Whispered questions: Is active learning ever *not quite* the answer?

A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite faculty members and I were talking on the phone. She began telling me a story about a recent situation in which her students had completely failed to construct knowledge together during an active learning exercise. Everyone was frustrated. The hour was wasted. It’s okay, I told her–we all [platitudes about how the very best teachers learn through experimentation and occasional flops. I’ve flopped; you’ve flopped; it happens]. Do you think…maybe just TELLING them some of these things would have helped? she asked. Was active learning the WRONG tactic? At that point, I realized that we were whispering–and it wasn’t just the thin walls. We felt that we were speaking the unspeakable.

This conversation clearly stuck with me, and several days ago, I was thrilled to connect with David Goobar’s recent article in Chronicle Vitae, “Is it Ever OK to Lecture?” This good-natured and pragmatic article begins with the story of one of Goobar’s graduate teaching assistants: a young man, deeply dedicated to active learning, who brings this question to the author.

The article has several major points that are of use to academic librarians: (1) The article provides several specific strategies for overlaying brief lectures with tools or activities for actively gathering information. (2) When we tell graduate assistants and other new teachers (or teachers who are revising their methods) to use active learning strategies, we need to coach them. Active learning strategies need to be selected and used well. (3) Sometimes *telling* students about areas of knowledge that you know in depth gets them off to an efficient start in their learning, which supports & accelerates the active part of your class time. I appreciated the article’s brief mention of types of knowledge that students may struggle to develop through active learning.

Goobar’s thoughts are particularly helpful to me as I work to make my own information literacy instruction more and more active. I appreciate learning more about when & how to strategically supplement active learning with straight-up information.

I may report back as I experiment with some of the tools mentioned in the study — such as the “quiz on the go.” Please let me know if you try them! Here’s to honest questions. May we never hesitate to ask them!

The Superpower that Has No Name

There’s a fair amount of popular/professional literature out there about librarians’ supposed superpowers. There are numerous articles about librarians saving the world, and then, of course, there’s Batgirl. You can Google it (yes, we ‘brarians Google from time to time. 🙂  )

Tonight I’m thinking about my own superpower. I wasn’t gifted with one of the exciting ones–but when it comes to useful superpowers that empower students, I lucked out. Maybe this is a superpower that you have, too?

Here’s the secret: I don’t get bored. Really. You can explain the most esoteric, detailed academic concept to me and I think it’s fascinating. (Don’t try mansplaining anything to me, though; that’s different.) In fact, I think that your engagement with the topic is cool. I want to hear how you hope to change the world with your knowledge–because I know that you have plans, or at least some powerful starting points.

Like many bona fide superheroes, it was part chance and part upbringing that helped me to hone this superpower. I sprang from two generations of talented phytopathologists (Google it.)–my Dad researches wheat and corn, and my Grandpa researched potato fungus. We are a family that does not hesitate to discuss science over the dinner table. Also, I get that sometimes it’s the tiniest details, shrouded in science and magic, that have the biggest implications for the world. Sometimes you have to tell me what those implications are, though.

How can all of this be empowering to students? That part is easy! I’ll gladly listen. I enjoy serving as the “educated public” to whom you explain your science. I love hearing about the work that you hope to do one day, and how it could change the world. I can connect you with resources for your research. I can also tell you stories of other students who have made it in the past–just ask.

Oh, yeah–and I don’t expect that you have the same superpower. You have your own superpowers. When you find a career that’s a match for your powers, that’s when you’ll know you’re in the right place. That’s your wisdom for the day. 😉

What we can learn from each other: Librarians and university faculty

Welcome to the new year! May it be a year of learning from each other.

I spend a lot of my working life in academic libraries talking with university faculty. (At my institution, librarians are faculty as well. But I’m talking about English professors, art professors, engineering professors…you get the idea.) I spend a lot of my commuting & research time reading articles about academic libraries, and about both P-12 and higher education. I spend a lot of time in my doctoral program debating and discussing and binding with teachers and administrators from a wide variety of settings. So you can guess some of the things that I think about.

One of the most pragmatic, given my work is–my gosh, there is so much that academic librarians and university faculty can learn from each other! Another is–why aren’t we talking more about this? That and other connections between the fields of LIS and education–which can so intimately inform each other–is indeed the theme of this blog.

So let’s talk. First, what can academic librarians tell university faculty? Here’s a list to start with:

  • We have a longitudinal view of students’ academic and personal development. We often work closely with a small but meaningful number of students from the first time they choose to connect with the library until they graduate.
  • What do students really know about research? Ask a librarian. For many of us, that’s our life.
  • Students share their challenges, victories, fears, and complaints candidly.
  • Rather profoundly, students often verbalize how they are applying ideas learned in one class, in another class. We see transfer of learning on the large scale.
  • Similarly, students often explain assignments’ requirements to us. We have a good idea what kinds of instructions trip students up, and what supports smooth sailing.
  • Although you could argue that the students we work with may not represent campus demographics accurately, we do work extensively with both high achievers and struggling students. Academic librarians have insights into what students with different academic backgrounds and/or levels of preparation find helpful, struggle with, and so on.

What can librarians learn from university faculty? A few ideas based on my experiences:

  • Faculty know individual students deeply. They have a detailed view of individuals’ performance, needs, and more.
  • Likewise, they often have powerful narratives of individual students’ experiences to share.
  • While we know how assignments pan out on the reference desk or in the library instruction classroom, faculty know how they pan out across the semester. Sometimes my head is so deep in my own work with students that I need that reminder.
  • Faculty are wonderful sources of insight on trends in teaching & learning.
  • No matter how up to date I think I am on trends/requirements/changes/etc. on curriculum at my institution, faculty always have a lot to tell me. This is a favorite topic for a bit of conversation when I run into my favorite faculty members.

How do we find opportunities to connect? Some of my favorite opportunities are before, after, & during instruction; at university symposia; on university-level committees (I’m a committee junkie–I actually enjoy committee work); over coffee (no one says no!); and by offering to write posts for various university blogs & publications.

Whew! Librarians, what else can we share with university faculty? What else have you learned along the way from these interactions? Let’s talk.

Here’s to a vibrant new year! Thanks for being a part of it.