April Provisions Session – Teaching First Year Students: Provisions Fellows Present

To listen to the podcast from the session, click here

Our final provisions session of the year explored the theme of ‘Teaching First Year Students’. An audience of 25 were in attendance to hear a joint presentation from Provisions Fellows Peter Koonz, Serials and Electronic Resources Librarian and Jennifer Marlow, Assistant Professor of English (Composition and New Media). Koonz and Dr. Marlow had spent the last year collaborating together on a project to bring information literacy to Dr. Marlow’s first-year writing class, and this is what they had to share:

Koonz kicked off the presentation by explaining the pair’s process over the past year. Koonz and Marlow set up bi-weekly meetings where they would get together to discuss the common readings they had assigned each other, and share their thoughts and ideas.  Among the concepts that the pair had researched were the transfer of knowledge, how expertise is achieved within a domain, theories of human cognition and memory, and composition theory in first-year writing.

Dr. Marlow then took to the floor to provide the audience with details about her first-year writing course. Dr. Marlow explained that she considers the first-year writing classroom as an environment where students can be both welcomed to the college and provided with essential writing skills that will serve them well throughout their time at college and in their future endeavors. Dr. Marlow began her journey in this collaboration by addressing the research question of “Does a flipped first-year writing classroom help facilitate transferable knowledge of the writing process?” In her research, Dr. Marlow found that leading scholars on the subject attest that transfer is indeed possible and that teaching for transfer was a realistic goal. In the field of rhetoric and composition, Dr. Marlow discovered that there was a dearth of research when it came to its connection with transfer. She continued by detailing the concept of the flipped classroom. Dr. Marlow explained that, in a flipped classroom environment, the teacher acts very much as a guide on the side rather than being the central focus of the class. Another difference is that activities and assignments that are usually done at home are instead carried out in class. Outside of the classroom, students engage in watching online lectures, discussions and other multimedia based activities. In Dr. Marlow’s first-year writing class, this was the case too; the act of writing was saved for the classroom, while discussion and delivery of other course-related material was worked on outside of the classroom. Dr. Marlow used the web-based writing program 750words.com in each lesson to encourage her students to write a minimum of 750 words per class, on top of the essays and other writing projects that the students had. The online peer-review platform ‘Elireview’ was also used in the classroom. Dr. Marlow explained that this website was useful in the respect that it helped her students to become more critical thinkers and better writers after having revised their work based on peer feedback. The process helped Dr. Marlow’s students to become more effective metacognitive learners. By inverting the classroom, Dr. Marlow hoped to create a distraction free writing zone for her students. In the spirit of flipping, Dr. Marlow also changed the order of the assignments and projects. Normally, the students start with what are considered to be more personal and exploratory pieces, before eventually ending with a researched essay. However, in the flipped classroom, the students were set the researched essay at the beginning of the semester. One of Dr. Marlow’s main objectives were for her students to learn how to ‘follow a citation trail’ from the bibliography of a previously assigned reading.

Koonz stepped back in to detail his findings from a report that shed light on students’ struggles with research. There are a whole of issues that students encounter when making the leap from high school research to college resarch: students can have trouble coming up with key words, they can find it difficult to winnow out the good research from the bad research, and there is, as well, an over reliance on using Google and Wikipedia as search tools. Koonz found that students do, however, make their own adaptations when confronted with their first research assignment at college: many students start to use Google Scholar, which is a more appropriate academic resource, they learn to read abstracts to decipher the value of articles, and they also follow the citations in their articles to find other, similar resources.  Koonz admitted that he was impressed with these self-made adaptations, but affirms that the process is still disjointed and uncoordinated without expert help (which librarians can provide).  Koonz continued by explaining that during research assignments, the teacher will contact the library and often set-up a meeting between the students and the library instructors. This can be a difficult process because the librarians often have no prior relationships to speak of with both students and teachers. There is also the issue of trying to provide the most useful, relevant library instruction within the limited timeframe. Another aspect that is problematic for library instructors is that of assessment; it is particularly difficult to get assessment data back with this model.  Koonz went to say that, after reading for ProVisions over the summer, he concluded that the concept of flipped classrooms was the perfect model for library instruction. After having contacted Dr. Marlow, it was decided that the pair would test the model in her first-year writing class. For Dr Marlow’s class, Koonz explained that he, first, familiarized himself with the students’ assignments, and then proceeded to create a series of instructional videos to help those students make use of the library resources. After the students had watched the videos, Koonz came to the classroom where he helped to answer questions and offer suggestions while they worked on their assignments. Through this opportunity in Dr. Marlows’ class, Koonz stated that he was able to resolve those previous inherent challenges of library instruction: for the students, the videos helped to create a familiarity with Koonz before entering the classroom, there was also now ample time to relay instruction, and assessment became all the more straightforward with Koonz able to see, in person, how the students were faring, and in what areas they needed help. Koonz concluded by explaining how positive the flipped classroom experience was, as well as sharing his optimism that the model could work in a wide range of different course in the future.

In the final part of the presentation, Dr. Marlow returned to the floor. She resumed by spelling out the importance of teaching for transfer. Dr. Marlow explained that transfer is not a spontaneous process, and that it is crucial that faculty facilitate and foster transfer by creating an environment of well-designed instruction. Within the field of rhetoric and composition, it is important for the students to gain a level of ‘general/local’ knowledge. Presenting research that she reviewed, Dr. Marlow explained that, in order to try to achieve this knowledge, many colleges have a first-year general writing course, followed by a writing intensive course later in their major. However, Dr. Marlow’s research stated that it would be more effective to add a further course in between the general and intensive classes. It is also recommended that writing is integrated into all coursework and across the curriculum. Lastly, it would be helpful for faculty from all disciplines to collaborate with the first-writing program instructors. Dr. Marlow went on to explain that a writing curriculum that teaches for transfer would have more writing in the early stages of the students’ time at college, as well as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program that offers faculty the opportunity to collaborate, and incorporate discipline specific instruction. To conclude, Dr. Marlow clarified the differences between flipping instruction and flipping the classroom. In the flipped classroom, the in-class content is moved outside of the classroom, while homework moves inside. Flipping instruction, on the other hand, is more of a singular teaching experience like Dr. Marlow’s and Koonz’s collaboration. Lastly, on the topic of student feedback, Dr. Marlow disclosed that a high percentage of her class regarded both 750 words and flipped library instruction as having made a big difference in enhancing their learning experience.

After the presentation had concluded, the floor was opened up for questions and discussions. These were a few points and observations that arose:

  • It is common for students to be more preoccupied with simply producing and finishing the work, and not metacognitively analyzing their learning process.
  • Faculty collaboration is crucial; the process can provide valuable insight into their students’ academic progress and performances.
  • It is important to develop a ‘writing habit’ in students.
  • Students enjoy and benefit from working in a distraction free space.
  • Further links must be established between librarians and professors and collaboration opportunities should be explored.
  • It would be beneficial for students to be explicitly aware of the writing objectives required of them in each discipline.

To listen to the podcast from the session, click here

To view Dr. Marlow’s handouts from the session, click on these links – DEW midterm project & Citation Trail library worksheet

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Reflecting on Flipped Library Instruction, Part 2

In this post, I pick up on my reflections on flipped library instruction, using the design principles outlined in the Kim article below.  My previous post addressed the first five principles; here I conclude and add thoughts on how I might modify flipped instruction in the future, based on my reflections.

Kim, M. K., Kim, S. M., Khera, O., & Getman, J. (2014). The experience of three flipped classrooms in an urban university: an exploration of design principles. Internet & Higher Education, 2237-50. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.04.003  [Read this article]

  1. Provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure prior to class
  2. Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class
  3. Provide a mechanism to assess student understanding
  4. Provide clear connections between in-class and out-of-class activities
  5. Provide clearly defined and well-structured guidance
  6. Provide enough time for students to carry out assignments
  7. Provide facilitation for building a learning community
  8. Provide prompt/adaptive feedback on individual or group work
  9. Provide technologies familiar and easy to access

#6 – Provide enough time for students to carry out assignments

My thinking on this principle has evolved.  Initially, I believed that, of course, there was enough time for students to both watch my video/s out of class and then make progress on their research in the class itself.  However, I am beginning to question the open-ended nature of the in-class assignment that has been the case in two of the four flipped classes in which I participated.

When students are simply given the go ahead to “work on their papers” or to “start their research,” I have observed students engage in a wide range of activities, from searching in library databases to searching Google to logging into their Facebook accounts.

While the goal of flipped library instruction may often include teaching concepts and strategies that result in effective topic research, a simple “go to it” does not necessarily further that goal.  Certainly experimentation and iteration are key parts of the research process, but during the limited time that a librarian works with a group of students, I think more structure in the in-class assignment is necessary.

Some possible examples:

  • Find three peer-reviewed articles that address your topic.
  • Discover one or two authors who write extensively on your topic.
  • Identify one citation from the reference list of an article you have found that may be of interest.  Find out if that article or book is available through the library.
  • From your initial research, develop a list of keywords and subject headings that appear to cover your topic interest.

Having a more specific assignment connected to in-class work would allow the librarian to better gauge the level of success of the class and allow intervention — both individually or by briefly bring everyone’s attention back together — to address problems or highlight successes.

#7 – Provide facilitation for building a learning community

Creating a class that encourages collaboration and collective learning can be an important goal for a semester-long course.  Within the traditional one-shot library instruction, this goal is difficult to address.  However, what I have found during the in-class part of flipped instruction is that many students naturally work together.  This is to be encouraged, and as I walked around I always found a little bit of teaching and learning going on in those conversations.

Another way I attempted to remind the class that we are all learning together was by periodically bringing their attention back as a group to highlight something I had observed: a unique solution to something, a common difficulty, an extension on something previously taught.  And in the best of these moments, students would also contribute to the conversation and, of course, that becomes infectious.

#8 – Provide prompt/adaptive feedback on individual or group work

This principle represents perhaps the most important benefit of flipped library instruction.  As mentioned in my last post, playing the role of “guide by the side” provides a way to informally assess student understanding of the concepts presented out of class.  Indeed, providing feedback and direction during this period of in-class activity is the action that completes this circle of assessment.

#9 – Provide technologies familiar and easy to access

After trying a few alternatives, I wound up uploading my videos to YouTube.  This is about as basic as you can get, and it is a guarantee that all students should be able to access the assignments.  While I don’t necessarily see the need to introduce more complex — and perhaps unfamiliar — technologies to what I am doing, the point of this principle is well-taken.  Don’t let the technology be an obstacle; make sure it is a tool to learning.

Thoughts on Future Flipped Library Instruction

In addressing the nine principles of flipped instruction above and in my previous post, I point to some of the ways I would change or “tighten” flipped library instruction in the future.  Included on this list:

  • Be more explicit about the goals of the out-of-class video and the in-class assignments.
  • Foreground higher level concepts and stress knowledge that is transferrable to alternative domains.
  • Incentivize the pre-class assignment/s.
  • Work more closely with classroom teacher to develop both the assignment/s and goals of in-class work.  Develop more specific outcomes than simply to “work on your assignment.”
  • Concentrate on creating videos that are more individualized for the specific course needs.  As my inventory of existing videos grows, I will more easily be able to reference additional help without making explicit assignments of multiple videos.

And my final thought on future efforts: keep trying!

Reflecting on Flipped Library Instruction, Part I

A recently published article develops several design principles that can assist in planning for a flipped classroom:

Kim, M. K., Kim, S. M., Khera, O., & Getman, J. (2014). The experience of three flipped classrooms in an urban university: an exploration of design principles. Internet & Higher Education, 2237-50. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.04.003  [Read this article]

These nine principles, listed below, though somewhat commonsensical, serve as useful touchstones as I reflect on several months of work in flipping my own library instruction.

  1. Provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure prior to class
  2. Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class
  3. Provide a mechanism to assess student understanding
  4. Provide clear connections between in-class and out-of-class activities
  5. Provide clearly defined and well-structured guidance
  6. Provide enough time for students to carry out assignments
  7. Provide facilitation for building a learning community
  8. Provide prompt/adaptive feedback on individual or group work
  9. Provide technologies familiar and easy to access

I have had the chance to work with three faculty this year to plan for a flipped library instruction component in four separate classes.  So while my experience in the flipped classroom is not extensive, I have had enough experience to have formed initial opinions and I have begun to generate ideas about how I might improve this model in the future.

#1 – Provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure prior to class

For library instruction, this is key, and perhaps represents the most radical change from anything I have done before.  Library instruction seldom offers the chance for the librarian to get materials to students before the class.  We are not in position to assign “homework” that can be discussed when we meet.  But in a flipped classroom, this exposure to material before we meet opens up the class to new possibilities.  Most exciting of these new possibilities is the chance to move away from lecture and demo and spend time instead exploring higher level concepts and strategies and serving as “guide by the side” during hands on work in the classroom.

 #2 – Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class

It did not take me long to realize that students do not always complete their homework!  Making my videos available on Youtube allowed me to get data on how many times each was watched.  In four flipped classes, the number of watches was always lower than the number of students in the class.  In an attempt to combat this, most recently, I worked with the classroom teacher to have a list of questions distributed well before the class visit.  These questions essentially restated the goals I had for creating the video.  Students knew these would be addressed at the beginning of the class, and I hoped — as a secondary benefit — they would provide some focus for these students as they watched the video.

Improvement?  Yes.  Perfection?  No.

#3 – Provide a mechanism to assess student understanding

Assessing what we do in library instruction has always been problematic.  For one-shot instruction, it is difficult to add formal assessment into an already tight class schedule.  However, flipped library instruction did provide a type of informal assessment that had previously been impossible to implement.  While working with students, observing the specific difficulties they might encounter, I was able to see where they were having troubling applying concepts and strategies, covered in the video/s, to their actual searches.  Since the goal of assessment is to improve what we do, I am able to work on materials that help address the more common shortcomings I’ve been able to observe.

 #4 – Provide clear connections between in-class and out-of-class activities

In regard to this principle, flipped library instruction truly has been “flipped.”  In traditional library instruction, we do our best to understand the assignment/s and general needs of the students, plan our instruction around our understanding of these needs, and then hope that this prepares students as they begin to work through their assignments and research.

In the flipped classroom, the out-of-class activities come first and there is the chance to provide direct help and clarification as the in-class work takes place.  As noted above, this model provides a chance for reinforcement and intervention as we work in a hands-on environment with students.

Certainly in both models, strong connections between in- and out-of-class activities is vital to effective instruction, but the flipped model provides me with a better understanding of both desired learning outcomes and a way to really determine if I’ve made the necessary connections with the materials I’ve assigned.

#5 – Provide clearly defined and well-structured guidance

The very act of planning for, recording and editing videos has improved the structure and delivery of content in comparison to the same lessons I had previously presented “live.”  Working and reworking the material serves to better focus the presentation and allows for a more narrow focus (perhaps representing a larger presentation broken into component parts).

However, I came to understand that in the class meeting itself a similar level of planning and structure is necessary.  Simply releasing students to their task at hand and roaming as “guide by the side” is not enough to ensure effective learning.  It is critical to set the context at the beginning of the class through a series of questions and discussion.  Interestingly, I have found that the flipped model is helpful in generating a discussion, as students have an introductory knowledge of the subject.  These first few minutes can be spent clarifying points that arise from the out-of-class activities, developing a broader or more conceptual framework.  This allows students to take greater responsibility for their learning and helps build attitudes (for example, persistence, flexibility, patience, curiosity) that are no small part of successful learning.

In the follow up to this post, I will continue with an examination of the principles suggested by this article, as well as discuss changes I hope to make based on these reflections on my initial experiences with flipped instruction.