledge base is the most important and fundamental cognitive characteristic that influences learning and performance.

Basically, the way I read this overview is like this – novices don’t have a set of mental models, body of domain knowledge or prior experiences to structure their interaction with new information, tools, etc.  They need help – and to reduce their cognitive load, we provide  help that gives them that structure, whether it be text presented together with images, detailed step-by-step instructions, or whatever the case may be.  More experienced learners have those mental models in place.  When you give them that structuring information, it becomes something they have to wade through, and it might actually impede their ability to access their own prior knowledge.

At the most basic level, they need the opportunity to “opt out” of the extra help you put in there for novices.

A couple of the papers in the special issue are of interest, though I haven’t read them closely enough to analyze yet – they look at how well expertise reversal theory holds up in messy domains (specifically literary criticism and writing-to-learn in psychology) instead of focusing on “well-structured” domains like math or physics — and as instruction librarians, messy domains are where we usually live, right?

Kalyuga, S., & Renkl, A. (2009). Expertise reversal effect and its instructional implications: introduction to the special issue Instructional Science, 38 (3), 209-215 DOI: 10.1007/s11251-009-9102-0

Zotero assignment revisions

So, in the end the Zotero assignment worked very well on the Zotero side, and less well on the information literacy side.  So I’m spending this week revising it and designing some new activities.  A few quick takeaways:

The assignment was trying to do too much.  It was the main way to assess:

  • Students’ ability to recognize different source types and explain where the fit into the scholarly process.
  • Students’ ability to track down those different source types.
  • Students’ understanding of what the scholarly and creative output of their department (and by extension the scope of intellectual activity within their discipline).
  • Students’ ability to use research tools to organize and manage their sources.

Way too much.  Illustrated mainly by the fact that there were a few students to managed to do all of those things in their work.  That made it very clear what others were missing and made me want to figure out a way for all students to be able to get to where the few did in this class.

So here’s the thing – the first two outcomes up there were the problem, not the technology or logistics of syncing libraries and the like.  The bibliography project should really be about the 3rd and 4th outcomes.  The collaborative nature of the bibliography (and ability to see the breadth of what our faculty produces) was lost on students who had to work to hard to meet all of the format requirements that were in place to measure the first two outcomes.  All of the format requirements I put in to meet the first two outcomes took away from the authenticity of the experience, and of the evaluation and contextualization I had hoped the students would be able to do.

So this term, I am planning to get at those first two outcomes in different ways, and then make some changes to the bibliography assignment:

  1. drop the number of sources required in the annotated bibliography from 5 to 3.
  2. increase the emphasis on evaluation (and multiple methods of evaluation) in the annotations.
  3. change the workflow a bit – have students create a broad, pre-evaluated body of resources in a personal library and then have them select their 3 sources from that larger pool, annotate them and add them to the collaborative bibliography.
  4. build in a required conference so that I talk directly to each student about the process fairly early on.
  5. drop the format requirements altogether and allow students to add any 3 resources they want (while increasing their responsibility to justify those choices in multiple ways in their annotations).
  6. push the due date for the sources up a week, add a week between the final sources due date and the final reflection due date, and target and focus the scope final reflection essay significantly.

(Big hat tip to my students.  Many of these changes were also articulated by them when I asked them to help – in some cases their input was what really allowed me to put my finger on the problems).

What about the tech?

In the end, syncing did cause problems for a few, and Zotero hurdles did cause problems for a few.  Students who were, for whatever reason, not able to spend a focused amount of time at some point earlier in the term learning the mechanics of Zotero found it very challenging to manage finding sources and figuring out Zotero in the context of a last-minute scramble.

I had thought that my students would have to do the bulk of their Zotero work at home because of having to re-download and sync Zotero every time in the classroom.  MY Zotero library was still very difficult to sync in the classroom (I assume the hugeness is a factor) but the students rarely had to wait for more than 2-3 minutes.  Clearly, I can and should rely a lot more on classroom time as a place where students can be working with Zotero.

Most students were very positive about Zotero.  A few found it cumbersome.  There was a clear pattern though that I found interesting, but troubling in that there is nothing I can do with it.  The pattern was this — those students who had reason to use Zotero for real, for a real research project, during the term were much, much clearer in their evaluation of its value.  And by extension, I believe that they are the ones most likely to keep using it.

My class is a 1-credit class.  I can’t assign an authentic student-y scholarly research project that would take that little work.  But whether or not they have reason to use it in another class is nothing I can control.  It’s troubling because it points to a deeper issue about this class’ place within the major – issues we all know about but aren’t sure how to fix.