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Academically Adrift November 21, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, Uncategorized.
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I finally read Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. It’s created quite the discussion about colleges since its release a couple of years ago. Using the results of a survey instrument called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the authors conclude that college students don’t develop their critical thinking and writing skills very much during the course of their collegiate careers. The reasons for this are numerous and complex, but the authors largely blamed lack of rigor in college class work and assignments. I won’t get into the details of the book, but some excellent summaries and analyses can be found at Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Several things struck me about the book. For one, the growth in critical thinking skills appears to be greatly influenced by what school you attend. More selective colleges generally seem to foster greater growth in CLA scores. There’s also significant variation in CLA scores between majors, with Business and Education faring poorly. When I saw the disparity, my first thought is that maybe the survey instrument is just not capturing the different types of learning and instruction that occurs across majors. I’m not well versed in the methodology and analysis of the CLA, though, so I could be wrong about that. I found one of the more disheartening themes of the book to be that socioeconomic  and ethnic status has a big impact on CLA scores. If your parents are white, have advanced degrees and higher socioeconomic status, then you’re more likely to do well. This corresponds with other studies and commentaries I’ve read that argue college simply perpetuates class differences rather than eliminating them. Finally, I’d like to see a study that teases out the connection between tenure status, courseload and student performance. The authors argue that professors and instructors should expect more of students, but they don’t account for the increasing use of adjunct and untenured instructors whose individual workloads are increasing, mostly because it was beyond the scope of the study and the data available. I don’t have an opinion one way or another on that, but I’d like to know more about that.

How do these research findings affect libraries? Steven Bell has a few thoughts over at Library Journal. He asks how much impact we can have on students’ critical thinking skills when we don’t see them nearly as often as their professors, which is a good question. I have some other questions: how should these findings affect library instruction, if at all? What kinds of services can we offer to help facilitate learning? Arum and Roksa note that group projects and studying together were correlated with lower CLA scores than were individual writing and studying alone. How does this inform our responses to student requests for more group study rooms and open study spaces? I don’t have any answers to these questions, and many of the issues raised are highly complex and require thought across campuses and across the country. But this thought-provoking book provides a good place to start exploring them.

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Welcome Back? October 16, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, PaLA.
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Hello again, everyone. You may have noticed that this blog went on a little six-month hiatus. It’s not the first time a blog has been “orphaned,” and it definitely won’t be the last. However, I will try and update the site more regularly from now on. I also hope to write about what’s been going on with me the past few months. For now however, I wanted to write about the Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA) Annual Conference which was held here in State College from October 2-5.

First off, let me say how great it is to have a conference in your own town. It’s great to be able to roll out of your own bed and drive right to the conference. This is particularly nice when you get a nasty cold the day before the conference! The downside is that it didn’t “feel” like a conference in the way the past two PaLA Annual conferences did because I didn’t have to travel.

I went to a lot of good sessions, but I’ll highlight only a few here. Many of the session presentations and handouts can be found here at the PaLA website.

The first session I went to was “Assessment as a Collaborative Activity: Evaluating Faculty/Librarian Partnerships in the Development of Assessment Tools” by Larissa Gordon from Arcadia University. Larissa’s main theme was that planning an information literacy assessment program is messy and is cyclical rather than a one-time thing. Larissa said that a good assessment program involves 4 groups:

  1. instruction librarians
  2. classroom faculty
  3. teaching & learning center
  4. program coordinators

The term “program coordinator” was new to me, but Larissa explained that it is a full-time faculty member who oversees a program in a department. They’re not the same thing as a department head. They may be called something different depending on the school. My main takeaway from the session was Larissa’s broader view of assessment. I always thought about assessment as primarily involving the instruction librarians and faculty, but I now see the benefit of conceptualizing it as a continuous dialogue between these 4 groups. Larissa also pointed out that a new assessment program can build on already-existing efforts in a given department or college. She also noted that faculty and program coordinators may feel that they’re being judged when assessment is done and may push back against it. However, it’s key to emphasize that the assessment is of the information literacy the librarian is doing, not of the class or the professor.

I next went to by Calvin Wang, who’s also from Arcadia. Called “An End-Run down the Rights,” he discussed good instruction sessions and one-on-one consultations. He noted the importance of “rights” in a good instruction session and critical thinking activity:

  • the right activity
  • for the right knowledge
  • to the right population
  • at the right time
  • under the right circumstances

After looking at the confluence of “rights” that have to be in place, it’s no wonder that instruction sessions don’t always succeed!

One session that really opened my eyes was entitled “Demonstrating the Value of Academic Libraries: Three Perspectives.” Melissa Gold of Millersville U. talked about curriculum mapping, which is a graphical representation of the cirriculum. Its most common form is a grid you fill in with goals and ratings. Creating a curriculum map is time-consuming and it’s usually best viewed as a continuous process of improvement, but it can help other academic departments and university administration easily see how the library is doing.

Scott Anderson, of Millersville U. , had a presentation (the PPT file can be found here) about WeaveOnline, which is a really powerful (and expensive!) software package that helps with reporting and tracking of planning and assessment activities across the university campus. Scott said that in filling in its part in the program, the library can essentially “push” its reports and results into university-wide reports so their work shows up without having someone ask for it. Scott said they’ve also linked with information literacy components of academic departments’ assessments, which helps market the Library’s accomplishments and demonstrate value. Dick Swain from West Chester University discussed TracDat and LibPAS, two other assessment programs.

My takeaway from this session was that demonstrating value is a lot more than saying “look, we have x number of students using our library!” It’s becoming increasingly complex and time-consuming as assessment becomes more important at many institutions. If used well, however, these programs can really help market the library and show areas where improvement is necessary.

The final presentation I want to highlight is “Rethinking Information Literacy: Classroom Evidence for Incorporating Students’ Social Media Practices Into our Professional Understanding” by Donna Mazziotti and Teresa Grettano of the University of Scranton. Their excellent presentation (which is available on the PaLA Conference page I linked to at the beginning) was the most interesting and thought-provoking one I attended. Mazziotti is a Librarian and Grettano is an English professor. They teamed up to teach a rhetoric and social media class that used Facebook and incorporated many information literacy components. They highlighted some of the things they learned from the class, including:

  • information is now social
    • Facebook users notice who shared a story and the sharer’s comments before the original source and content of the story
  • things that aren’t free are viewed more skeptically
    • makes justifying library resources in paid databases tougher
  • passion and expertise are now conflated

Their presentation showed that social media and the social way information is sought and discovered will have significant implications for information literacy standards and instruction methods going forward. I’ll be interested to see how the ACRL information literacy standards change in the future!

Making the skills automatic February 17, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, Management, RUSA.
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I was recently struck by part of  an article in the most recent issue of Reference and User Services Quarterly. In an article entitled “Facilitating Students’ Intellectual Growth in Information Literacy Teaching” by K.W. Wong (read it here), the author cites D.N. Perkins, who says that there are 3 stages of learning process: 1) acquiring skills, 2) making the skills automatic, and 3) transferring the skills to other contexts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “making the skills automatic” in the context of my job. In training the folks I currently oversee, I’ve found that getting another person to make skills (or thought processes) automatic can be hard. While my team has done well and their addition has been a huge help, I’ve found the “automatic” hump to be trickier than I thought.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, I think a big part of the problem one faces in training others, whether they be colleagues or students, is to see things from the other person’s perspective. In my case, I’ve been working on the BIP team for so long that I’m way past the “automatic” point –I’m able to notice weird things in a catalog record on an almost subconscious level. How do I convey to another person what to look for when I don’t even have to think about it any more? Also, I’ve found that there is a downside to “being automatic” when doing cataloging work on a large journal run: zoning out. It’s easy to write down an incorrect volume number on a sheet or type the wrong publication year for an item when you’re doing hundreds of issues of a publication in a row. You just have to look at things with a critical eye to avoid making mistakes. Of course, that’s easier said than done–after a while everything starts to look exactly the same. That’s why coffee breaks were invented!

“Making skills automatic” is a very subtle process, and I’ve got a lot more to learn about it!