A Look Back at a Year in Advising

As the semester draws to a close, I’ve begun to reflect seriously on my first year as a freshman advisor through Creighton’s Ratio Studiorum Program. What were may successes? Where were my missteps? What can I improve as I prepare for a new group of freshmen in the 2014-2015 academic year? I could probably write a novella about the experiences, but instead I’ll leave you with some bullet points.

Missteps:

  • Share, but don’t over share – This is really difficult. As an advisor, you want to help students avoid some major pitfalls. Learning to do this without sharing too much personal information or college stories I found very, very difficult. A fellow librarian pointed out early on in the fall semester that by over sharing I may be unintentionally blurring the line between instructor and friend. Because I’m not their friend; I’m their instructor and advisor. I need to work on this for the new year.
  • My students are not me – The problems and challenges I faced as a student are not the same as the ones my students face. The same can be said for what came easily to me. This may seem obvious to some, but as I grew comfortable with my students, it was difficult to draw this distinction. Over time, I improved at this. When students asked about Greek life, studying abroad, or classes at Wisconsin, I began to give the response, “You can’t compare my experiences at Wisconsin to yours at Creighton. They are two completely different schools in almost every way imaginable.” They seemed to accept this. As they grew accustomed to Creighton, they understood this more.
  • Effective assignment design – So I’m instructor now… I guess I need to create graded assignments? I had a nonchalant attitude about this at the start of the semester and by the time I recognized this, it was too late. I will be applying what I learned at Immersion and various campus professional development workshops to my next class.

Successes:

  • Building community with students – An essential goal of the course is building community to retain students at Creighton. I believe I accomplished this. From day one I tried to build a comfortable, safe classroom environment for my students. Our candid discussions about roommates, mental health, alcohol, diversity, and becoming an independent adult reflect this. I see it when I pass a student on the mall and they’re with another classmate.
  • Building community with faculty – Librarians at Creighton do not have faculty status. One of my goals in becoming a Preceptor was to build stronger relationships with faculty and academic staff across the College of Arts and Sciences. Since I’m nearing the conclusion of my second year at the University, relationship building remains an essential part of my job. Teaching RSP allowed me to meet faculty in and out of my liaison areas and strengthened existing relationships, evidence of which can be seen in the Library’s instructional programming.
  • “Can you help my friend?” – Being as an advisor made me a little nervous. I had to learn the curriculum and campus resources quickly. There were definitely some rough spots, but I knew I had done my job well when my students began bringing in friends with their advising questions. I’d be sitting at my desk, when one of my students would walk in with a friend who had an advising question. They brought them to me because they valued my advise. An advisor’s goal is the success of their students, which aligns perfectly with the Library’s mission. It was a perfect marriage between my goals as a librarian and instructor/advisor.

It has been an incredibly rewarding experience both professionally and personally. My love for teaching and working with students increased exponentially. I’ll continue to work at it, learning as I go. Modeling lifelong learning for my students as their instructor, their advisor, and their reference librarian.

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Low Instruction Numbers Call for More Aggressive Outreach

As the semester draws to its end, I find myself compiling instruction statistics. While the College of Arts and Science is undergoing a core curriculum revision, which will integrate an information literacy learning outcome into a required course, the current core curriculum lacks such a requirement. There have been two courses which represent our instructional program’s bread and butter – Ratio Studiorum Program (RSP) and Civic Engagement through Public Communication (COM 152).

COM 152 is a speech course that the majority of students take to fulfill a core requirement. This fall, I taught 11 of the 12 sections (92%) of COM 152. This percentage is higher than last fall, which was only 58%. Anecdotally, I attribute the rise to two factors. The first is that I began working at Creighton two days before the start of the Fall 2012 semester; I imagine some instructors hesitated to contact me because of this. The second is that word of mouth of my instruction spread. I know this is true for two instructors who I taught for in the Spring 2013 and Fall 2013 semesters. They told me an information literacy session was recommended by another faculty member. All in all, I’m pleased with the improvement in the raw numbers for this course.

RSP is a required one credit course for freshmen. It focuses on advising, acclimating students to collegiate level academics, and introducing students to Jesuit values taught at Creighton. This fall, librarians taught only 20 of the 49 sections (41%) in the College of Arts and Sciences. The reverse occurred in Fall 2012 when 22 of 39 sections (58%) had an encounter with library instruction. This decrease unsettles me.

I analyzed these numbers to see if there are any patterns or conclusions to draw. Here is what I found:

  • More sections of RSP were taught in Fall 2013 to allow for smaller class sizes
  • Over half of the instructors who taught in Fall 2012 and requested library instruction did not teach a section in Fall 2013
  • No faculty members abandoned ship – if a faculty member requested instruction in Fall 2012, they also requested it in Fall 2013
  • There doesn’t seem to be a pattern in faculty members by department who did or did not request instruction. Notably high departments who did not request instruction for Fall 2013 were Modern Languages and Chemistry

I’d like to note that I’m a firm believer that correlation does not equal causation, but I still see the value in examining observations and data to find patterns that may lead to further research.

I expect numbers to fluctuate each year; however, I have designed instruction for COM 152 to scaffold from instruction in RSP. Information literacy instruction in RSP focuses on Bloom’s lower level skills. We teach students the building blocks of research and show them the various resources the library owns. COM 152 focuses almost exclusively on evaluation and analysis of sources. Perhaps this scaffolded approach is not appropriate if information literacy instruction in RSP is reaching only 40-60% of students?

One of the biggest disappointments in the lowered numbers is that as an instructor for a section of RSP this Fall semester I seemed to have failed at recruiting more faculty requests for instruction. Not only was I at all of the instructor meets, networking with faculty, but I also presented multiple times to the faculty. I believed this would encourage more faculty to utilize our instructional program, but this did not happen.

Perhaps our liaisons, myself included, need to encourage faculty to bring their sections to the library more aggressively. Another idea emerged from teaching a section instructed by a Chemistry faculty member. He showed high interest in RefWorks and wanted me to teach his students about it. I typically don’t mention RefWorks during instruction for RSP. Maybe we need to appeal more to the interests of each faculty member’s discipline. For example, the faculty in the sciences may request sessions if we advertise teaching how to use RefWorks and the differences between primary and secondary sources.

With the new core curriculum beginning in Fall 2014, this all may be needless extrapolation. The information literacy outcome imposed on one of the new core courses poses promise for the future of the instructional program. What the Library needs to do going into the future is try to emphasize the partnering of faculty with librarians to achieve this outcome. I know there will be faculty who choose to go at it alone, but it is our job to show that we can be collaborators with them to help their students learn how to become information literate students.

It has occurred to me that I’m putting a lot of emphasis on “usage” numbers. Student outcomes are the most important assessment piece when dealing with information literacy. If students are not learning anything, then the library is failing. But in order to teach students, we need to get them inside the doors, whether physically or virtually.

Dear Faculty, I Get It Now

Dear Faculty,

I never understood. What’s one class period? You’ve always said you want your students to produce the best research papers possible. When your students submit papers with only an assortment of open web sources, you shrugged your shoulders, deducted points, and said, “Well, they should have known better.” But how could they include appropriate, scholarly sources when they know neither what they are nor where to find them?

But I get it now. I’ve spent time in the trenches. My one credit class that meets only 50 minutes a week overflows with content. I struggled to fit in the time. But I did. Granted, I had the advantage of being able to disperse the content throughout the course and not in a one-shot session, but I did it. You can too! Even in your three credit course that meets 2 and half hours a week.

Break the mold of the one-shot session. Embed a librarian into your CMS. Invite the librarian for 15-20 minute segments throughout the semester. Partner with a librarian in way that is meaningful for your class. Don’t just say, “I don’t have enough time.”

But I have now walked a small portion of your journey, and I can promise you this: The next time I hear that you don’t have enough time for librarians to teach information literacy skills, my eyes won’t roll quite as much.

Sincerely,

Your Friendly Instructional Services Librarian

Coming Up for Air: Living in a Post-Immersion World

It’s been over two months since attending ACRL Immersion Teacher Track in Seattle and I have yet to post about my experiences because, quite frankly, I haven’t had time. In the weeks following Immersion my mind was racing at over 100mph. How could I do justice to this transformative experience by only summarizing it? And in the immediate weeks following Immersion, a summary seemed the like the only post I could create. This past Friday gave me an opportunity to push beyond a summary.

Immersion provided great practical advise on how to improve what I was already doing. Let’s begin with what I incorporated immediately:

  • A vast network of kick ass librarians – Honestly, this is probably the most valuable asset I gained from Immersion. The librarians I met and became friends with offer objective opinions on teaching strategies and tools I want to incorporate into my classes. A simple Tweet about an idea garners response from many of these librarians. I have a connection of information literacy professionals spread throughout the country at my fingertips.
  • More (and better) assessment – I already was assessing in many of my information literacy sessions, but now my assessment actually aligns with the learning theory I was teaching. The new assessment pieces often take more work to analyze, but the students perform better and you can see real learning.
  • Hell hath no fury like learning outcomes scorned – I used learning outcomes before Immersion, but I wasn’t utilizing them to their fullest potential. I feel more confident constructing learning outcomes in order to assess whether or not my students are learning. (See what I did there.)
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A whiskey rubric – because it makes assessment go down easier

There are also some much larger, programmatic components to Immersion that I brought home with me. This past week, I had the opportunity to present to faculty about how the Library can help teach and assess the information literacy learning outcome in a course they’re developing for Creighton’s new Magis Core Curriculum. It’s critical for the Library to become involved because it’s the only course in the new curriculum that is required to assess information literacy.

In preparation for the meeting, I presented to my coworkers in reference. Throughout the course of this preliminary meeting I found myself talking about learning outcomes versus the tasks to achieve them, something I have a distinct memory of Lisa Hinchliffe discussing. For example, learning Boolean operators isn’t a learning outcome, but it’s a skill that can help them to construct an effective search strategy. It was an opportunity to teach the teachers.

The faculty meeting went well. Most faculty seemed on board with incorporating the Library into their courses; however, only time will tell. It’s an exciting opportunity for the information literacy program at Creighton, and one in which I’ll have the experiences and lessons learned at Immersion to help support me in leading the Library in this new and exciting chapter.

Librarian, Instructor, Advisor: Decision 1 of Many to Follow

On top of my summer library projects, which include a redesign of Reinert Library’s modular online tutorial, I will be preparing to teach my first credit-bearing course. In an effort to expand the reach of the information literacy program at Creighton University, I volunteered to be a faculty preceptor for the Ratio Studiorum Program (RSP) at Creighton. RSP 101 introduces freshmen to academic life in the College of Arts & Sciences at Creighton. In addition to teaching students about the value of a liberal arts education and the Jesuit mission, I will also be the students’ advisor until they declare their major.

It should come as no surprise that as a reference and instruction librarian I find teaching to be the most rewarding and gratifying aspect of my job. Unfortunately, with the exception of institutions that teach a credit-bearing information literacy course, librarians rarely have the opportunity to teach outside the one-shot format. While RSP 101 is not an information literacy course, there is a good bit of flexibility built into it. In addition to my teaching style and preferred teaching strategies, I can personalize my section through a book or series of articles.

Playing to the age-old stereotype of the bookish librarian, I spent a healthy amount of time attempting to pick the perfect book. Since RSP 101 is a one-credit course, the recommended length is 200 pages, which narrows the pool considerably. I was also advised to choose a book that both engages students and plays to my research interests. The information field offers plenty of interesting options, but I struggled imagining 18 year-old students feeling the same enthusiasm for The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains or The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption as I do. One could argue that given the academic nature of the course, students don’t have to love the book, but I also don’t want students to look at the class as just another boring requirement. So after staring at my bookshelves for what felt like an eternity, I landed on Peter Rock’s My Abandonment

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My Abandonment by Peter Rock

Perhaps an unconventional choice, but let me explain. The goal of critical thinking skills inherent in information fluency is transferability. We want students to use the search skills we teach them across multiple platforms, not just an EBSCO or ProQuest interface. We want to teach them how to critically evaluate all types of information, not just a website or scholarly article. My Abandonment is inspired by the true story of a girl and her father who lived in Forest Park in Portland. Rock has created a beautiful and gripping coming of age tale from the newspaper stories that emerged upon their discovery. I envision using this novel as a gateway for students to think about how we interact with information, both available and missing, in our daily lives to draw inferences and create knowledge in the world around us. Fiction is not a popular option for RSP 101 texts. I chose fiction because just as dystopian literature can help young adults understand difficult social issues, I believe that fiction can generate questions and conversations in more profound ways than nonfiction.

Choosing a text is just one of the many pedagogical decisions I’ll have to make this summer. I look forward to developing the class and the opportunities it will allow for experimentation with different teaching strategies and tools. I am particularly interested in utilizing the flipped classroom model. Developing a class, mastering the College of Arts & Sciences curriculum, and advising approximately 12 students will not only challenge me  as a teacher, but I also envision it as an exciting opportunity to demonstrate one of the many ways in which the library can help serve the students (and faculty) at Creighton.

Do We Need to Teach This?

As Reference and Instructional Services Librarian, a significant percentage of my work focuses on assessment. One of my favorite classes to teach as the social science liaison is Communication Studies 152: Civic Engagement through Public Communication. Throughout the semester students produce a series of informative, persuasive, and group speeches. Instructors encourage students to speak about topics that not only interest them, but that also engage with the current civic discourse.

Because topics generally focus on current issues, sources run the gamut from open web sources to scholarly articles. Most speeches utilize an array of government statistical sources, local newspaper articles, and scholarly, peer-reviewed material. On top of this breadth lies the fact that a majority of COM 152 students are freshmen, many of whom have never been exposed to college-level research or library databases. This leaves 50 minutes to teach students the information cycle, the difference between scholarly and popular, how to effectively use databases (and a wide variety of them, since topics can fall under any discipline), and how to critically evaluate the information they find. A daunting task, but one that instruction librarians regularly face.

Working with course instructors, information literacy librarians make tough decisions about what to teach and what not to teach on a daily basis. Creating clear, relevant, and measurable learning outcomes helps us prioritize and focus our learning objectives. Assessing these outcomes illustrates if students learn what we teach. We then close the assessment loop by using the results to inform our future teaching. But what do we do if the results continue to show students aren’t grasping a particular concept? We can incorporate different teaching techniques. We can ensure we’re teaching to various learning styles. We can develop different active learning exercises. In sum, we go back to the drawing board. We don’t give up. But how often do we take a step back and ask ourselves, “Is this a skill a students (still) need? Do we need to move on and focus our attention elsewhere?” After all, time is precious and we may be letting one piece distract us from the greater puzzle.

This spring I piloted a pre- and post-test assessment piece in four of the sections of COM 152. I learned a lot about the effectiveness of my teaching and how students conceptualize some of the material. The tests also revealed that students repeatedly failed to grasp the difference between keywords and subjects. A handful of conclusions can be drawn from the results, but I began to wonder if this was an essential skill for students in this course to master. A large portion of students’ sources (for better or worse) come from open web sources and newspapers, both of which typically do not use controlled vocabulary and often allow for full text searching. Recognizing the difference between subjects and keywords might prove useful when searching for scholarly articles or using the catalog, but since sources need to be within the past 5 years, students often ignore the catalog and their scholarly sources trend toward broad pieces on general issues.

Through working with students one-on-one in research consultations, I think students often discover controlled vocabulary serendipitously. They’ll search a database and begin to look through the records. They notice that within each record are hyperlinked terms that often reflect their initial keyword search. Since Millennials are so accustomed to URLs, they’ll click on the subject term and realize that the database has now returned more relevant records. Some students will ask why it happened, while other students don’t care why it happened but realize that they’ve “done something right.” They begin to notice the database limiters. Serendipity.

Is it possible to quantify which learning method is more valuable – learning within the classroom or learning by doing? Are the two separate? I can create active learning exercises that incorporate this same process, but the activity is divorced from the students’ point of need. Or is this all irrelevant? Knowing the difference between controlled vocabulary and keywords is a lower order skill. Should my efforts focus on higher order information literacy skills? Is this possible without knowing the difference between keyword searching and controlled vocabulary?

I believe it is possible. Teaching the difference between keywords and subjects may be a traditional learning objective, but its time may have run out. In an increasingly digital educational landscape where information overload is almost inevitable, this is one piece that I’m growing increasingly comfortable removing from the puzzle.