Teaching Near the Edge of Chaos

Hautala, Robert M. and Bryan Miyagishima, 2008. Teaching near the edge of chaos: dynamic systems, student choices and library research. Communication in Information Literacy, Spring 2008, 2(1): 25-35. Accessed on Dec. 1, 2008, http://www.comminfolit.org/index.php/cil/article/view/Spring2008AR2.

This article urges instruction librarians to toss students into the drink first, then offer helpful suggestions on how to swim. In other words, before lecturing on or demonstrating information literacy skills, have students attempt to deploy such IL skills as they might possess. Hautala and Miyagishima are hardly the first to propose this. They come to this strategem by way of Dynamic Systems theory, as applied in motor learning.

Dynamic Systems Theory?
The authors refer to “… models [that] contain two important tenets. First, when disrupted, systems will self-organize; and second, the best, most efficient reorganization of any system will emerge from the edge of the chaos that any initial change has first produced (Seel, 1999).”

How Do They Recommend Dynamic Systems Theory Be Applied to ILI?
“… this approach requires the library instructor to design tasks that engage students in desired IL skills and expose them to designated library resources.”

What Can An Instructor Do?
Instructors can directly manipulate two of three “constraints”—the tasks students are assigned and the environment/tools students can use to complete these tasks—in order to indirectly affect the third constraint, students’ skills.

Yes, That Does Sound Like Teaching.
The difference here is that the teacher removes herself from the tasks as much is possible, intervening only to introduce new tasks and/or new environments, providing students with the opportunity to create their best solutions.

That Sounds More Like…
Coaching. And the dreaded sports metaphors hold up here. There are lots of guidelines on how to hit a pitch, but every player has to find her own swing. This approach, the Ecological Task Analysis (ETA), allows the instructor to work with all students, at whatever level—those who “get it” right off will still have something to do, as well as those who need more work to discover their best methods.

The authors give two examples of classroom applications of ETA, following these steps of ETA: “Establish Task Goal; Provide Choices; Modify the Variables; Provide Instruction.” The ETA model seems challenging to translate to a large or a non-technology classroom. (NOTE: Consider also using tutorials, esp. customized learning as described in de la Chica et al., 2008*).

The Take-Away…
1) Instruction librarians should think of and design their classroom sessions more as coaching, where they respond to what students are doing, than as teaching.
2) This article is a quick read, and would be a good one to pass on to faculty members when one is planning an instruction session.


*de la Chica, S., F. Ahmad, T. Sumner, J.H. Martin, and K. Butcher, 2008. Computational foundations for personalizing instruction with digital libraries. Int J Digit Libr 9: 3-18. http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=33333190&site=ehost-live

Project Information Literacy

Project Information Literacy website

Project Information Literacy video


Project Information Literacy, a national research project based out of the University of Washington’s ISchool, is attempting to study how undergraduates conduct research by collecting data through discussion groups at community colleges, public colleges and universities, and private college and universities throughout the United States.


The project is entering its first year supported by a grant from Proquest that will enable it to continue conducting discussion groups at different universities. The plan for the fall is to visit six schools to pilot the instrument being used to collect data through discussion groups while the researchers plan to visit three campuses in the spring to administer and test a student survey instrument.


The three main research questions that the project is focused on answering are:


  1. How do early adults (in their own words) put their information literacy competencies into practice in learning environments in a digital age, regardless of how they may measure up to standards for being information literate?
  2. With the proliferation of online resources and new technologies, how do early adults recognize the information needs they may have and in turn, how do they locate, evaluate, select and use the information that is needed?
  3. How can teaching the critical and information literacy skills that are needed to enable lifelong learning be more effectively transferred to college students?

More broadly, the goal of the project is “to understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research in the digital age.”


The project began as a pilot at St. Mary’s College of California led by Alison Head that attempted to study the undergraduate research process and information literacy through “the lens of the students’ experience to find out how students conceptualized and operationalized the course-related research process.”


The findings of that study were published last year in the article “Beyond Google: How do students conduct academic research?,” which Matt discussed in an earlier RIOT. A complete 52-page report detailing the findings of the study can be found online as well.


Project Information Literacy identified the most interesting findings from that exploratory study as the following:

  1. The majority of students (87%) did not go to Google’s search engine first when conducting research as many previous studies have suggested.
  2. Students did use the campus library, library web sites, and librarians, and in fact, relied heavily upon these library sources.
  3. Overall, students struggled with figuring out what scholarly research actually meant and required them to do. The first step in the research process was often the most difficult one for students.

By broadening the scope of that initial study to a national pool from a diverse set of universities and by employing a variety of data collection methods, Project Information Literacy hopes to build upon these initial findings and produce results that can help faculty and librarians revisit the design of research assignments, the design of library resources, and the development of course curriculum.

Project Information Literacy is currently seeking funding for the second year of its study, with a proposal under review by a granting agency. They’re also looking for volunteers for the second year sample.


Cindy and I both responded to a posting in the LOEX newsletter that allowed you to sign up to receive more information about the research symposium they’re planning next year. Cindy had a nice exchange with Alison, which we can talk about during our meeting.

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.