I think about scalability quite a bit these days. And the liaison model. Here at Brock, we are running the traditional liaison model, with some functional specialties sprinkled in there, locally known as a ‘/’ or ‘slash’. As in, “I am the eLearning SLASH liaison librarian”. And as liaisons, most of us have a pretty significant load of assigned departments. Personally, I’m covering the Fine and Performing Arts, which is 4 departments. My colleague Elizabeth Yates is responsible for the entire Faculty of Applied Health Sciences (5 departments!).
This means that, when we are invited to do instruction for a class, we really have to look at what we can accomplish with the resources at hand (ie. one human being).
I was asked to run a library/ research seminar for the first year Dramatic Arts course, in order to prepare them for their upcoming essay. This is a great opportunity, one we didn’t previously have in this course. It’s a large enrollment course (~160), so I was pleased to be invited into the seminars. I find that speaking in lecture to such a large group, even if you try to integrate activities and group work, doesn’t seem very effective. When given the chance to work with students in a smaller group, in a smaller room, with hands-on exercises, I find the questions and answers, and ‘teachable moments’ are aplenty.
But. The logistics of actually running those seminars are pretty daunting. I’ve done it in the past (say, 9 seminars for a Pop Culture class) and damn, by the end of things it is a well-oiled machine. The investment of time (and energy) is pretty enormous.
In this case, I couldn’t actually run all 8 of the seminars — many of them were scheduled at the same time (for example, 3 seminars in one time slot). And I couldn’t bring them into the library labs because that would be 60 students (over capacity for our 40-person room). And also, at 60 people I’ve lost the point of having a smaller-scale conversation.
So, I sent this predicament out to my wonderful colleagues at Brock. And Karen Bordonaro suggested the option of ‘teach the teacher’. In other words, prepare a lesson plan for the Teaching Assistants and they run the seminar. Aha! So, that’s what I did. Below, I’ll share what worked, what didn’t, and what I might do differently next time.
The seminar rooms are not tech-equipped. But I really wanted the students to do some searching for this seminar. (I initially thought I could go completely concept-based & not even need tech, but… I got scared.) The instructors and TAs assured me that a good number of students brought laptops to class. I decided to have them work in pairs on the activity, so that just meant we’d need 50% “Bring Your Own Device” to make this work.
And it worked! In most seminars, pretty much every student had a device. In some cases, they had fewer but enough so that every group was able to get online and search. I also had my fingers crossed that the wifi was decent in these rooms, and it was just fine.
I worried about ‘asking too much’ of the TAs. As always, it’s hard to judge what level of comfort with research each of them are bringing to the table. I decided to use our existing ‘Advantage Plus’ program in order to deliver some of the basics — it is an online tutorial consisting of videos, activities, and a quiz covering stuff like ‘finding books’, ‘the peer review process’, etc. This way, a good chunk of the *content* was not a burden on the TAs.
I drafted a lesson plan with opener discussion questions to review the tutorial content, with pointers on how the TAs might help answer these questions. I laid out the activity with approximate timing, and provided a handout for students. I also listed troubleshooting tips for various elements in the activity. (The students were assigned a play & asked to find a book, journal article, and professional production. And cite it in MLA. Nothing groundbreaking there.)
Based on my observations, the lesson plan and handout worked just fine. Everyone seemed to understand the plan and it worked well within the time allotted. I saw students running searches, refining them, discerning if something was peer reviewed, and had the opportunity to provide support. It warms my librarian heart to see them get this instruction in first year — I think it will serve them well.
They were great! We met a week in advance to review the lesson plan and tweak it if necessary. I had asked them to complete Advantage Plus in advance of our meeting to see if it raised any questions for them (and also as an attempt to start us all from the same place). Again, it was hard to gauge if there were gaps in their understanding, and no one really admitted to any unfamiliarity with the material. I recall my days as a grad student and the ever-present ‘impostor syndrome’. So, as a cautionary measure, I reviewed some searching basics and tips (“I’m sure you all know this already…”).
Since I didn’t want to completely leave them hanging, I decided to be a ‘floater’ during the seminars. I would slip in and out in order to answer questions (and introduce myself). It was definitely interesting to see how they each took a different approach with the material. They are, of course, confident and experienced with their students, and each with their own approach to teaching. No matter the style, I think the TAs delivered the lesson competently and I would absolutely use the ‘teach the teacher’ approach again. Also, the TAs have an already set rapport with their students (and assign grades), so they do have that credibility that a librarian-as-guest often lacks.
A curious sidenote, almost every TA made a point of adding Boolean logic to the seminar (I did not suggest it). Yes, even using the words ‘Boolean logic.’ One had even shared this hilarious honey badger Boolean meme with her students in advance of the seminar. Especially excellent since the Brock mascot is a badger. Apparently, those TAs love them some Boolean.
What didn’t work
I believe the instructors and/or TAs asked the students to do the online tutorial in advance of the seminar. But it was a bit confused because the actual deadline to receive the associated bonus marks was still a week away. So yeah, it was not a mandatory component.
Based on a show of hands in each seminar, it seems like around one-third to one-half of the students had completed the tutorial in advance of seminar. And a number of them had done the Advantage Plus program for another class last term, so even if they had done it, it was likely pretty fuzzy. So, that’s too bad. Although the students who had done the material did keep the class moving along and not leave too much of the burden on the TA to review the basics.
I expect this might be a common problem for librarians trying to flip the classroom. We don’t have that established credibility or relationship that supports the expectation of students doing work in advance of the class. Especially if the lesson plan completely relies on that material having already been addressed (which mine didn’t too too much). Tricky.
This could’ve worked better if the due date for the tutorial were aligned with the seminar date, or of course if the material were mandatory. Next time I could also ask if I could send the students a message over Sakai in order to communicate the flipped classroom approach.
Jury is still out
Was it necessary or helpful for me to be there? I feel like the answer is a bit of a mixed bag. During the hands-on bit, I think it was useful for me to be there in order to help troubleshoot. In some instances, when we discussed concepts like peer review, I was able to help with more challenging questions like ‘Are academic books peer-reviewed?’ But there were a few situations where I think my presence made a TA uncomfortable, as though I were monitoring them. My intent was really to be there as a support for the TAs (while also observing whether this lesson plan was working).
There were indeed a few bits of misinformation from the TAs during this seminar. It meant for a delicate situation where I either had to find a diplomatic way of correcting them in front of their students, or leave it uncorrected. I think I will be better prepared for that next time.
But was this any more scalable? I was still attending the seminars 7-10pm on a Tuesday night and 9-11am on a Friday morning. And perhaps my time wasn’t terribly well used since I was just there in case there were questions. Perhaps I could’ve just allotted a shorter amount of time to attend the seminar, rather than ‘float’ for the whole hour. I did adjust halfway through after observing this: I waited until the seminar was ~15 minutes along before showing up.
Would they have been just fine without me? Probably. I sent a message to the TAs asking whether they think my presence was useful or unnecessary. We’ll see what they say! I think that in several cases, my presence allowed me to expand on or clarify certain points, and also make the students aware that there is a friendly liaison librarian for their subject area. And what if I go ahead and propose that the session run without my presence next time: Will I have lost my connection to the course? Will the lesson plan be adopted and used without involving the librarian in future instances? It certainly is a risk. Bottom line: Are the students any better or worse off if a librarian is present…?
So, this was mostly a reflection for me on how this (new to me) approach panned out, shared in case it is of use to anyone else. Of course, if you have tips for me, please share below!
I received feedback from all 4 TAs and they all said that it was useful to have me in the classroom to help answer student questions. One did remark that it was distracting to have me coming and going. I can see that. All four said they felt appropriately prepared, which is great. An excerpt (shared with permission):
It was awesome to have you circulating. The students in my group held some of their questions for when you came back, and I don’t think I would have been able to answer them as accurately as you. Thank you for being there! I also think it’s important to put a face to a name – the students knew that there was a departmental specific librarian, but I doubt that many (or any) had ever thought to go talk to you personally. Your presence in the seminars reinforced that there is another resource available to them beyond their teaching team.
They also had a number of great ideas for improving the seminar, such as different strategies for organizing the group work and the idea of a list of tips for students at the end of the session (delivered via email or orally). They also suggested I add in the Boolean bit. I will definitely incorporate their ideas, should I have the opportunity to do this again.
Conclusion = ‘teach the teacher’ FTW.