Category Archives: Active Learning

The Courage To Teach by Parker J. Palmer

Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 1998. Print.

Hello everyone! My name is Molly and I am the Graduate Research Assistant for Library Instruction Services. As a GRA I aid the librarians in LIS with co-teaching courses designed to enhance information literacy skills or introduce research tools such as Zotero, edit instructional content, assist in library outreach events, and speak with students who have questions. Also, I will now be a contributor to our Instruction blog!

As someone who is new to teaching in the library (well, actually, in any setting), I found a number of articles and books that were on my GRA to-read list very helpful in overcoming my beginner’s anxiety. Though I have experience in presenting and public speaking, I knew that teaching was going to be different. It’s one thing to stand up in front of an audience and speak about a subject or a project that’s exciting to you, but another thing entirely to actually try to engage a group of human beings (any age) in the learning process.

One book, however, stood out as being particularly helpful to curb this fear. That would be Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. True to its title, this book discusses how to rediscover or find the passion that you have within you and how to use that passion to get students to focus their attention on your subject.

Palmer writes about how there is a high volume of fear in academia and in education at large: fear of covering controversial topics in the classroom, fear of setting standards too high or too low, fear of not having a traditionally structured classroom, and even the fears that students themselves bring to the classroom. About this, Palmer states “the roots of education are sunk deep in fearful ground. The ground I have in mind is one we rarely name: it is our dominant mode of knowing, a mode promoted with such arrogance that it is hard to see the fear behind it—until one remembers that arrogance often masks fear” (50). This arrogance comes from the desire to have control—to manipulate and change what we can in the objective world. However, it is only through giving up this control, working through this arrogance and fear, that a teacher can “enter a partnership with the otherness of the world” (Palmer 56) and therefore have a true connection with students and the subject they are teaching.

Palmer spends quite some time on the dangers of privileging objectivism over subjectivism and how it has done damage to the teaching profession. He also discusses using the classroom as a learning community and the structure of a possible reformation in the institution of education. Palmer expresses several times throughout the text that this reformation must come primarily from the teachers themselves: by choosing to move past the fears that inhibit us and students and to honor the inner world that informs our teaching style as well as the original passion we had for our subject.

For anyone interested in a great overview of the philosophy behind teaching and learning, as well as a fearless discussion of that inner world which our conventional or institutional view of objectivism has often overlooked or even disparaged, but which is essential for a teacher to examine, I wholeheartedly recommend The Courage to Teach.

Refresher Course: 10 Short Lessons on One-shot Instruction
By a group of library instructors, including Megan Oakleaf, Beth Woodard, Randy Hensley, Christopher Hollister, Debra Gilchrist, Patty Iannuzzi, etc.

As always I struggled to find an article that speaks to me. I read through some and skimmed many more. When I saw this one I almost skipped over it because it seemed so basic, but as I began to look over it I realized how important these basics are, and how little I have thought about them in the last few semesters of preparing and giving sessions. As I read more closely through this article, I also realized that I have lost many of the finer points of the basics, and I became excited for the first time in a while to actually plan a class. I am teaching one later this week that I am actually anticipating planning, because I am going to use this article as I go through the process and will try to integrate some of the points, some of which I’ve known  about for years, some of which I’ve presented on, but many of which have fallen by the wayside when I teach some of my current instruction sessions.

The lessons :
1. Less is more . . . right?
– We are teaching students research skills, not nurturing proto-librarians
– If it doesn’t fit, offload it (think about what’s most important for session, what’s secondary that might be able to have professor give out in class, etc.)
2. Some students learn like you do. Most don’t.
– All students have slightly different learning styles. We don’t need to teach to every different learning style, but we should use a broad variety of experiences
3, If you’re not assessing, you’re not teaching – practice assessing and teaching simultaneously
4. Have a (lesson) plan
– Use learning outcomes, break the lesson into chunks tied to each outcome, and afterward reflect for future
5. Your enthusiasm is contagious – enthusiasm is genuine, and shows students that you care about their learning, frustrations, successes
6. Go with evidence, not your gut – conduct needs assessments, whether before the class starts or at the beginning of a class
7. You should not be tired – Active learning, not lecture and demonstration
8. Integrated, not separated – integrate your thoughts, teaching, work with faculty and assessments
9. Faculty are your friends – You aren’t a babysitter or ‘guest lecturer’, rather you are an equal, an ally in student learning
10. Your teaching matters to your institution – we must work to contribute to the big issues on our campuses.

I would like to spend our time together talking through these, and finding the strategies that some of you employ specifically in your one shot classes.

My PollEverywhere experience

Last fall, I got to teach in the labs of a lower-division nutrition course. The students were mostly non-majors, and freshmen. The lab met for three hours in a computer classroom. TAs were present during the labs, but did not assist in the ILI, which was preparation for a graded literature searching assignment in which students would find a popular article on one of four nutrition topics, and then find either a research article or a review article on the same topic as the popular article.

In the lab, students did “cold turkey” searching and answered questions using the internet feature of PollEverywhere. Students were directed to use UT Libraries databases to find articles on sustainability and the locavore movement. Student participation was quite gratifying.

  1. Which LIBRARY DATABASE did you use for your search? (Class 1, 28/30; Class 2, 30/30; Class 3, 31/29)
  2. What SEARCH STRATEGY did you use [Ex: (women OR female*) AND (osteoporo* OR bone loss)]? (Class 1, 26/30; Class 2, 27/30; Class 3, 31/29)
  3. Give the article title and publication title of the POPULAR article you found. (Class 1, 17/30; Class 2, 26/30; Class 3, 19/29)
  4. Give the article title and publication title of the SCHOLARLY article you found. (question skipped)

I adjusted the content covered and time spent on each concept in response to the students’ poll answers, alternating lecture/discussion with exercise questions. I believe that being able to see what the students knew and what they were confused about helped me make the IL session much more valuable to the students. I used the free version of PollEverywhere, which let’s you have 40 responses per poll. For larger classes, you can game the system by having Poll A, Poll B, etc. Or, $65.00 a month gets you 250 responses per poll, and the service appears to be month-to-month. I recommend wide deployment of PollEverywhere or a similar technology. According to the ECAR study, 55% of undergraduates own a smartphone and 87% own a laptop. With the internet option for poll response, students needn’t be on the hook for texting charges.

Let’s spend $65.00!

  1. What’s the most successful/useful feedback tool or technique you’ve used in a class?
  2. If we built the ideal feedback tool, what would it look like?

ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2011 Report,





Integrating primary source research into undergrad courses

“Old Stuff” for New Teaching Methods: Outreach to History Faculty Teaching with Primary Sources portal: Libraries and the Academy Volume 10, Number 4, October 2010

From Project Muse database –

“If used properly, primary sources can illuminate history and its actors and make history come alive for students. I am always amazed at the joy of discovery shown by students when they look at primary sources.”


Many Latin American faculty have always expected their graduate students to do primary research, often with the expectation that they will do so in the Benson. But I feel like I’m seeing an increase in faculty bringing undergraduates into the Benson with similar expectations. Some of the increase might be due to those same professors teaching in the UGS program and them wanting to introduce their students to how to use primary sources for research projects. I think this is a great idea, but I also see it being done with varying levels of success. The worst cases usually involve the requirement that they find ‘one primary source in the Benson’ along with their other sources.


This semester I have met with at least four professors who are requiring their undergraduates to utilize primary resources, and I would like to prepare more for this in the future by looking at creative and effective ways faculty integrate primary source research into their undergraduate classes.


Some of the basic necessary skills:

  1. Identifying primary vs. secondary source documents (
  2. Analyze primary source documents
  3. Interpreting documents within historical context
  4. Comparing conflicting sources
  5. Identifying major themes/issues from primary sources (multiple sources)


Some of the challenges:

  1. Making the documents meaningful, instead of just another requirement
  2. Undergrads tend to use primary sources in same way they use secondary sources –finding something that supports their stance and using that
  3. Going past face value of documents (same for secondary sources) – looking at why they were created, who created them, etc. (critical analysis
  4. Student views of history as ‘narrative’ instead of tentative – something to be pieced together
  5. High school football coaches who crushed any budding historical curiosity through a regime of textbooks, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, and multiple choice tests (I just loved this comment from the article!)


I would like tomorrow’s discussion to be about if and how everyone has encountered faculty requiring/introducing primary source research, and how you or your professors have used it successfully.



A RIOT potpourri: Networked Individuals and Guest-speaker Syndrome

I searched. And I read. And then I searched again. And then… I realized I was more interested in consuming my RIOT articles like tapas or perhaps more like Thanksgiving side dishes — in small delicious morsels to ponder one at a time, rather than one big chunk. So, here’s my RIOT platter, or potpourri, or slurry whichever strikes your fancy…

1. Lee Rainie gave a presentation to the Tampa Bay Library Consortium entitled “How Libraries Can Serve Networked Individuals.” While much of his presentation is half regurgitation of updated PEW statistics and half  “libraries are awesome” rallying call, there is one part in particular that I though was very insightful. He describes characteristics of the new “networked individual,”  a term taken from the writings of Barry Wellman, a former PEW collaborator on the 2006 study, The Strength of Internet Ties.  While some of these characteristics may now be rather obvious, the information seeking behavior of these “networked individuals” poses a challenge to the ways in which we work with our students to help them to critically evaluate and sift through information. Here’s a slide form Lee Rainie’s presentation, textually reproduced:

Networked Individuals have a different:

  • Sense of information availability – it’s ambient
  • Sense of time – it’s oriented around “continuous partial attention”
  • Sense of community and connection – it’s about “absent presence”
  • Sense of the rewards and challenges of networking for social, economic, political, and cultural purposes – new layers and new audiences

These different senses, or environments, that our students experience is common, no matter that they are a first-year, nursing, art, engineering, or international student. While we may not be able to reproduce or recreate this type of information experience because of our library training, we can gain insight and draw connections from how students are coping with the above characteristics.

For instance, the sense of information availability as ambient, could be classified as information overload, but it also goes a bit further in describing how our reliance on it’s constant availability. It’s ambient, expected, even omniscient.

The second and third characteristics about “continuous partial attention” and “absent presence” immediately brought to mind the ability to multi-task and our introduction of active learning in the classroom.  I feel like its a rare occasion when students (and admittedly myself) are fully attentive, but I also think that’s just what makes this environment that much more immersed in learning – our ability to immediately look up a word, phrase, movie, or article without missing a beat of the regularly scheduled program. Alternately, the library – as place, as reference help (either in person or over chat) or as a socially networked friend or fan is a form of the “absent presence” . We are here when you need us; just know that we’re here.

Rainie and Wellner may have not meant for this to be interpreted so literally, but personally, I found it helpful in constructing a more well-rounded student image in the context of the cognitive and educational theories we’ve discussed in the past.

  • Do you all see a connection or is this just reformatting of some of the characteristics of millenials?

2. Steve Lawson recently wrote a post all about not preparing for library instruction classes. That is, he prepares, but not intricately, meaning no pre-planned searches or guided assignments. I think we do a pretty good job here about not relying too heavily on a certain canned curriculum, but I really like how Lawson draws the correlation between the students’ mood in a regular classroom with a professor they know and love…

The class was lively and fun with great discussions and arguments. Until we had a guest. Then everyone clammed up. The rapport wasn’t there. The dynamic of the class was one of sharing and discussing, and when the guest speaker came in, it switched to lecture mode, and the class fell into a coma.

I feel like we’ve all experienced this, but to agree it was the “guest speaker” syndrome? Is it possible it could be something else? Classes that were longer, that encouraged problem solving, and relied on students to work with each other to find and evaluate information, seemed to be much more successful as conveying the utility of the library (and the librarian). However, I think some students were caught off guard with the unconventional not “guest speaker” expectation.  Is there a way to merge the two? In the end, Lawson’s post had helped me to reflect on this entire semester and to examine what has changed about my teaching philosophy this semester. I think his final paragraph sums it up nicely:

To do this doesn’t take coming up with new handouts or demonstrating more or fewer features of more or fewer databases. What it takes is making a subtle but significant shift in how I see myself and how I convey what I have to offer to students.

So, what’s yours?

Does putting on a good show matter?

The article:
Corcose, E., & Monty, V. (2008). Interactivity in Library Presentations Using a
Personal Response System. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 31(2).

The basics:

This article reports on a study of the use of a “Personal Response System” (more commonly known as clickers – wireless devices that students use to respond to a question posed by the instructor) in library instruction. The authors conducted three classes using the clickers, and three classes covering the same content without them (with a total of 127 participating students in each group). In the clicker classes, students were presented with multiple choice questions throughout the session, which allowed the instructor to gauge their understanding of each topic. In the non-clicker classes, similar feedback was obtained by asking open-ended questions.
At the end of each class, students completed anonymous questionnaires ranking (using 5-point scales) 1) their enjoyment of the session, 2) their feeling of competency using the library, 3) the relevancy of the class to their needs, 4) the organization and presentation of the class, and 5) the knowledgability, helpfulness and effectiveness of the instructor.
Using chi-square analysis, the authors determined that the only responses that significantly differed between the clicker and non-clicker students were those for enjoyment of the session and for organization and presentation of the class, with the clicker students reporting higher enjoyment and better organization. The questionnaires also included a few open-ended questions.
The authors noted that using the clickers “enabled good pedagogy,” but reduced flexibility in the classroom (the questions had to be pre-programmed), and extended class preparation time. Additionally, they reported that clicker use ate up 15 minutes of the 50-60 minute classes. They concluded that the advantages outweighed the negatives, due to the immediate feedback they facilitate and to an awareness they create in the instructor that students can only learn so much in one session. They noted that other studies have found that learning outcomes remain the same for both traditional and clicker methods.

Why do we care?

This article drew my attention because several students have recently come to the reference desk asking for scissors to open packages of clickers, so they seem to be in use on campus. Since we usually don’t have the time to develop relationships with the students we teach, they are sometimes reluctant to interact during our sessions. Part of this could just be due to other factors (maybe they’re a quiet class, or maybe they just turned in a paper and are all tired), but I wonder if giving them a chance to submit anonymous feedback would help them feel more comfortable.
After reading the article, I found myself thinking about whether technology like this is worth using if it makes the class more enjoyable but doesn’t increase learning outcomes. If we use technology to make the session more fun, are we just putting on a show, or are we adding something valuable?
One major difference between the authors’ instruction sessions and ours is that for whatever reason, their students didn’t have the opportunity to conduct their own searches (though it seemed like they had computers). 17% of the non-clicker students suggested that future classes have a chance to search on their own, but only 3% of the clicker students made this suggestion. To me, this suggests that using the clickers may have filled some desire the students had for interaction that could have been filled in other ways (like active learning). If we were to implement something like this, would it take away from other forms of interaction? Between the laptops and the clickers, would all the technology be too distracting?
Finally, I wonder how much you can really change your class plan to respond to such immediate feedback. While flexibility is definitely a good thing, would it be difficult to switch your plan on the fly? I found it interesting that one of the authors’ pros for using clickers was that it made them realize the limitations of how much students can learn in one session. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in trying to cover everything, but it might be useful to have a reminder to slow down and make sure everyone’s on the same page.

Big picture:

Beyond looking at specific types of technology, what are the best reasons to introduce new gadgets or techniques into the classroom? Should criteria always be focused on improving learning outcomes, or do student enjoyment and instructor organization/presentation style matter too?

EXERCISE: How to read a scientific article

Purpose: This exercise introduces students to the parts of a typical scientific research article and a method for reading such articles.

Introduction: Students who are unfamiliar with scientific literature will often attempt to read articles straight through, the way they read textbooks or popular articles. This can be frustrating and unproductive.

Materials: For a class of ~24 students, use three research articles. Photocopy these sections—introduction, materials & methods, data/results, and conclusion—masking off text so that content from other article sections isn’t visible.

Methods: Have students work in pairs. Give each pair a section of an article and an article-notes form (Purugganan and Hewitt, 2004). Let them have 5-10 minutes to skim their sections and answer as many questions as they can on the form. Now have all students who have sections of each article gather together and report on what they think the article is about. Then have each group report out to the class about this experience. Generally, students who had the conclusions sections will have the best idea of what the article is about, and students who had the materials/methods sections will know the least.

Discussion: Have students read the abstracts of their papers, to see what they’re about. Then tell students to

  1. read the abstract to determine whether the article is a keeper
  2. read the conclusions—what did the researchers find?
  3. read the introduction—why did the researchers do this study
  4. read the results—show me the data!
  5. read the methods—how can I repeat this study?

Show the Purdue video “How To Read Scientific Papers” to reinforce.

Show students how to find subject dictionaries and encyclopedias to refer to while reading scientific articles—

  1. Gale Virtual Reference Library > apoptosis
  2. Library Catalog: AKW <dictionar* biolog* AND MT ebook; apoptosis>


Purdue University Libraries, n.d. [Fosmire, Michael?]  How to read scientific papers. Flash tutorial.

Purugganan, Mary and Jan Hewitt, 2004. “How to Read a Scientific Article.”

Lessons from the academy: Actuating active mass-class information literacy instruction

Lessons from the academy: Actuating active mass-class information literacy instruction

Mardi Chalmers
California State University, Monterey Bay, California, USA

Reference Services Review, 36.1 (2008): 23-38.

The author suggests new pedagogies for information literacy to large format classes, using the ideas of engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation from constructivist learning theory to structure her discussion.

The literature review moves outside the library literature and into the scholarship of education and psychology, exploring the effectiveness of the lecture format that is most often adopted in large-format class and the importance of employing active learning to facilitate higher-level learning. Some highlights:

  • “Lectures are effective for memorization and repetition, but they are not helpful in teaching understanding and application of knowledge to other situations, problem solving, or critical thinking” — an important point considering the nature of info lit instruction.
  • “In fact, there is agreement in the science and education literature . . . that the college student’s attention span is between 10 and 20 minutes.”
  • “The large introductory classes are often filled with younger students whose note-taking and listening skills may not yet have matured . . . and they may hesitate to question content they do not understand “
  • “There is evidence in instructional research that the traditional lecture does not lead to higher-level student learning outcomes . . . An eloquently expressed or performed lecture is still a lecture. Although students’ attention might not wander as much, what is delivered remains passively accepted, and the responsibility for their own learning is not given to the students.”

Having successfully made the case for active learning no matter the course size and addressing the discomfort librarians often feel with planning exercises regardless of the number of students, Chalmers offers ideas under each of the Five E’s. A summary:

Engagement – “describes the active interest in a topic experienced and/or demonstrated by a learner”

  • asking students that allows students to draw upon their own interest in the topic
  • having students prepare for the lecture by writing short essays beforehand
  • small group discussion with reporting out
  • having a student already familiar with a resource do the initial demonstration
  • employing the Socratic method to structure the class, allowing student questions to drive the course content

Exploration – “where students investigate new content or topics, and collect and organize information”

  • Small groups where students are working together towards a mastery of the course content
  • Case-based learning

Explanation – “where the student is self-reflective about new learning, after they have gained confidence in their ability to learn through the exploration phase.”

  • structured controversy, where students are asked to argue for or against a position
  • “Conceptest” – the instructor “poses a question or two from the lecture. Students think individually for a minute about the question, and then turn to their neighbor and try to convince them that their answers are correct, reinforcing the skill of discussing content in one’s own words. Students give feedback to the teacher, who then provides explanation of the correct answer.”
  • Think-pair-share
  • Small group determination of popular vs scholarly, with a reporter defending the position of the group

Elaboration – “deepens student understanding and retention”

  • Small group activity analyzing and solving higher-order, abstract problems
  • The instructor designs question to assess student knowledge and has a student recorded compile the answers, with the class correcting the wrong ones
  • Active reviewing through summarizing after a period of reflection


  • The one-minute paper – “What did you learn? What is still confusing?”, discussing the answers in class or following up afterwards
  • Online surveys on lecture material at end of class
  • Essay questions, in-class writing, “public hearings” and group quizzes with open-ended questions to facilitate higher-order thinking
  • Clicker responses to questions

Chalmers concludes by noting that it takes more time to design a session for a large-format class that involves students in their own learning and that such sessions require a higher level of preparation and structure on the part of the instructor. She notes that the employment of active learning pedagogies often leads to less content being covered, but that this trade-off is necessary to ensure actual student learning.