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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.