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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Flipping Again

In our last post, Jenn and I provided reflections on our experiment with flipped library instruction.  In this post, I wanted to provide some additional context for library instruction, as it’s been my experience that many faculty are not quite sure what this entails.

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One-shot instruction: not always the best medicine.

The goal of library instruction is to build a range of competencies in students, often referred to as information literacy, which will give them a framework for engaging in college-level research. The opportunities for this type of instruction are presented in a less than systematic fashion — often delivered in response to classroom faculty who have research-based assignments.  Much to the dismay of many librarians, the reality is that we often engage in “one-shot instruction,” which — just as it sounds — happens once without much opportunity for follow up or assessment.

However, the range of new pedagogical strategies in the classroom presents new opportunities for rethinking library instruction.  Indeed both Jenn and I came enthusiastically to the idea that flipping library instruction could have some significant benefits.  The absence of a teaching lab in the library limits our ability (or conversely — challenges our creativity) to engage students in active learning.  I was excited to be able to be in the writing lab in Albertus, helping students as they worked through their assignment, which the assigned videos had modeled .  While this flipped instruction still can be seen as one-shot instruction, the fact that the videos serve as both pre-class assignments and as semester-long learning assets means that the normal limitations of a typical one-shot class are able to be overcome.

While there is a large body of research on the flipped classroom, there is yet to be a lot published that focuses on flipped library instruction.  The article referenced below provides a good overview, teasing out the benefits and challenges inherent in this relatively new form of library instruction.  Among the challenges many librarians would face:

  • Logistics.  It is difficult to plan for out-of-the-classroom work for a class that you have not yet met.   Fortunately, the goals of Jenn and I as Provisions’ fellows dovetailed nicely and helped eliminate the usual logistical issues; but on more normal one-shot requests, this issue would be one that could be particularly challenging.
  • Engagement.  It is always a challenge for a librarian who sees a class once during the semester.  Think substitute teacher and you have an idea of the challenges we face in engaging students and gaining their trust.
  • Time.  Creating and editing instructional videos, I quickly discovered, is very time-consuming.  I was fortunate to have a good deal of lead time, but this would not typically be the case.  However, I do think I would tend to get better — and quicker — with experience.

Part of what Jenn and I are discovering this semester through our work together and through an examination of the research on first-year students is that many of these students struggle to adapt to higher expectations and a new information environment at the college level.  One-shot instruction is simply one tool — and perhaps not the most effective one — to help first-year students build that “research toolkit” that will let them progressively improve their ability to find and utilize resources in their new and complex information ecosystem.

As I read more research on teaching first-year students and as I gain experience trying new approaches to library instruction, the suggestion that Stephanie Bennett offers in the concluding Provisions’ meeting from 2013-14 to “change just one thing” resonates strongly.  While there are many changes on the institution-level that can address the transitional needs of first year students — both generally and in the area of information literacy, the status of that larger process should not hinder or delay the individual efforts I can make to try to improve the things I do in the classroom.

W.B. Yeats once said

Life is an experiment.

I’m running with this, thinking library instruction is an experiment, and it’s an experiment processed one change at a time!

Document Referred to in the Post

Arnold-Garza, S. (2014). The Flipped Classroom Teaching Model and Its Use for Information Literacy Instruction. Communications in Information Literacy, 8(1), 7. [Read article]