Tag Archives: active learning

TLS Tips: Building an Arsenal of Active Learning Activities (and alliteration)

A few weeks ago,  about 30 staff from across the UT Libraries got together to give TLS input to help us plan the classroom teaching series.  This is a series of workshops to be held this spring and next fall to support people as classroom teachers in all types of classrooms, from the traditional auditorium classroom to the technology-rich active learning classrooms we are planning for the Learning Commons.  The common theme of the input was active learning.  In fact, our first workshop on March 10 from 1-2pm will be about getting started with active learning for people new to it and those who want a refresher.   If you are interested, you can RSVP here and also see and RSVP for other workshops planned for the spring.

I thought I would get the conversation started by asking you to share what you do and sharing something I am doing.   First, you!   Please take a moment to fill out this GoogleForm with something you do in class that you think works well.  If you want to share more than one thing, fill it out multiple times.  I’ll compile the results and share them so we can begin to build a bank of activities we can all use.  Since most of what we do in TLS is focused on the non-major freshman, it would be especially fantastic to get examples of what you like to do with your majors and your upper division students.  So, let me just thank you in advance for sharing!

Ok, now me.  Today I had a class of freshmen who had to use 10-12 peer-reviewed articles for their research paper.  Although they’ve read a few for their course this semester, they didn’t know it and hadn’t discussed what one is and why people write and read them.  I decided to  start out with an activity where they would discover for themselves what a peer-reviewed article is and why all their professors want them to read them.  That would inform everything else in the class from brainstorming keywords to choosing a database and searching.  Here was my plan:

–          Select one popular and one scholarly source on the same topic and link them from the SubjectsPlus course guide as Article 1 and Article 2.  (It would also be great to find a scholarly article and then a popular one reporting about the scholarly article, but that didn’t work out for this class topic.)

–          Break the students into groups and ask them to review both articles and answer a series of questions.  You could do this in a GoogleForm or give them these questions in paper. Give them about 15-20 minutes to do this.

–          Have groups report out and use what they say to facilitate a conversation about the differences between scholarly and popular sources and when you might want to use one or the other.  As you take notes on what they say on a white board or a document on your computer, you could build a popular versus scholarly grid.

Due to the power outage causing us to get a late start, I wasn’t able to do this full exercise as planned  but I did have them look at the scholarly article and, as a group, we figured out the characteristics together and I wrote them on the board.  This worked pretty well and one girl even took a picture of the board.   That never happens and it made me really happy.

I hope you will take a moment to share what you do or try out the above exercise in full and let me know how it went.

TLS TIPS: Evaluating Sources in the Classroom

This semester I started teaching source evaluation differently and wanted to share this approach in case it can be adapted for use in anyone else’s classroom.

Using the Assignment in Your Classroom

Step 1:  Split the room into groups.   This works really well in PCL 1.124 because they’re already facing each other at tables.  Tell them the first thing they have to do is assign a recorder and a presenter.  This gets their attention.

Step 2:  Explain the exercise and pass it out on a half sheet of paper.  It is  interesting to see the types of things students write down, some of which they will have learned by the end of the exercise isn’t really helpful (for example, “if it is an .edu you can use it but if it is a .com you shouldn’t”).   Here is the exercise – just click on it to make it bigger:

eval sources

Step 3:  Have a student explain the exercise back to you.   This way students hear it two ways and it ensures they understand what they are supposed to be doing.  I didn’t do this the first time and they didn’t really get it, but I didn’t know that until they were reporting out.

Step 4:  Assign each group a source.  I pre-pick the sources and put links to them on the SubjectsPlus course guide.

Step 5:  Give them about 7 minutes to do the exercise and then have each group report out one criteria.  As you add it to the board, ask questions and hold a discussion.

My experiences with it

This has worked well in every class in which I’ve used it (all freshmen classes, though).  Sometimes I mix up the source types and other times I’ll stick to one or two types.  I tie the types of sources I use to the assignment and learning outcomes for the session.  It can be used as a viewpoint evaluation exercise, a web evaluation exercise, a scholarly versus popular exercise, or a more general source evaluation exercise.

I always do this at the beginning of the class, after I’ve introduced myself, gotten them logged on and told them the goals (LOs) and agenda for the class.  It works nicely as an ice breaker, but more importantly, it lays the groundwork for weaving source evaluation in to discussion of tools.   When they are doing their own searching during class, they can refer to the criteria list they generated and apply it to the sources they are finding.

I think you could do this exercise in a classroom with no technology and just hand out print sources.

In the honors classes I’ve taught, they gotten really into it and don’t want to stop talking.  It brings up all sorts of issues they want to know more about including evaluating (or arguing with each other about) Wikipedia, figuring out how funding may impact a web site or figuring out which journals are more important than others (not really a freshmen thing but this exercise has led to that question).  Other times it takes a while because they aren’t quite getting it but they always do eventually and I see that they have begun to move away from black and white criteria (all blogs are bad!  don’t use opinions, etc).

It is really fun and establishes a nice connection with the students.  If I start with this exercise, students seem to ask more questions during the rest of the class and seek out my help more readily.

While I would love to know how effective this is beyond what I can learn from anecdotal evidence, I only have that anecdotal evidence right now.  I’d be interested to know what other people’s experiences are if they adapt this exercise for use in their own classroom.

Discussion: Want to Improve your Teaching? Be Organized.

AJ kicked off the meeting by discussing the article, “Teaching Clearly Can Be a Deceptively Simple Way to Improve Learning,” by Dan Berrett published in the November 22, 2013 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The article discussed how teaching clearly is basic to improving student learning.  This conclusion was drawn from an analysis of 3 studies that looked at how organization and clarity of professors is connected to deeper student learning.

The group then talked about different strategies we use in our attempts to explain things clearly and be organized in our teaching.  The strategies included:

  • When you explain a concept, have the students reflect it back or explain it to you.  This not only serves as a check for student understanding, but improves the chances of students who initially didn’t understand now “getting it” since it has been explained in more than one way.
  • At the beginning of class, tell the students your plan and goals for the class.  Write the goals on the whiteboard or project them on the screen if possible.  Check back in along the way so they see how they are accomplishing those goals.
  • At the beginning of class, ask students to tell you what they need to know in order to do their assignment.  Structure the class around their stated needs.
  • Give yourself time markers when you plan the class so you know how long different sections and activities should take and you don’t end up rushing through parts.  Be sure to build in some flexibility, too, and be prepared to sacrifice some content if students end up needing more time on a concept than you intially planned.
  • Give students time markers.  For example, tell them how long they have for an active learning activity and then give them a 1 minute warning before the end of that activity so they can wrap-up.
  • Use a variety of examples and illustrations to explain a point, recognizing that students have different backgrounds and different approaches to learning.
  • One example of how to explain the difference between formats is to show them a journal article, magazine article, newspaper article, and blog post and ask them to tell you which is which, how they know and possibly when different types of information might be useful to their research.
  • Watch other people teach so you don’t get stale in your own teaching.  This is a way to find new ideas to organize your classes and explain difficult concepts.

We also discussed time constraints, which is a problem everyone faces with one-shots. It is hard to build in repetition (so that you explain the same concept in more than one way), formative assessment (to check on student understanding as you go) and even summative assessment (to check on understanding at the end of the class so you can follow-up later and change things next time) into one-shots because of this time constraint.  However, it isn’t impossible and we discussed some useful approaches such as asking students to post resources they find during active learning into a GoogleDoc you can review right away, or taking a few minutes at the end of class to have them write 3 things they learned or the muddiest point.  Krystal mentioned that LIS has a book called “Classroom Assessment Techniques” on our shelf that anyone is welcome to borrow and she is also available to consult with anyone who wants to build assessment into their class.

One outcome of this RIOT is that we decided to start each one with a 15 minute discussion of things we are doing in the classroom in order to learn from each other and get new ideas.  These will be captured in the blog posts and categorized as active learning, assessment and/or “in the classroom” so we can easily find them again.  In addition, people want to observe LIS teaching so we will make that happen in the spring.


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.