ACRL Immersion 2012

This past summer I got to attend the ACRL Immersion Teacher Track program. I probably should have written something up about it sooner… But, then again, there was so much information that giving it time to marinate was probably a good thing!

For those who are unfamiliar with the Immersion program, it’s a week-long training program to improve your skills in teaching information literacy. It started on Sunday afternoon/evening with a dinner and an icebreaker activity. On Monday through Friday, breakfast was from 7:30 to 8:30 (in the campus dining hall, so no need to be there right at 7:30)… And then we launched into a full day of lessons and activities. Some lessons were presented to the whole group, and then some of the time we were split according to our tracks (teacher or program), and then we also split off to work with our smaller cohorts (around 10 or 12 people) for some activities. Monday was grueling, lasting until around 8:30 pm. The rest of the days were shorter, ending around 5:30 pm, but there is SOOO much information to take in that that was still pretty heavy.

The thing I most wanted to get out of the program before going was a grounding in learning theory and a way to be more systematic in my instruction. Many of the librarians with me in the teacher track only teach one-shots, so I don’t know how they viewed some of the learning theory stuff, but I really wanted to build a more systematic approach to my semester-long course. Luckily, that’s what I got out of the program!

Many of the activities were geared toward teaching us to use active learning techniques to get students more engaged in class. As you may guess from a glance at my list of presentations, I’ve been drinking that kool-aid since I started at UWG. The head of my department has done the teacher track, program track, and just finished the assessment track of the ACRL Immersion program offerings. Another member of my department, who did the program track this summer, did the teacher track a few years ago. And these two had the biggest influence on the type of teaching I tried in my first year here.

On the first day, we watched a Nightline segment about a corporate design firm, IDEO — you can catch it on youtube. While everyone else was reacting like “that’s such a great idea,” it just reminded me of May, when my department worked together to rework our info lit course for a summer bridge program! I also recognized several of the activities that we did at Immersion from exercises we have already been using in classes at UWG… So that aspect of the program wasn’t nearly as enlightening for me as it may have been for other participants.

The parts that I found most useful were the basic grounding in educational theory, a way of thinking about different learning styles, and an overview of assessment techniques.

I have a decent amount of teaching experience, but had no real training in how to teach before Immersion. My first teaching gig was as a grad student at UVA – I got a TA position in which I led 3 discussion sections of about 20 students each. I had no frickin’ clue what I was doing! But, with only 20 students in each section, it worked out ok. My next time in front of a class was much more nerve-wracking: teaching a 225 person lecture course as the graduate instructor! After getting my MA at UVA and starting the PhD program in anthropology at Mizzou, I got a TA position my first year, but there were no discussion sections. I just helped with grading and lectured when the instructor was ill or had a family emergency. And that was considered my training for teaching the course the following year. Eeep! I kind of pity the students who were in that class that year… Or, really, most years, because my experience was pretty typical of the grad students who taught that course. And, so, I did straight up lecture with powerpoint slides. Snooze-fest. I only did 4 scantron exams each semseter, and the questions were almost all drawn from the textbook’s test bank. Which, by the way, you’d think those questions should be clear and unambiguous, since they’re written by “experts”, but I think every time I had a problem with a bad question on a test, it was one from the test bank, not one I had written over an example from the lecture that wasn’t in the book.

So I learned from trial and error, but was flying kind of blind when it comes to planning.

At Immersion, Char Booth took the lead on teaching learning theory. She covered different learning theories, including behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Behaviorism is basically the Pavlov’s dog approach of providing information and repeating it until it is “learned”. You can have engagement with students in this approach, but it’s more in the form of questioning, with a call and response type of environment. They are awake and responding, but trained to respond with a correct answer to a given cue. Cognitivism pays more attention to the cognitive processes involved in learning – so scaffolding to build on prior knowledge, parceling out the new information to avoid overloading the learner. This is the approach that got us to start telling people what they’re going to get out of the instruction session at the beginning to make it more relevant to them. This approach involves using problem solving to create “aha” moments, where the learner has some insight into the concept and reaches the next level on the scaffold. Constructivism is the trendy one right now – as you might guess from the name, this theory suggests that learners construct their own meaning. So, learning is: process based, socially and culturally influenced, rooted in experience (in contrast to abstract ideas), interpreted through individual lenses, and dependent on motivation and reflection. (And that list is copied directly from my notes, not sure whether I copied exactly or paraphrased Char Booth’s lecture on this!) This is where a lot of the inquiry-based teaching approaches come into play.

The point of learning about learning theory is not just to fill our heads with theory, but to inform our planning. So, if you have X outcome that you want students to learn, which approach will be most effective? Some lessons lend themselves well to constructivist approaches, while others really are best taught through a behaviorist approach. Constructivism is “in” right now, but Char emphasized that we shouldn’t assume that it is good and the older models are bad. You need different tools in your toolbox for different tasks.

Deb Gilchrist took the lead on teaching about assessment. At some point, I need to look back through my notes and the program notebook to pull more nuggets of wisdom out of this section. The main thing I took from this part, so far, is the importance of learning outcomes. To be able to effectively assess student learning, you need to walk in with a clear idea of what you want them to learn! Learning outcomes can come in a variety of levels — what are the overarching outcomes I want students to get from my semester-long course, and then what are the more specific outcomes that will scaffold them up to those overarching outcomes? And then, what are the smaller component outcomes that will build them up to those mid-level outcomes… Of course, you can go the other way with it too – if I want them to learn to use the different limiters and results filtering options in Academic Search Complete, what’s the point? What outcome does that support? If it doesn’t lead to an outcome that I want to teach, what is the point of doing it?

There’s a lot of confusion out there about what is a learning outcome vs. learning objective, and several other terms that I’m blanking on at the moment. Deb defined learning outcomes as “[verb phrase] in order to [why phrase].” So you have two key components – the skill you want them to learn and the reason for learning that skill, separated by “in order to”. As I mentioned above, these can be written at a variety of levels, but it’s important to make sure that the statements are balanced. One way to do this is to use Bloom’s taxonomy (I’m using this list for categories mentioned below). If the first half of your outcome addresses a basic database searching skill that fits in the comprehension category, you want the second half to fit the application category, not jump to the evaluation end of the spectrum. Deb stressed that there isn’t any one correct answer for writing outcomes, the important part is to know why you selected the components you did. Another important detail is to select verbs that are actually observable — how do you assess whether someone “understands” something?

Beth Woodard led the discussions about learning styles. There are all kinds of different approaches people take to this topic, and plenty of skepticism out there about taking learning styles too seriously. But I think Beth’s approach was really useful. Instead of trying to pigeon-hole people into a few pre-defined categories, we talked about different styles as a continuum along two axes: concrete experience <--> abstract conceptualization and reflective observation <--> active experimentation. My Immersion notebook is in the office and I’m at home, so I consulted wikipedia to jog my memory – it tells me that this version is David Kolb’s model.

The take-away for me is that some people do better by getting their hands on a problem and experimenting with it, while others prefer some time to think and create a plan. And on the other axis, some people do better with abstract ideas, while others prefer more concrete examples… We also talked some about social relations being important for the concrete experience end of the spectrum – so those people like to work in groups and build on one anothers’ experiences, while the more abstract folks prefer solitary work. The people with high reflective observation and abstract conceptualization scores would rather sit through a long, boring lecture than have to participate in a lot of constructivist, inquiry-based lesson plans – weirdos! So mix it up. Don’t find one teaching method that you like and use that for everything, try to vary your approaches and incorporate activities that allow time for active experimentation AND reflective observation, group AND individual work. Again, more tools in your toolbox is a good thing, and will help you reach more students.

So, I thought I would also talk some about what I’ve done so far to incorporate these ideas and what I plan to do in the foreseeable future… But this post is already oh-my-god long! So I’ll leave that for another post!