Thursday, 4 September 2014

Active Learning in Libraries

Just as most librarians, I haven't received any initial training on teaching techniques. Nonetheless, particularly in Higher Education, many of us have to regularly give training sessions to students of various levels. In my case, this is my principal mission within my institution.
I see post-graduate students and people doing CPD, most of them for a one-shot session (though, I'm working to make that change...) during which I have to make sure that, from now on, they will be perfectly autonomous for their literature searches. It's ambitious. And there is really a lot to teach them in a few hours gleaned from the course of a kind tutor.

Self-train thyself on training others

So I'm trying to train myself as much as possible, through "train the trainer" courses or well-chosen readings. In particular, I went to an exciting workshop by Andrew Walsh on creating games to use in libraries. On this occasion, I discovered his book, Active Learning Techniques for Librarians (1), an incredible resource full of activities ideas to use when giving training sessions to students.

Active learning means involving the learner in her learning, giving her a more active role than the one she's usually given in conference-type courses. Now, that active dimension should allow the learner to retain information and skills better.
Since librarians usually give one-shot sessions and that we probably won't see those students ever again in training, it's all the more crucial to make sure that they actually remember what we're trying to teach them!

Moreover, active training allows us to assess the students' understanding during class, giving us the possibility to give them live feedback on their performance. For example, it's going to be much easier to identify people who haven't really understood a point, and to explain it again, differently, so that they can correct their mistakes.
Finally, a normal person being only able to really focus for a very short periods (usually, a few minutes), scattering a session with active learning activities allows for a change of rhythm, a sort of  break, to get back afterwards with more focus.

But what does it look like?

Andrew Walsh and Padma Inala recommend to use their activities all along a session. For example, we'll begin by breaking the ice with something a bit funny, allowing us in a same shot to send a message about what we expect from the group: don't get asleep, don't get scared, you're going to have to talk and draw and other stuff, but it all should be okay... During the session, we carry on with a few activities going over each point of the program. And we finish with a last activity allowing us to check on the knowledge of the students or to make them reflect about their new skills.

So, all of this is all very nice, but in reality, are we just reinventing the wheel, trying to give exercises and assessing learning? For sure, a little. But that can't be too bad, can it?
Above all, aren't we going to play the role of the annoying teacher wanting students to participate at all costs when they'd just like to sleep quietly? Danger is real. Personally, I was mainly scared of looking ridiculous with my kindergarten games.


But I tested for you active learning techniques on a class of eight PhD students last month. And they loved it. I made them laugh with my spoof activity and the feedback forms they filled in were full with positive comments. So, there is hope.
I'm going to keep testing those techniques with other classes and I'll keep you posted.

A few examples

Meanwhile, here are a few examples of activities I liked, from Walsh and Inala's book. I tested some of them and I will try out the others very soon.

"What's your favourite?"
Choose a question (for example, "what's your favourite database?") and put it up on a wall. Beneath, put up several papers corresponding to the different possible answers (one for each database your students can access for example). When the students enter the classroom, before they sit down, ask them to cast their vote by putting a sticky note beneath their answer. It's very visual and it's a good conversation starter.

"Make a Spoof"
Ask students to work on a spoof subject in groups. For example, I asked my PhD students to write down five things that would allow them to do the worst literature search ever...
Quite good as an introduction, so as to get them to start thinking about the topic of the course.

"Good Search, Bad Search"
After having shown students how to do a perfect literature search, give them an example of a "bad search" and have them discuss in pairs:
- How come this is a "bad search"?
- How could they make it better?

"I will do it"
At the end of the session, ask the students to write down what they're going to do in the coming weeks to put into practice what they learned. Have them write down their names and email addresses. Send them a scan of their form the next month, asking them if they actually did what they said they would and if you can help them achieving their goals.

(1) Walsh, Andrew and Inala, Padma (2010) Active Learning Techniques for Librarians: Practical Examples. Chandos, Cambridge. ISBN 9781843345923 

Photo : Brook Ward
This picture is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

I translated this article from my French blog: Pédagogie active en bibliothèque.

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