Why do students make the [academic] choices they do?: Actor-oriented transfer

Why do college students make the choices they do? We’re not talking about following/bypassing fashion trends, or about a certain incident I saw outside the library this morning involving a student feeding a squirrel by hand (bad choice). We’re talking about how students choose to apply academic skills that they develop in one assignment/course/situation in another assignment/course/situation. We’re most interested in why the students make the nuanced choices they do when choosing how to approach a complex situation.

This set of questions is what I wanted to approach as I began planning my doctoral research in the field of education. I decided to explore intersections of education and library science (the divisions between the two fields become less important the more I learn) to answer one of my “holy grail” questions. That question is: What motivates students to continue to use–or discontinue using–information literacy skills throughout the course of their undergraduate years. All of us who work in academic library public services positions see that, after learning basic information literacy skills during an undergraduate degree, some students continue to apply, develop, and tailor these skill sets. Others do not.

As I searched for strategies that I could use to investigate these questions, I came across the actor-oriented transfer perspective (“AOT”). Dr. Joanne Lobato, an expert in STEM education at San Diego State University, developed AOT. AOT gives us strategies and framework for investigating situations in which students have learned one or more methods for problem-solving in a particular field.

In AOT-based study, a researcher would provide students with one or more problems that they could solve using at least one of the methods that they have learned. The researcher asks each student to solve the problems and–crucially–narrate what he or she is doing. The researcher asks each student questions about his or her process, typically following a written protocol. Additionally, the researcher collects teaching materials (called “focusing phenomena”) that the students’ teacher(s) have used to guide learning. The researcher would perform quite a bit of coding to explore techniques that the students chose to follow and trends in decision-making processes. They would also examine the teaching materials to see what students had been taught to pay attention to when making decisions.

AOT helps researchers & the teachers (or librarians!) they partner with to develop a functional, holistic understanding of why students chose to approach problems in the way they did. Researchers and teachers can also choose to further investigate the choices of students who displayed a range of typical responses, or who displayed unusual responses–whatever interests them. Ultimately, they collect a great deal of information about the decision-making processes that students followed. They can connect this with how students were originally taught.

Wow, that’s a lot to take in. How does this work in practice? I should probably apply this in a library scenario — but you can read a library scenario in my article on AOT applied to information literacy instruction. 🙂 I’ve been using AOT to shape my assessment this semester & would love to tell you about what I’ve learned.

Instead, let’s apply AOT to students faced with a squirrel. Let’s say that I’m a researcher interested in how pre-veterinary students make decisions about feeding animals. Throughout several courses in their first year of a pre-veterinary program, students have learned a range of techniques for handling and feeding a variety of animals. Their professors have given several lectures and assignments that have provided guidelines for making decisions related to animal handling and feeding (which I collected and coded). They have also practiced some animal handling in their labs and, in some cases, through internships.

Now it’s down to the student, me, and a squirrel. I meet with students from the course one at a time. I provide appropriate squirrel food and a variety of tools that the student might use to safely, humanely handle the squirrel and encourage it to eat. Padded gloves, for sure. I would ask the student to take his or her time to feed the squirrel, using their best judgment and necessary tools. I would ask them to talk me through the process, including why they were making the choices they did. When the process was over, I would ask any necessary follow-up questions. Once I had conducted all of the interviews, I would code information and draw inferences about students’ decision-making processes.

No doubt, something would go wrong for one of the students. Despite our best judgment, someone might get nipped. A squirrel might refuse to eat. One of the strengths of AOT is that I would continue to learn from “failed” or incomplete instances, rather than discarding them. We as librarians who teach know how much we learn from seeing both excellent and less skillful student work.

That’s AOT. I’ve used it to gathered some powerful insights about students’ work in my classroom. I’d love to hear how you think you might apply it, as well as related techniques that you’ve used to investigate learning in your library classroom.

Learn more:

Lobato, J. (2006). Alternative perspectives on the transfer of learning: History, issues, and challenges for future research. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(4), 431–449.

Sobel, K. (2018). The Actor-oriented Transfer Perspective in Information Literacy Instruction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(5), 627–632. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2018.07.008

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