“Flipped” Library Instruction

In keeping with the theme of the “flipped” classroom in first-year writing, Pete and I decided that we would also attempt to flip the library instruction that tends to be a standard part of our ENG105 classes and FYW in general (In fact, in the “Learning the Ropes” article that Pete wrote about, researchers found that “Freshman said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research” (3)).  To accomplish this, Pete created a helpful series of videos to guide students through the library research processes and databases that are typically covered during a librarian’s classroom visit.  The students came to class with a basic understanding of how to approach the research assignment at hand, leaving class time free to spend answering questions and doing some hands-on research with the assistance of our reference librarians.

Hopefully the students learned as much as Pete and I did.  We thought we’d share some of our thoughts about the experience:

  • In the Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti article that Pete details in his last blog post, there is a lot of concern with the “flat” landscape of Google.  Respondents (librarians) to the authors’ survey describe their issues with students’ research tactics:  “They [students] seem to see information as flat, as coming all from one place, Google” and “How to read a citation and understand what type of publication it represents–journal article, book, etc…  Many are used to getting all information from one flat source–Google.”  While I understand what the respondents are trying to get at with the word “flat” (there is more to the research beyond Google and much of the diversity in sources needs to be sought out in other ways, and, as Pete describes below, sources all seem the same to students), I also find the word a bit misleading.  What struck me in working with my students while they were researching this week is that the types of sources available via a Google search are more complex and diverse than ever before.  Part of the assignment [Citation Trail library worksheet] that the students were working with asked them to identify citations and source types, and yes, as the previous respondent describes, students struggled with this, but to be honest:  So did I.  One student discovered a massive online project about digital literacy that isn’t quite a blog but certainly isn’t a static webpage as it regularly publishes articles by scholars researching the topic of teens and digital literacy.  So what is it?  What kind of articles are these pieces that aren’t necessarily peer reviewed or appearing in print publications but involved in scholarly research by experts in a field?
  • The other aspect of the flipped library instruction time that proved challenging was getting students to move away from Google and into the library databases.  This difficulty is described in both the “Learning the Ropes” article and in “Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction.”  Because the assignment asks students to track down sources contained in both scholarly and popular sources, there is good reason for many of the students to start with Google search to help track down a source from a reading that doesn’t have a bibliography (for example, as Pete details here in his video about “tips on running down elusive documents”).  Students did well with using Google to find the details of the specific reference; however, getting them to then take that information and use it to find the book or article in our own library’s holdings was a bit of a struggle (it often involved me hovering and directing them to open additional tabs and pull up the catalog or databases).

— From Pete

Two things resonated with me as I walked around and helped students make sense of the documents they had brought up on their screens.

  1. Many did in fact seem to have difficulty understanding format types and purposes outside of the context of their computer screen. The landscape had indeed become flat and within that one dimension, all content was in an important sense equal.
  2. Last year Bryan Alexander, educator and futurist, delivered a keynote speech at a conference I attended. What I most remember about his speech was that he contended that we had moved from being a “culture of the page” to a “culture of the screen.”  One implication of this shift is that a new generation, largely unfamiliar with the print counterparts of online journals, ebooks, etc., have a hard time making critical distinctions between the types of resources that show up on their computer screens.

An inability to determine the context of the resource hampered their ability for critical evaluation.  The Hofer article referenced in an earlier post contends that a key understanding that many students have trouble grasping is, in her shorthand, “format as a process.”  By this she means:

What makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article has nothing to do with how one accesses it (print/digital), but with the process that went into creating it. Understanding this principle helps students navigate the information they find online and evaluate it according to the process underlying its creation, rather than by a set of memorized, constantly changing, inconsistent characteristics.

This lack of understanding was evident as I spoke to many students and did indeed appear to be one of the outcomes of a “flat environment.”

  • Our awareness of these challenges of student research influenced both the assignment design, as well as what Pete covered in his video series.  I wanted students to begin making these distinctions and being able to identify types of sources early on in the research process and also for them to be able to see the range of sources that all scholars and writers use when composing a researched text.  Perhaps by next time framing “what makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article” in the terms that Hofer, Towsend, and Brunetti describe as “the process that went into creating it,” students might better understand the concept of “format as a process.”  This, after all, needs to be a goal of ours according to Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti.  Citing “format as a process” as a “threshold concept” means that “the next step from a pedagogical standpoint is to make curricular changes that surface the teaching and learning of these concepts and then to assess student learning in these areas” (402).

Threshold Concepts

Alice and doorway

Well, that’s a threshold I can’t cross!

Threshold concepts are, in essence, those stumbling blocks that prevent a student from advancing within a chosen discipline.  Those fully invested in a discpline have a shared vocabulary, body of knowledge (and approach to it), tools, and sometimes, biases.  However, pracitioners in a discpline are often so immersed in their field that the foundational framework from which they think and work is often unspoken and unrecoginzed.

A student new to a field of study, however, must somehow learn and integrate these foundational concepts of the discipline.  Often the concepts must be encountered in a progressive manner, with one leading to insights that prepare them for the next.  In formulating the idea of threshold concepts, Jan Meyer and Ray Land provide a theoretical and practical method to help teachers identify and address these important disciplinary understandings.

As they point out, not every important concept within a discipline should be identified as a threshold concept.  Indeed, they outline five qualities that characterize a threshold concept:

  • Transformative: grapsing the concept will help a student experience a “shift in perspective”
  • Integrative: it brings together other competencies or disciplinary concepts into a unified understanding
  • Irrersible: no turning back!
  • Bounded: in the disciplinary context, it helps define the unique boundaries of the field
  • Troublesome: moving beyond the idea is difficult and not initially intuitive or even logical

I find this construct to be very compelling, as it fits in well with what I observe while working with students.  Amy Hofer, a librarian at Portland State University, writes about how this idea of threshold concepts can be applied to information literacy.  While the focus of threshold concepts is within a discpline (e.g., helping students “think like a biologist”), Hofer contends that all college students would benefit from “understanding some of the information science concepts that underlie the practice of librarianship.”

The concepts that rise to the level of “threshold concepts” are certainly open to debate, and in fact, ideally should be constructed within the context of local discussions.  However, as a starting point, those identified by Hofer seem to be appropriate.  They strike me as a useful checklist to consult when planning strategies and programs that will help high school students make that difficult transition to college.

Here are those troublesome threshold concepts Hofer identifies (Note: the article itself — link below — provides more detail on each of these):

  • Metadata = Findability
  • Good Searches Use Database Structure
  • Format as a Process
  • Authority is Constructed and Contextual
  • Primary Source is and Exact and Conditional Category
  • Information as Commodity
  • Research Solves Problems

Simply used as a starting point for discussion, this list holds great promise.  I easily see connections to the objectives outlined by Jenn in her ENG 105 syllabus, and it points the way to further initiatives that will help students transcend these major stumbling blocks in order to advance as readers, researchers, and writers.

Documents Referred to in this Post

Hofer, A. R., Townsend, L., & Brunetti, K. (2012). Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 12(4), 387–405. [Read article]
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373–388. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5 [Read article]

September Provisions: Teaching First Year Students

Our first Provisions session of the year kicked off with the topic of “Teaching First Year Students.” The presenters, who so kindly volunteered to impart their knowledge to the 38-strong audience, were Dr. Jelane Kennedy, Counseling and CCSA, Mary Fitzsimmons, Director of HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program) & AOE (Academic Opportunity Experience) and Dr. Shirlee Dufort, Writing Center Director.

Jelane Kennedy was the first to present. She chose to talk about Arthur W. Chickering and his theory of identity development. Chickering’s theory features seven vectors of development:

  • Developing Competence – Intellectual, Physical and Interpersonal
  • Managing Emotions
  • Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence
  • Developing Mature Interpersonal relationships
  • Establishing Identity
  • Developing Purpose
  • Developing Integrity

These vectors or stages all make up how one’s identity is developed, particularly throughout a student’s life in higher education. After giving a brief run through of each vector, Dr. Kennedy focused in on three that are of the most significance for First Year Students:

  • Competence – Trying to adjust to the realities of college life. There are many new obstacles and transitions that High School Students must face when making the leap to college. There are so many new tasks and experiences that they may have not encountered before. They may have to deal with basics such as making their own dinner, doing their own laundry and more demanding homework. On top of that, they must learn how to find time for their personal leisure activities, and get along with roommates and professors, as well as learning a new academic schedule.
  • Managing Emotions – There are a lot of emotions in those first few weeks of college: How do I connect to people? How to make new friends? Feeling homesick (leaving behind friends, family and partners). They have to be able to cope and deal with a range of emotions and the questions that emanate from them.
  • Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence – A need for approval and feedback. Academic feedback is regular from K through 12 but may be less abundant in those first weeks in college. There is also a desire for personal feedback: Do people like me? They may have yet to reach the point where they don’t care about what people think and are comfortable just being themselves.

Dr. Kennedy provided a handout that followed up on the stages faced by students as they continue their academic journey – Chickering

Up next was Mary Fitzsimmons, who, as well as being the director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), teaches English 105 (a First Year Program).  She began her presentation by commenting how different St. Rose can appear to students who are not from the local area. For example, students from New York City had commented that the campus seemed like a park to them. Another girl shared that it was the first time she had had to cross four lanes of traffic.

In English 105, Fitzsimmons said that she liked to communicate individually and privately with her students. One way she does this is through the form of an online assignment; the students do a journal and are also asked a check-in question such as, “Is everything going okay in the program?” Fitzsimmons feels that by initiating direct communication with her, the student starts to feel more comfortable. She mentioned a student who came up to her after class and posed  the question, “How do I make friends?” – A question that really emphasizes the struggle, for some students, during those initial weeks at college. Through her dual role in student affairs, she said that it is easier to be more of an ambassador of the college for students. Fitzsimmons encouraged other members of the faculty to do the same by knowing who their partners are on campus, and in turn, knowing where to direct any in-need students. In her role as Director of AOE, Fitzsimmons invites students to attend a presentation that gives advice on how best to adapt to the standards they have to live up to at College.

Fitzsimmons continued by introducing the role of the AOE, where 1st year students are able to get assistance in making the transition both academically and socially. The students have a well planned schedule which allows them to attend workshops, get tutoring, and have structured study, as well as to gain help moving in, and to enjoy a celebration dinner to welcome the new arrivals. Fitzsimmons sees this early start orientation as a way to create community, comfort, and a challenge.

Last on the floor was Shirlee Dufort, director of the Writing Center. As part of her work with the AOE, she assigned students to write a research paper in five days. The main goals of this process were to walk through the stages of writing the paper, make it virtually impossible to plagiarize, and to collaborate academically. Over these five days, the students learned a lot about college writing, and the experience would no doubt hold them in good stead for future challenges. Here is Dr. Dufort’s handout from the presentation, which goes into detail about the five day experience – Shirlee Dufort Handout

After the presentations, during the Question & Answer session, some interesting points and observations were made by various members of the faculty:

  • Faculty should recommend help from specific individuals to struggling students, to add a personal touch.
  • Having academic coaches check up on students would be beneficial.
  • Students need to know where help and resources are for them on campus.
  • Self-motivation is key; while professors may provide inspiration, students are ultimately responsible for their personal growth.
  • Faculty should strive to put themselves in their students’ shoes, and try to remember what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • Make deals with students; give them the opportunity to improve. For example, a student given a poor first grade on a paper was given the chance to rewrite it in the office of the professor, and the new grade was averaged with the initial grade.

To listen to a podcast from the session, check out our soundcloud page at http://www.soundcloud.com/stroseprovisions

Knowledge Transfer and First Year Writing

Most of us at one time or another have been either on the receiving or giving end of the “students can’t write” commonplace.  As a compositionist and current coordinator of the First Year Writing Program here at Saint Rose, I am generally on the receiving end, followed by the heavily loaded question about what we are teaching in ENG105 — Expository Writing, Research Techniques, and Oral Communication — the college’s required writing class.  What I believe is actually happening with student writing that leads to these laments, is that students are struggling to write in a specific context, namely, an academic writing situation in a particular discipline.  What might be a matter of students struggling with content information specific to a discipline or over navigating the conventions of a disciplinary genre is often interpreted as students not being able to write.

As Gerald Nelms and Ronda Leathers Dively put it in their article, “Perceived Roadblocks to Transferring Knowledge from First-Year Composition to Writing-Intensive Major Courses: A Pilot Study,” “our definitions of student success often remain tied to what can be more or less immediately observed” (214).  It is this restricted vision of student success that contributes to the kind of complaints I just described.  The idea of transfer is important to both understanding the root of these beliefs about student writing and improving student writing in all coursework across the curriculum.  The responsibility for achieving this on a campus cannot live solely with first year writing instruction, as Nelms and Dively describe:  “[A]ny successful approach to enhancing the transfer of composition knowledge must involve changes in composition instruction, as well as a pervasive commitment to writing across the curriculum” (emphasis mine 214).

Transfer, as I described in our introductory post, refers to the ability to apply skills learned in one context to different disciplinary and professional contexts.  Transfer differs from learning in that learning has to happen first for transfer to occur.  David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon, two of the foremost scholars on the concept of transfer, assert that “The ends of education are not achieved unless transfer occurs.”  As Nelms and Dively point out, transfer has always been a difficult thing to track and measure, as it “occurs over time and across contextual borders” (215).  Regardless of this fact, they also are strong in their claim that “teaching to transfer is possible” (emphasis mine 216).

In their article, Nelms and Dively describe the differences between near and far transfer (writing involves both).  Far transfer (“application of skills and knowledge to a context remote from the originating one”), in particular, relies on (and here they borrow again from Perkins and Gavriel) metacognition, motivation to learn, and representation.  For the purposes of my Provisions work this semester with Pete, I am especially interested in the first two — metacognition and motivation to learn — as they relate to and will be embedded into the idea of the “flipped” writing classroom.  I hope to work on developing metacognitive skills through the use of Eli Review.  Peer response, as Nelms and Dively remind us, is rooted in reflection, “a crucial mechanism of knowledge transfer.”  Additionally, Kathleen Blake Yancey’s description of reflection in the writing process is almost perfectly reflected in the write-review-revise cycle that Eli Review assists students in working through:

Speaking generally, reflection includes the three processes of projection, retrospection (or review), and revision. For writing, it likewise includes three processes:
1. goal-setting, revisiting, and refining
2. text-revising in the light of retrospection
3. the articulating of what learning has taken place, as embodied in various texts as well as in the processes used by the writer (6)

Nelms and Dively attach “motivation to learn” to time-on-task and the amount of attention devoted to the task.  It is my hope that the additional time devoted to writing and research (information literacy practices) in the classroom, as opposed to outside the classroom where the students are on their own without guidance, will increase this category that is so important to later knowledge transfer.  Motivation to learn is critical to actual learning; without learning taking place there will be nothing to transfer.

Nelms and Dively conclude their study by asking two questions that they believe need the consideration of our profession with the second one being:  “What specific roles do motivation and reflection play in the transfer of composition knowledge (230)?”  It is this question that Pete and I will continue to pursue this semester within the context of our flipped writing and information literacy instruction.

First-Year Students: Adaptive Strategies

Jenn and I have been reading a recent report published by Project Information Literacy titled Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Research Once They Enter College.  I think we both have taken ideas away from this report, and here are some thoughts from the perspective of a librarian.

For me, this report makes me see that I have underestimated the degree to which first-year students struggle to make that transition from high school to college.  When it comes to college level research, most freshmen — and particularly freshmen in their first semesters — are not prepared for the demands of college level research.  The report lists the areas that cause most issues for freshmen:


Many students report that they could successfully complete research at the high school level simply by relying on Google and Wikipedia.   While some continue taking that approach unaltered in college, many look to add to their “research toolkit” to meet the expectations of their college professors.

Indeed, the report was able to identify what it calls “adaptive strategies” that freshmen undertook to adjust to the higher expectations of college research.  Those of us far removed from the first-year experience may take these strategies for granted, but for the uninitiated they represent critical steps forward and they are sometimes difficult to discover and implement.



Looking over this list, it becomes apparent to me that there are strategies we can employ in the library (and the classroom) to direct freshmen toward these adaptive strategies and help them build this new toolkit quicker and more effectively.

And building on the advice of our Provision colleagues from last year, I am working on making one small change to improve the effectiveness of instruction.  I have been fortunate to be working with Jenn and her ENG 105 class.  She has created a flipped classroom (one big change!) and I will be playing a small part by creating a video series to address point #4 above.  We will try to push this competency into the first semester for her students, and we will work in the classroom to give them practice working with a bibliography and locating cited sources.

Learning the Ropes points toward many areas where we can intervene and address challenges faced by our first-year students.  Next up: one more small change!

Documents referred to in this post: 

Head, Alison J., Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College (December 5, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2364080 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2364080