What? So What? Now What?

So I was at the First-Year Experience conference in San Diego a couple of weeks ago.  There were many highlights — starting with a conference that is actually in my time zone, to my excellent walking commute –

View of the Little Italy sign in San Diego, California

Walking commute from Little Italy to the conference hotel

– to the views from the conference hotel.

View towards the harbor from the Manchester Grant Hyatt in San Diego

trust me, this wasn’t even one of the best ones

Another highlight came in a late session by Catherine Sale Green and Kevin Clarke from the University 101 program at the University of South Carolina.  I wasn’t the only OSU person at this conference (far from it).  After I got back to campus, I was helping Ruth, who coordinates our FYE, with an info session for faculty thinking of applying to teach FYS next year and she started to say “what? so what….” and I finished with “now what” – because while it was a content-rich session, that short phrase was probably the most memorable part of it.

What?

It’s a guide to help students with reflective writing. Three simple questions to answer.

So what?

It probably won’t shock anyone to know that I find reflective writing pretty easy. It’s a reason this blog exists, and definitely a reason for the tagline. While the actual writing of some reflective documents (teaching philosophies, anyone?) kills me as dead as anyone, the how and the why of reflective writing has never been difficult for me.

Honestly, when I realized that it doesn’t come easily for every one (or even for most people) I started to feel more than a little narcissistic.  I realized that pretty quickly once I started teaching — I’d assign the kinds of reflective writing prompts I used to see in classes, and I’d get back papers where the students really struggled with trying to figure out the right answers, or what I wanted to hear, but that lacked any real reflection of their own thinking.  The problem is, when you’ve never had to (ahem) reflect on how to do something or why to do it — it’s super hard to figure out how to help people who are struggling.

What I like about these three questions is how they start with something relatively simple — description is usually straightforward — what happened, what did you do, what did you notice, what did you learn, and so forth.  But they don’t let students end there.  They push to more complex analysis — why does that thing matter?  And then they push beyond that to something equally challenging (what does it mean for you) that, if students do it successfully, will also demonstrate the value of reflection or metathinking itself.

Now what?

(Wikimedia Commons)

Well, here’s the thing – I will undoubtedly teach credit courses again and when I do I will undoubtedly assign reflective writing.  So this is going to help me there, in its intended context I have no doubt

But I also think this is a fantastic way to think about the process of analyzing and evaluating information.  We all know I don’t like checklists when it comes to teaching evaluating.  Truthfully, I’ll argue against any tool that tries to make a complex thing like evaluation simple (seriously – it’s at the top of some versions of Bloom’s! The top!)

And I’ll argue against any tool or trick that suggests you can evaluate all types of information the same way without context and without… yes… reflection, on your own needs, your own message, and your own rhetorical situation.  That’s my problem with checklists.  At best, they are useful tools to help you describe a thing.

An example — the checklist asks, “who’s the author?”  The student answers – William Ripple.  That’s descriptive, nothing more.  But think about it with all three questions.

Some rights reserved by Gouldy99 (flickr)

What?  The author of this article is William Ripple.

So what? Pushed to answer this question – the student will have to do some additional research.  They will find that William Ripple is on the faculty of OSU’s College of Forestry, and the director of the Trophic Cascades program.  He has conducted original research and authored or co-authored dozens of articles examining the role of large predators in ecological communities.

Now what? This question pushes the student to consider their own needs — what they’re trying to say, who they’re trying to convince and what type of evidence that audience will find convincing.

Now, move away from that fairly obvious checklist item and let’s consider a more complicated one, bias.

I’ve linked here before to this old but still excellent post explaining why identifying bias is not evaluation.  And yet, we all know that this is still where a lot of students are in their analysis — they want facts, bias is a reason to reject a source. But bias is no different than author – identifying it, being able to describe it, that’s not evaluation.

What?  I actually think this one could be a step forward in itself — instead of just saying a source is biased, a good answer will specify what that bias is, and what the evidence for it is.

So what? This could push a student to consider how that bias affects the message/argument/ validity of the piece.

Now what? And this is the real benefit — what does this mean for me? How does this bias affect my use of the source, how will my audience read it, how might it help me/ hinder me as I communicate my message?

Now, of course, a student could answer the questions “this source is biased, that matters because I need facts, so I will throw it out and look for something that says what I already believe.”  That could still happen.  And probably will sometimes.  But I like the idea of teaching evaluation as a reflective process, grounded in a rigorous description and examination of a source.

Good Library Assignments – The Outcome

So remember when I said that the 3-part Good Library Assignments brain dump was in preparation of a workshop? That was true.

And I’ve done the workshop a few times now and I’ve completed the accompanying materials.  Both of these are (obviously) intended for a faculty-librarian audience and both are entirely shareable.

There’s a LibGuide.  This was created as the “further reading” site for the workshop. It includes that information, as well as the slides and a transcript from the actual presentation.

Effective Research Assignments – LibGuide

There’s also a WordPress site where you can find sample assignments. Many of these are from Catherine Pellegrino and the awesome people at Saint Mary’s College.

Sample Assignments

Shameless begging – if you know of/ have used an activity or assignment that reflects these principles, would you share it?  I’ll totally be your best friend.

This is not part 1 of a post about MOOCs

Nope, not at all. Not even a little bit.  Maybe. Maybe a little bit.

But here’s what I’ve found – when you bring up the term, even if it is just to say, “I think this one specific thing is interesting about MOOCs,” what you’ll get is, “let me share My Opinion About MOOCs and not engage with that one thing or anything else you said at all.”

Anyway, obligatory caveats — I don’t think MOOC’s are probably radical (in pedagogy or platform) — and if there was a radical aspect, how they are in practice or how most people talk about them has entirely diluted that. I don’t think most of the discourse about them is very sensible. I do think there are important critiques. I do think that the immediate “how can they be monetized” narrative points to some broader problems with how we think about education, and I think that the idea that they could “replace college” reflects some broader structural inequalities in our culture and is based on a pretty impoverished understanding of what “college” is and how it functions in our society.

So why do I want to talk about them? Well, it comes down to an issue that has been a part of library instruction discourse since long before I became a librarian – the sharing issue.  As in, we share so well in libraries, but it’s all about stuff, how can we share beyond our stuff?  Also known as the reinventing the wheel issue in library instruction — we spend a lot of time reinventing wheels that have already been invented.

The thoughts I’m trying to make coherent on this one are these:

  • Teaching librarians have never gotten to where we want to be with sharing – instructional talent, resources or materials.
  • We’re not satisfied with one-shots, most of the time.
  • We all spend a lot of time teaching skills-level stuff (how to navigate tools, understand academic information workflows, how to work around bad interfaces) and there are students who need (or want) those skills.
  • Much of our assessment is basic and skills-based too, in our asynchronous tutorials and in our one-shot sessions.
  • Most academic libraries are trying to do more with less, whether less means human resources or other types of resources.
  • There is new cool stuff we teaching librarians want to do, and it’s usually resource-intensive and won’t reach all of our students.
  • Knowing how to go out and get trained on new things when you see you have gaps is an important skill, and one that we’re increasingly expected to do independently.

I’m going to start with the first four.

My big question is this – does the MOOC format which (as I’ve said) is not particularly radical or disruptive, offer an opportunity to librarians to think about teaching collaboratively, or sharing our teaching strength, in a new way?

I’m taking a MOOC right now – a refresher on statistics — and I’m definitely struck by how non-transformative the delivery is. We’re talking about talking head videos, broken up by multiple choice quizzes. There are labs which have you doing hands-on work with a particular piece of software. This is followed by a weekly assignment that’s just a more robust quiz that allows for freely written answers. The videos are short, high-quality and watchable, but if the professor is a “super-professor” I’m pretty sure it’s because of all of the other things he does to connect with and help students on the face-to-face campus than it is because he’s a superstar lecturer.

(Competent but not a superstar at the lecturing, is what I’m saying)

20131006-215258.jpgI suspect the difference between this class and a million and one other canned online courses that have existed in the world is found in the discussion forums. For me, though, the class hasn’t progressed to the point yet where I feel like I need to visit the forums. Everything so far is pretty straightforward and clear. Given the reasons people gave for starting it, I would guess that I am far from alone in that. The class does take the openness aspect of MOOC fairly seriously. The resources provided are all open, and while the professor did point us to a paywalled article from Science, the article is where it is. Most notably, the software being taught is open and widely available – a decision that I am certain was deliberate.

Anyway, the point is that nothing I’ve read about MOOCs suggests that this is an unusual experience – from the reasons I have for taking the course, to the structure and delivery of it, to the uneven participation on the forums — this all sounds about right.

I’ve never heard of a multi-institution MOOC, and I will admit to not going beyond cursory Googling to find one. I have seen evidence of non-college-related MOOC content, but I haven’t seen any examples of higher education institutions. collaborating to deliver a course. I don’t see any reason, however, why that wouldn’t work — and indeed — why it might not be better. Obviously, if you’re interested in replacing or replicating credit courses then that becomes more complicated, but that’s part of the beauty of library instruction. Most of us don’t do for-credit instruction, and even if we do, it’s only a fraction of what we do. Most of our teaching falls outside of university credit or tuition structures. We can be creative when we think about delivery, credentialing and cooperation. I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t share in this way (besides the ways it would be challenging).

So what if there were a topic per week, clearly marked so someone could do them all or pick and choose, with high- quality video lectures and related resources and assessments? The ability to take quizzes for assessment, or for self-regulation, would be built in. A resource page listing participating schools and pointing towards tutorials or handouts that outline local processes could be provided. Libraries could monitor local cohort discussion boards, host meet-ups of people taking the course, or just point faculty to the lectures, resources and quizzes for specific topics — their level of involvement could be whatever they could support.

Is this a crazy idea? It doesn’t need to be called a MOOC – it was just the discussion forum/ local cohort, shared resources aspects of the MOOC that made me think about it.

The plot does come from somewhere, though, and it starts with years of people asking me instruction librarians don’t, or can’t, share their stuff better.

Teaching librarians have never gotten to where we want to be with sharing – instructional talent, resources or materials.

I’ve written about this before.  A lot. Most of our efforts about sharing to this point have focused on building and sharing asynchronous online teaching tools like tutorials — repositories like ANTS, databases like PRIMO or sharable tutorials like TILT.

While all of these efforts have been successful in different ways, none of them have taken the question of “why don’t we share more” question off the table. We have a long history of consortial involvement here in the Pacific Northwest, and since my first days as an instruction coordinator, the Alliance has been asking (in general, not asking me specifically) how we can extend that spirit of sharing to our public services, especially instruction.

Real sharing, where we don’t adapt, customize and tweak to make it look like we made it at home, will take a cultural shift — but there are a couple of reasons why I think that it might be a good time to think about it in a new way. First, there are some real reasons why the tutorial/ learning module repository is problematic. We’re not the only ones to find it so – and we’re not the only ones who have tried it. Hannah and I outlined a lot of the reasons why in our paper, but tl;dr – cultural, technological and individual workflow issues all work against the idea of a robust, user-populated repository.

Secondly, I think the conversation right now about what our students’ gaps are and what they really need is more robust — which makes sense because we’ve got decades of embedding IL, thinking about IL, and teaching IL to draw upon now. From Barbara Fister’s case against the undergraduate research paper, to Amy Mark’s deconstruction of the “use peer reviewed articles” requirement, to Threshold Concepts, the common thread in a lot of this critique is — our students may not know the mechanics of research, but their true gaps are deeper and more complicated than that.

Does this make sense? I’m not saying our students don’t need to now how to find the full text, or search for a known item, or even how to do more complicated things like identify keywords — I’m saying that for a lot of them (not all of them, but a lot of them) knowing those things won’t help because they have deeper gaps in understanding — gaps that will take more teaching to fill, not less. So we need to figure out what we’re okay shifting to a more collaborative platform to free up time for this work. I’m going to pick this idea up a little further in part 2.

Most of us are dissatisfied with one-shots, a lot of the time

We all spend a lot of time teaching skills-level stuff (how to navigate tools, understand academic information workflows, how to work around bad interfaces) and there are students who need those skills.

Many of my thoughts about one-shots come from some research Kate and I did a few years ago. We asked teaching librarians to share practice stories, coded and analyzed those stories and then did much more in-depth interviews with about 20 of librarians who shared them.  I want to emphasize that pretty universally, these were not cynical, jaded or otherwise negatively-focused teaching librarians. They were passionate, committed, capable of drawing great joy from their work teaching librarians. We presented on this research at different steps along the way, and between those conversations and the data we gathered I am pretty sure that the conclusions we drew are likely and they both point to these issues.

Anyway, the overwhelming conclusion from both rounds of data was that the pieces of teaching librarianship that gave most people the most satisfaction were those things that happened outside of the boundaries of the one-shot.  And because they were situations where librarians got to follow up, assess, give feedback — I don’t think the anonymous tutorial would fit the bill either. These were all situations where librarians got to engage with students about the process of research on a process level, even if it was just to see and share in the celebration of the final product of that research.  Some of these situations started with a one-shot or two, but they extended beyond it.

some rights reserved by fouro (flickr)

On the other hand, situations where librarians felt powerless or frustrated, where they questioned their own impact, or felt otherwise Sisyphean usually focused on the one-shot.  And it’s that wheels-spinning aspect of the stories that I wanted to focus on here.  The one-shot conversations and stories were largely about the frustration inherent in teaching the same basic skills repeatedly, without the ability to find out see a broader impact on broader goals like critical thinking or lifelong learning.

I think we’ve all experienced classes where we planned for something broad and conceptual, but got bogged down in the details of finding full text or figuring out why the discovery layer keeps serving up broken links. Or workshops where we planed to wow a graduate class with Zotero and instead fell into a “what are databases” rabbit hole. Or, on the other side of things, we’ve had the classes where students got really interested in a meatier question, we had a great discussion but at the end of our 45 minutes, we knew that they still didn’t know how to find the full text (even if they didn’t know that yet).

We know that learning to navigate local systems is important, that many students need instruction in the skills, that some of our workflows are not intuitive and strange, and that some of our interfaces are super terrible and our users need workarounds. Some of our students have missed out on basic research instruction coming in, and that we also need to provide resources for the others who are just the opposite – the students who already “get” libraries and know they need to learn this one. I’m reminded of this every fall when I get the emails and go to the outreach events and talk to the students who just want to learn everything about their new environment.

So how to strike that balance – to provide the resources for students who want to get ahead, and for those who need to catch up before they’re left behind, while still saving ourselves the time, energy, and resources we need to do the other things we want to do?

Much of our assessment is basic and skills-based too, especially in our online tutorials and in our one-shot sessions.

So Hannah and I actually did some surveys about tutorial creation in academic libraries. While we were focusing on the sharing issue, one thing we asked was about assessment and interactivity. Our data reinforced a concept found elsewhere – that academic library tutorials aren’t very interactive, and such interactivity that exists pretty much takes the form of simple quizzes.

I don’t have data on one-shot assessment at my fingertips, but I know that we all know there are significant, structural issues that come up when we try to assess those meaningfully. The most important of these issues is the fact that the only time that most of us can control our assessment is immediately after the session and that’s not a great time to do it. At best, we find out what they feel about their skills immediately after practicing them in the relatively safe and controlled atmosphere of the library classroom. What happens when they go out to do the actual research they need to do, is another ball game altogether.

Not a Conclusion, but the End of the Middle
So the issue here is that a lot of the things we do in library instruction wouldn’t tax the relatively limited scope of teaching that a MOOC is equipped to support. And that while a lot of the things we do are important, and necessary, they’re not all we think we should be doing.

Tomorrow, I’m going to broaden out a little bit and talk about context — why this is a time when we need to think about shifting what we do now to be able to do more.

From the archives – the librarian can’t find the best source

This post from Lauren Pressley really resonated with me – particularly her note that not-blogging promotes not-blogging because when you don’t blog often you feel pressure to come up with something really great:

If you blog rarely, every blog post counts. It might be the last one left up over the course of a few months. :) And if it’s on the front page of your site for a few months, it better be pretty darn compelling.

I’m sure that it may come as a surprise to many who have noticed how difficult I find it to keep this blog up to date that I used to blog in two places.  I was never really pulling my weight over there, but I used to blog with Rachel and Caleb over at Command-f.info.

Command-f doesn’t exist any more, but the thing is that I had some posts I really, really liked over there.  So I’m going to move a couple of them over here before they’re lost to me forever.  (Yay Wayback Machine!).  Sadly, I fear the two-part Batgirl epic is no more.

This was the first post I made on Command-f, in August of 2008.  I’m reposting exactly as it appeared then, except for updating a few links.

I don’t feel like I hear nearly the emphasis on “the best source” as I used to, but I still do hear people frame “library sources” and “other sources” as if they are something different, and if there’s something superior about one. It relates to what I was saying in the Good Library Assignments posts about the desire I see in both students and faculty to use library collections as a shortcut for quality.

And I think it also relates to conversations like this one at The Ubiquitous Librarian, where I can’t be the only librarian to think that the students’ problem here wasn’t with difficult interfaces so much as a lack of understanding of research as an iterative, knowledge-creating process.  Not a matter of figuring out how to retrieve “the best source” so much as being able, cognitively and dispositionally, to be inspired to think about new things they see in the sources they find.

So – back to the past…

command-f logo

July 4, 2008 – 12:26 am by anne-marie

So this has been bothering me for a while and I haven’t been sure how to talk about it. It’s the phrase “the best source.” As in, “Google’s great for some things but librarians can really teach you how to find the best source on your topic.”

So I started really thinking about this one day at LOEX of the West when someone suggested that librarians involved in Open Access advocacy and instruction librarians are sometimes working against each other because open access advocates advocate using sources that are openly accessible and instruction librarians want people to use — the best sources. Now, I consider myself an open access advocate and a pretty good instruction librarian and I hadn’t been feeling that tension. I realized that I don’t think I do teach people to find “the best source” or even “the best sources.”

Really – I don’t even know what that phrase means.

Now, a couple of caveats here – I am not a very good relativist. I have been smacked down around a lot of seminar tables by smart people and foolish people alike for not being a very good relativist. I have had to learn to embrace the fact that my relativism has limits. So when I say “I don’t know what the best source means” it is not because “best” is a relative absolute term and I just don’t believe in that.

Two, I understand the concept of the seminal source. I don’t love the adjective but I get the phrase. I believe in it. I have had some transcendent academic experiences when I read an article, a book – some source that not only got me thinking in a new way, but that unlocked a whole discourse for me because by understanding it I had a framework to understand all kinds of things that came later.

(The Female World of Love and Ritualby Carol Smith Rosenberg. Signs – 1975. Such hard work. So changed my ideas about what history could be)

But that’s not what we talk about in libraries when we talk about “the best source.” And seriously, some of the most impact-heavy sources are also some of the most criticized and challenged. Two seconds on Google and you can find about a million references like this summary of the Big Six Information Needs step: The best source answers the exact research question or problem at the appropriate depth and breadth.

I don’t know what we even mean when we say things like that. And this honestly isn’t my snide hipstery “what would that even look like” voice. I am really asking – in the context of a real search, or a real information need – what would that even look like? Help me understand.

See, to me, the best source on a project is the source that gets you thinking — it sparks the idea, the understanding, or the connection that shows you where you’re going. You haven’t finished thinking yet and you haven’t finished writing yet – but you shift from “omg I’ll never get this done” to knowing what it is you want to say. It’s going to be entirely different from project to project and from person to person. If we could obliviate! memories and give the exact same person the exact same project and the exact same resources I’m guessing they would be pretty likely to find inspiration in a different place the second time around.

When Kate and I spoke about peer review at LOEX of the West, I’d say that our best source was this one article by David Solomon. His framework discussing five roles that journals play in scientific communities was what really pushed us where we needed to be in terms of framing the discussion. He cited another source, which we ended up using just as much in our final paper – so Solomon’s influence wouldn’t even be immediately apparent if you couldn’t get inside our brains but that doesn’t change the fact that for us, in our preparation, that source was probably the best source for us to find.

The point is that drilling down to the best source doesn’t match any kind of search process I’m familiar with. It doesn’t match how I see people exploring or discovering. It doesn’t match how I see people learning. But we say it so much – I’ve got to believe that it’s me that’s missing something. What are the situations and scenarios where we need to refine and refine – to add ANDS and ORs and parentheses until we have identified the single perfect source that answers our research question? What kind of searching is that – what kind of information need allows us to make that determination in advance of the learning, the synthesis, the analysis and the creation? What kind of learning process allows us to reject source after source as not worthy, and to keep those unworthy sources from sparking our thinking?

If I’m not missing anything, I think we need to really let the “best source” thing go. And not in the relativistic sense that there is no best. But to stop using it reflexively and un-reflectively. We need to really think about what kinds of systems, tools, lessons and conversations we can have with people to help them connect to their best sources.

Because I hope it’s clear that I think that there are best sources, but they’re slippery beasts. They can’t be discovered by drilling down, by narrowing and focusing, or by limiting oneself to a pre-selected pool of “best” resources. Well they can, but that’s not the easy way to do it and I think it’d take some dumb luck.

The easy way is still pretty hard. It involves a constant give and take of exploring and evaluating and I think it might be made harder by some of our tools. A lot of our systems in libraries are really good at getting the user to one thing, and not so good at supporting the kind of exploring and evaluating I’m talking about.

I’m looking at the catalog here – at the Virtual Reference Summit here in Oregon recently David Lankes said that the library catalog is the inventory record most organizations hide – and it is.

It’s the inventory record designed to help us distinguish all our stuff from all our other stuff. It is best at helping us find this book and distinguish this book from that book and that other book over there. It’s not as good at helping us explore and draw connections.

Is what the catalog does well, and has always done well, shaping how we think about searching and learning and exploring? Maybe it is. Maybe as a part of all of these conversations about the next generation of catalogs we can also take some time to re-think the idea of the best source.

Good library assignments, part final

So we left off with the idea that research is scary and difficult, that it’s much easier to follow a familiar path than to try something new. I think the last two truisms really get at the place where all three of those factors that students need to be research-brave converge: affect, skills and practicalities.

Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.

Part of this, I think, is because many students don’t come to college with the idea that research is something is a learning process – in their experience, it’s been more like a stringing together quotes process. But to really get the learning process idea, I think, you have to think about knowledge as something that is constructed, not discovered and you also have to think you have the capacity to construct it yourself. That’s a pretty advanced way of thinking about knowledge — it’s where we want them to get as they become information literate.

A lot of courses have objectives that fall into the “learn about X” category — if you think that “learning” means “find out the truth from an authority,” then it can be hard to see a research paper as a part of that. But even with smaller concepts – a lot of what we require for academic research writing can seem to be more of a hoop you jump through within the boundaries of a class, not something you’ll carry forward out of the academic environment.

Here’s an example. I do a guest bit in a class for beginner engineers every year (and every year I panic about it because I am not an engineer and every year it turns out to be delightful — you’d think I’d learn). This year, though, I had some legit reasons to panic because the faculty member asked me to spend 10 minutes or so teaching them about citations and plagiarism.

(She didn’t put that time limit on it, that was just the amount of time more than I had from last year — and she also didn’t mind when I spent more time on it — this isn’t a war story — just a note about where my head was).

So anyway, I had just read Project Information Literacy’s great report on the First Year Out data — explaining how new graduates face information problems in the workplace. I was very struck by their finding that a lot of new employees know that they were hired with an expectation that people their age are good at technology and that they therefore feel a they should be doing things quickly and online.

So to do this plagiarism thing, I broke the students into groups of 3 and had them do a think-trio-share thing. I told them to imagine that they were in an internship at a company they really wanted to work for. They’d just been given their first task — something like researching a new scheduling software tool for the team to use — and they were going to be expected to write a report in a week with a recommendation.

I asked them if they agreed with my assumption that their new boss would draw some conclusions about them from the results of this – the first major project they delivered — they agreed. So then, I asked them to think about how they’d like their new boss to describe them, based on their work on this project. I told them each to come up with 5 adjectives. And then in groups I asked them to come to consensus on 3 that they thought were really important. Then I asked them to do it again – but this time think of what they would like their new boss to know about their process – about how they approach a task. Then they came up and wrote their words on the board – if someone else had the same one, they wrote over it. Kind of a low-tech tag cloud.

Unfortunately, I am disorganized and did not take a photo. But the words were pretty great – a combination of: articulate, decisive, open-minded, out-of-the-box thinker, creative, comprehensive, critical, concise, thorough, efficient, resourceful, smart, intelligent and so on.

(“technology savvy” and “fast on the Internet” did not come up – which I do not think undercuts PIL’s finding at all — I think in the safe confines of the classroom, they didn’t think those things mattered – which is not the same thing at all as being in a job where you know you’re expected to be a technological whiz-kid)

So then we talked about how the sources they chose to consult would/could communicate these things about them as an employee, and about their work process. I said that’s a major reason we cite – to present a particular picture of ourselves. And then we shifted into a conversation about what types of sources would help them do this for the assignment they had in that class.

So how does this connect to anything? Well, one of the major outcomes of this particular class is that students will develop basic skills they need to work as a professional in the field of environmental engineering. Now, think about the plagiarism thing. The professor wasn’t asking me to talk about that as it connected to that outcome. Her main focus was good citations in her class projects, right? And there’s nothing wrong with that. But taught that way – then citations (and implicitly, the sources you choose) become just another hoop you have to navigate in school projects – that are totally disconnected from anything that might extend beyond.

A lot of our courses have an explicit connection to beyond — they’re intended to teach people to think and communicate like an historian, a rangeland ecologist, a soil scientist, an environmental engineer, and so on. And in libraries we think (I believe) that most of what we have to teach should support our students in what they do in the classroom and beyond. So, lay those connections bare, is what I’m saying.

(I was talking about this activity in a workshop for faculty in another context and one small group started talking about how they could take this premise for talking about citations and build on it – how they could bring in examples of professional writing that students could analyze to see what types of sources are used in the field – or to include that concept in questions to guest speakers.)

Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

One of our learning technology people told me years and years ago when we were chatting about teaching that he believes we shouldn’t force students to make too many choices to be successful — that if you want to give them freedom to choose a topic, then you should provide a lot of structure in terms of form – and so on. That’s kind of like a rule, but it has stuck with me.

See, I’m pretty good at interpreting assignments – actually, I’m pretty great at it. I didn’t stress out much when it came to predicting what teachers were really looking for, what would make them happy — I knew what they wanted to see. I actually enjoyed the unstructured “I can’t wait to see what you all come up with” types of assignments. But I realized in library school that I’m way in the minority there – that for others, these free for alls are incredibly stressful.

Here’s the thing – a lot of people who go into academia are pretty good at school. And a huge part of being good at school is knowing what’s really being asked for. I am guessing that a lot of professors probably loved getting to play with ideas and sources and concepts when they were students, and were good at it. And then we become professors and we want to design the exciting, enriching assignments we would have wanted as students. But in many cases we weren’t typical students – what we wanted wasn’t what everyone else wanted or needed?

I read an article years ago about the writing classroom where the teacher (I think she was a middle school teacher) asked the class to re-write a short story they’d just read from a different character’s perspective. I am pretty sure that I would have adored this assignment in the sixth grade — that’s just how my brain works. But the class pretty much crashed and burned. Instead of giving up on the assignment, or on them, she broke it down into a series of smaller exercises that helped the students re-frame the story, empathize with different characters and – and this is important – develop the confidence to create something themselves that was going to stand alongside (in their minds) the original story by a “real author.”

It is important to remember what a huge step it is to feel confident enough to say “no one else seems to be interpreting these facts this way, but this is what makes sense to me and I’m confident in my analysis and evidence.” Talk about unpacking – that’s a career’s worth of information literacy development embedded in that one sentence. And this brings us back to where we ended yesterday — that a huge part of what we do is give students the courage to take risks. Is it a good idea to ask them to do that in every stage of a multilayered project?

One concrete place where I really think this all comes together is the topic selection phase — a place were many students don’t get much guidance — and a place where many research projects fail. Not only do the affective dimensions loom really large at this stage, but topic selection is also a skill (that requires domain knowledge). And at the same time, there’s a hefty dose of practicality in play — you’re going to be judged by someone else, that means figuring out their rules.

For this, I’m going to turn to Project Information Literacy again – their 2010 paper on how students use information in the digital age has a great section on barriers students face and for many of those students (like, easily most) the biggest barrier is “getting started.” The finding here is that students approach topic selection extremely aware of the fact that they are navigating a host of unstated expectations on the part of their teacher — not just in terms of “that’s interesting” (or not) but from a much deeper and more complex level — “that’s a topic that will (or won’t) let you do the kind of analysis and use the kinds of sources I expect to see here.” It says they think of this as a gamble:

Instead, for many students we interviewed, course-related research was difficult because it was more akin to gambling than completing college-level work. Yes, gambling. The beginning of research is when the first bets were placed. Choosing a topic is fraught with risk for many students. As one student acknowledged in interviews: either a topic worked well or it failed when it was too late to change it.

In the last couple of terms a colleague and I have been experimenting with the information literacy models in our FYC class to see if we can’t improve them. We started out looking at delivery platforms, but something we saw during our assessment that term led us down the rabbit hole of curiosity and getting started. So this last term, we took five sections and built in a set of activities where they browsed for topics. Their course instructors sent them to ScienceDaily, and then led them through a process of topic selection. I wouldn’t say this was uncritically successful — there are things we want to tweak – but successful it definitely was. But one of the most striking things about the process was actually the conversations we had with the instructors before where they confirmed, from their experience, that yes – topic selection is super scary and stressful for students and for some, it’s a barrier they can’t overcome.

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I think activities and assignments that focus entirely on that crucial first step — what kinds of questions do people ask in this field – would be fantastic. But if you want to do a more fully-fledged research project in a class, then building in activities that provide structure, feedback and hopefully spark interest during the topic-selection stage are crucial. Browsing is a great way to get started with this — structured, guided, useful browsing that will expose students to sources and ideas they haven’t seen before. This is a map that some colleagues and I created for a workshop – we wanted a visual that would help students start to understand the scope and extent of research happening on our campus. We started the workshop with a browsing activity – and I think a lot of students would have stayed there the whole time if we’d let them.

Conclusion

I wouldn’t say I have any strong, definitive conclusions here — the closest thing to a big-c Conclusion is I think the idea that helping students take risks is what we need to do — and that our assignments should be authentic enough to make them take those cognitive or affective risks, but structured enough to give them what they need to be successful in their risk-taking.

But the workshop this was in service of happened, and the conversations were great. And I just checked back on my three strains of thought and while they may not have fully cohered — they’re all here in some way. So I’m calling this a win. Thanks for coming along with me.

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.

If you don’t use peer-reviewed sources you’ll be SO grounded!

I have more writing to do right now than I have time, so it has of course become vitally important to write this blog post that has been buzzing at the back of my brain RIGHT NOW.

My life as a parent isn’t a big topic of conversation on this blog, but a little background is needed here.  One of the reasons I don’t talk much about my family in this space is because one of the complexities of adoption is learning how to talk about your experiences while respecting the fact that your child has her own story and her own experiences and only she gets to decide when and where and how to share that story.  Part of this journey is her story alone, part of it is ours.  And some of it is mine and Shaun’s – and this post is coming from that part.

So one of the things that happens when you navigate the adoption process is that you take way more classes and trainings about parenting than you probably otherwise would.  Some of these are to really learn things and some are to show how interested and committed you are to being a good parent.

This wasn’t an awful thing – if you’re like me (and like Shaun) you can find something to chew on in almost any class and these classes were full of enough brain development data and learning theory and interesting personalities that even when the classes didn’t totally work, the after-class conversations were pretty awesome.

Still, two almost identical Love and Logic classes was a lot, even for us.  Like many self-help-y or how-to-y type things that develop huge and devoted followings – L&L is based on some fairly simple ideas which are then applied in many ways.  In parenting-class world that means many, many sessions reinforcing the same basic concepts.  In taking-the-same-class-twice parenting class world, well…. this is a long intro to explain why my brain has had many hours to connect those simple concepts to many things.

milk spilled on a wood laminate countertopSo the basic premise of love and logic is grounded in the idea of natural consequences (and empathy, but this post is really more about the natural consequences part).

In other words, the idea is that kids learn best when they have to face the authentic, real, organic consequences of their choices.  Artificial consequences that aren’t connected to the choice the kid made (most routine punishments fit in this category — taking away TV privileges for breaking a window = consequences that are probably unrelated to the bad choice) just seem arbitrary and capricious and the kid ends up blaming you (or whoever imposed the consequence) instead of their own bad choices — which does nothing to teach them not to make bad choices in the first place.

Here’s the basic L&L mantra:

  1. Give your child a task you know they can handle.
  2. Hope they mess up.*
  3. Let empathy + natural consequences do the teaching.
  4. When the opportunity arises let them try again.

*Note:  the debater in me never came to terms with the “hope they mess up” part.  There were parents in my classes who really hated this line and who also hadn’t quite grasped the “learning comes from mistakes” piece.  I did grasp that part – that’s the part of this I like — but that doesn’t mean you have to actively hope they mess up.  I mean, take it to its logical conclusion.  If my kid never, ever, ever messes up — there’s no bad outcome.  Yes, they may not have learned from mistakes, but those mistakes also never happened so she either learned some other way or didn’t need that learning.  So I debate-proved to myself that I don’t have to actively hope she makes mistakes, I just have to be sure I see the value when she does.**

**Second Note: Seriously, we spent NINETY minutes on this concept in one class session.  It is not my fault I thought about it this much.

Like many of the simple ideas that turn into Something Big, this is a fairly compelling argument.  This was one of the pieces of Love and Logic that worked for me pretty well, which isn’t to say it all did – I have some real problems with some of the other concepts connected to this that I can go on about at length, but won’t here.

And while natural consequences is a L&L cornerstone, it’s by no means limited to that set of books and workshops — this is a concept with legs, that comes up over and over, generally as part of a larger idea that lecturing doesn’t work.

And I’ve been thinking about it in terms of library instruction.  And not just because we have an knee-jerk anti-lecture response at this point too.

I’ve been thinking about it because I think it highlights that we spend a LOT of our time “lecturing” – even if we do it with clickers.  Because lecturing in this context doesn’t mean just “talking,” “broadcasting” or other words that essentially mean “one-way communication” — which is generally what we mean by “lecturing” in the classroom context.

No, in this context, “lecturing” means explaining the consequences of bad choices instead of demonstrating them.  And I think we do that a lot.

Not in the steps — we do a good job of letting our students discover the consequences of choosing the wrong database, or choosing the wrong search terms — within the parameters we set up and the assumptions we’re making about what they need to know we have developed lots of ways to help them discover and learn for themselves.

No, I’m talking about in the big picture — in the WHY should they do these things at all part — that’s where we’re lecturing.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone raise this type of question on ILI-L –

“how can I convince my students that they really need to be using these sources?”

or

“how can I convince my students that there will be consequences if they don’t cite properly?”

And what’s the subtext here?  It’s — how can I convince my students not to make mistakes?

Because here’s the thing — our teaching in libraries is more similar to the type of teaching parents do than I ever thought it was.  Yes, parents can impose plenty of consequences themselves on the day to day level —  “no tv until you finish your homework” but the ultimate goal for most parents goes beyond finishing the homework tonight – they’re looking to raise up kids who can learn stuff, and who are organized to get stuff done and who can go off to college or out into the world and meet deadlines and achieve goals, and am I right?

And library instructors can impose some consequences when the students are actually in the library class – that’s basic classroom management stuff.  Yes, some are better at it than others and we never have the power that the grade book or the parental relationship gives – but we are in a position of some power in that context.  But that in-class power, that’s not the real goal.  We’re looking to teach skills and concepts that students can take with them out in to the “real world” and use to be successful and get stuff done — just like parents.

And this is also a reason why it’s not like regular classroom teaching.  The regular classroom has a more immediate set of primary goals than lifelong learning.  Yes, I suspect that many, many teachers have life long learning as a goal — I certainly did when I taught history.  But the fact that that was a primary goal for me was also a big reason why I stopped teaching history and went into libraries.

I expect that most teachers would prefer that their students cite sources properly in all of their classes. They have a commitment to producing good students in the major, and good graduates of the institution, but that doesn’t have to be their primary goal in a classroom interaction.  In my own class, I can say “two points off your grade for every MLA formatting mistake” and then I can MAKE THAT BE TRUE.*  I might hope that the impact of that is that they use MLA perfectly in their next class, but mainly, I don’t want to struggle through improperly formatted citations in the papers I have to grade.

*Note:  I do not ever do this.

So what are we doing when we say “how can I convince my students…. “?  We’re talking about consequences that we have no control over — we’re talking about those life consequences.  We’re talking about all of those things that we know because we have more life experience (and more college experience) and if they would just LISTEN to us they could avoid those mistakes. But here’s the thing – I think maybe we should be letting those happen.

And I think this not just because I think it would be good for the learning — I also think this because of what it would mean for us.

Take First Year Student X – coming into OSU with a gaudy 4.0 GPA from a decent high school, has never had any trouble at all getting A’s on her research papers using her favorite library sources — books and the online Encyclopedia Britannica.  She’s never read an academic journal and she thinks of “peer review” as trading papers with a classmate and making comments.

How much energy do I have to spend to “convince” her that she needs to use peer-reviewed sources in her college research papers?

Alternatively, what happens if this highly motivated, intelligent student turns in a paper sourced from the encyclopedia, her textbook, and some 15 year old monographs from the library’s stacks?  Probably two options — she gets negative feedback on her sources by her instructor or she doesn’t.

if she does?  She’s going to learn from her mistakes. And I can help her get where she needs to be much more effectively. If she doesn’t – then no amount of energy spent by a librarian to convince her that she REALLY needs to use different sources will make a difference.

Now see my first extra note above and don’t get me wrong – I don’t actually want my students to make mistakes. I would prefer they make the choices I would prefer they make. I think using a variety of interesting sources, including those that represent more than opinion or anecdote, is important and I want students to do that. I’m all for giving those students who are ready to learn to do things in a new way the information they need to do so.  What I am saying is that I think we’re spending a lot of energy in library instruction trying to ensure that all of our students won’t make mistakes when they do research — and that that’s counterproductive.

See, the thing that is the same about parenting is this – it makes a lot of sense to choose those places where your energy is best spent – and it’s just rarely best spent trying to convince your kid that consequences exist when he has never experienced them for himself.  To do this, you have to do a lot of thinking for him and spend a lot of time imposing rules and consequences he’s going to think are arbitrary.  And if you’re going to do that, shouldn’t you wait for a real life-or-death health and safety issue?  Especially when it is so much easier and so much more authentic to convince him that consequences exist after he has experienced them.

And the thing that is different than parenting is this – with the slight exception of natural adult-related authority and good classroom management skills, for us the whole ballgame is what our students do with our teaching after they leave us – whether we’re talking about transcendent information literacy teaching that leads to powerful reflective thinkers and lifelong learners — or just about skills that they can apply to do well on that paper that’s due next week — success or failure for us is hardly ever about what happens when they are in a room with us.  Some of the teaching parents do really is about making life at home, life in the family, better – in library instruction it’s always about making something, somewhere else better.

So I think we need to re-think our relationship to that somewhere else – connect our focus as teachers to what they’re learning, naturally and authentically out there — and not try and teach in advance in the classroom those things that life will teach them better.  And if they’re not learning what they need to from natural consequences, from authentic feedback and meaningful responses to their work — then we need to be working on that level, with their teachers and employers and mentors.

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.

Peer Reviewed Monday – Scaffolding Evaluation Skills

ResearchBlogging.org
So this week we’re also behind a paywall, I think.  Someday I will have time to actually go looking for Peer Reviewed Monday articles that meet a set of standards, but right now we’re still in the “something I read in real life this week” phase.

And this one was interesting – so far, when I have found articles that are specifically about deliberate interventions designed to teach something about peer review or about research articles, it is almost always in this literature, about the teaching of science.  Not surprising, but it does beg the question of disciplinary differences.  Still, the overarching takeaway of this article isn’t that everyone should teach about evaluating scientific evidence like we did so much as it is everyone should be teaching this on purpose, and over and over.

Which is a message I can get behind.  And one, I suspect, that is true across disciplines.

So the article has two parts.  One is a presentation of the model the authors used to teach students to evaluate evidence, and the second is a report on their research assessing the use of the model in a class.  Their students are not college students, but advanced high school students.

The authors open by arguing for the significance of evaluation skills in science -

Students, more frequently now than before, are faced with important socio-scientific dilemmas and they are asked or they will be asked in the future to take action on them.  They should be in position to have reflective discussions on such debates and not accept data at face value.

They further argue that students are not being taught this now – that most problem-based or inquiry-based curricula takes the data as a given, and doesn’t include “question the data” as part of the lesson. ( I almost think they are arguing that this is even more important now then it had been before because of the current emphasis on active, experiential learning.  That they’re suggesting that this type of pedagogy requires evaluation skills that the old lecture model didn’t, but that teaching evaluation skills hasn’t been built into these curricula.  That’s an interesting idea.)

In the lit review, the authors spend some time on the question of what “credibility” means.  For the purposes of this paper, that are arguing that there are two main components to the assessment of the credibility of evidence:  the source of the evidence and the method, how it was constructed.  This interpretation is heavily influenced by Driver, et al, 2001).

Questions to ask of the source:

  • Is there evident bias or not?
  • Was it peer-reviewed?
  • Who is the author? What is their reason for producing the evidence? What is their background?
  • What is the funding source?

Questions to ask of the methodology:

  • Does the evidence refer to a comparison of two different groups?
  • Is there any control of variables?
  • Were the results replicated?

The review of the literature suggests that there is ample evidence to support the claim that students are uncertain about how to evaluate evidence and assess claims.  This holds true across grade levels and disciplines.  They also suggest that there is very little research on whether these skills can be improved.

image of steel building framework

Credibility Assessment Framework

The authors then turn their attention to the Credibility Assessment Framework, which they believe will help high school students build the skills they need to assess evidence in inquiry situations.  The framework is based on two specific theoretical concepts: Learning-for-use framework (Edelson 2001) and scaffolding design framework (Quintana, et al 2004).  The framework is intended to help designers create good learning activities that include:

  • authentic contexts
  • authentic activities
  • multiple perspectives
  • coaching and scaffolding by the teacher at critical times
  • authentic assessment of learning within the tasks
  • support for the collaborative construction of knowledge
  • support for reflection about and articulation of learning

What they did

The team spent eight months building the learning environment for a class of secondary school science students.  They built their evaluation learning activities around a project where students were supposed to be doing hands-on work on an ill-structured and complex problem (food and GMOs) — a context where their work should naturally and authentically benefit from the critical evaluation of multiple sources of evidence.

One thing that is significant here, is that the authors supplied the reserach for the students to evaluate — they didn’t include a “finding stuff” piece to this work.  But they also modified the sources that the students were going to use, when they felt it was important to do so to decrease the cognitive load on students.  What was really interesting to me about this was what they added in – context, why the study was done and where it fit.  This is exactly what I feel (feel, because I haven’t got data) my students are missing when they’re just assigned “peer-reviewed articles.”

This information was put in a database in the students’ online learning space.  This space includes both an “inquiry” environment and a reflective “WorkSpace” environment; the project used both.

Scaffolding was built in, using both human-provided information (from the teacher) and computer-supported information (available online for the duration of the unit).  And the unit as a whole lasted elevent weeks.  There were 11 90 minute lesson plans.  The students started out doing hands-on experiments, and then spent the remainder of the unit doing groupwork which included data evaluation.  Then at the end the groups presented their findings.

In the first four lessons, the students were evaluating the provided sources without direct instruction. In the fifth lesson, they did a specific exercise where they evaluated the credibility of two sources unrelated to the class’ topic — this was done to reveal the criteria that the students had been unconsciously using as they attempted to evaluate provided sources in the first four weeks.

What they found out

The authors gathered pre- and post- test data using two instruments.  One measured the mastery of concepts and the other the evaluation skills.  They also videotaped the class sessions and used data captured from the online learning environment.  There was a control class as well, which did not have any of the specific evaluation lessons. The authors found that for the study group, there was a statistically significant difference between the pre- and post- tests for both conceptual understanding and evaluation skills.  For the control group there was no significant difference.

Two findings I found particularly interesting:

  • Including the qualitative data gave more insight.  In the pre-tests students were abel to identify the more credible sources, but they were not able to articulate WHY those sources were more credibile.
  • Within the particular components of credibility that the authors identified (source and method) the students did fine on author/author background by themselves, but needed help with: type of publication and funding source.

The students needed scaffolding help on methodological criteria, and even with it, many students didn’t get it (though they got more of it than they had coming in – this was a totally new concept for most of them).

Here’s the piece that I found the most interesting.  The impact of the study, as interpreted by me, was not so much on the students’ ability to tell the really good or the really bad sources.  It sounded to mek like the real impact was that the students were able to do more meaningful navigation of the sources in the middle.  And I think that’s really important — and something that most students don’t know they need to know on their own.  Related to this – the students were likely to mistrust ALL “internet” sources at the beginning, but by the end they were able to identify a journal article, even if that journal article was published online.  That’s significant to me too – that shows the start of that more sophisticated understanding of evaluation that I think is necessary to really evaluate the scholarly literature.

Finally, the authors found that the students had most of the conversations they did have about evaluation as the result of instruction – not on their own – which they took to prove that instruction was needed.

As I said before, the point of the paper seemed to me to be more about the fact taht this kind of direct intervention is needed, not that this specific intervention is the be all and end all of instruction in this area.  Beyond this, I think the paper is interesting because it illustrates how big a job “evaluation” is to teach – that it includes not only a set of skills but a related set of epistemological ideas — that the students need to know something about knowledge and why and how it’s created.  That’s a big job, and I’m not surprised it took 3 months to do here.

Nicolaidou, I., Kyza, E., Terzian, F., Hadjichambis, A., & Kafouris, D. (2011). A framework for scaffolding students’ assessment of the credibility of evidence Journal of Research in Science Teaching DOI: 10.1002/tea.20420