Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Clickers: An Engaging Tool for Library Instruction

In 2008 Anne C. Osterman published an article online for librarians about the potential of student response systems (SRS) or clickers in the library instruction setting.  College & Undergraduate Libraries published it with the title "Student Response Systems: Keeping the Students Engaged."  (It appears the the print version came out first in 2007.)  She introduces the topic by mentioning many factors that go against participation in the library instruction classroom: unfamiliar setting, short opportunity (one shot at teaching library skills), and content many would not consider exciting. 

Librarians do what they can to invite participation.  They will work to make the instruction tied directly to an assignment, develop hands-on exercises, create handouts, and sometimes divide classes into groups to work together (50).  Osterman writes: "These tools do little, however, to help with one more inherent difficulty of library instruction: a wide variety of experience levels among student" (50).  Then she identifies "the two greatest fears of a library instructor [...]: (1) boring the students because they've seen it all before; and (2) losing the students because the territory is too foreign to their knowledge and experience.  Both lead students to tune out" (50).

"bored-students."  by cybrarian77 on Flickr.com.

This resonates with my own experience.  These are two of my greatest fears, and I have wondered how to deal with this.  Well, the most obvious thing to do and what Osterman calls "the last tool in the box: asking the students questions" (50).  Unfortunately, this does not always work, and Osterman recognizes that all the previous difficulties just mentioned will make this effort less effective as well.  Encouragingly, she writes: "Never fear--there is another solution" (50).  The Student Response System can make a difference, increasing participation, engaging students of all personalities and abilities, and offering a mechanism that prompts the instructor to adjust in the classroom needs and address deficiencies without belaboring the subjects students have mastered already.
Osterman observes that instructors can ask students questions spontaneously or "on the fly" (51).  She suggests questions like:
  1. Have you ever used X (JSTOR, Academic Search CompleteCQ Researcher, etc.)?
  2. What kinds of materials do you think you would find in X (the library catalog, the Special Collections digital archives, the Primo search, etc.)?
  3. Should you cite Wikipedia in a research paper?  Should you do X?
Osterman explains that the polling system remains open, then students can see what everyone else has answered (51).  Often this means that students who are embarrassed for answering incorrectly see that they are not the only ones who do not understand, so their embarrassment decreases dramatically, and they focus more on the learning than the embarrassment.

Osterman describes the two types of clicker systems: radio frequency and infrared.  Plus, she identifies some of the pros and cons of each (51).

In the next section of her article, she addresses the question: Why use clickers?  Citing the extant educational literature, she give at least five reasons:
  1. Combat passive learning environment
  2. Promote active learning
  3. Help with participation problems
  4. Provide instant feedback
  5. Interrupt lecture.
Additionally, she address the anonymous nature of the system: "Some instructors believe that anonymity makes students more comfortable and likely to participate, and this has been supported by research in students' opinions of these systems" (52).  As mentioned previous, because of the anonymity, fear of embarrassment is eliminated or at least lessened (52).  What really gets me excited is its potential for increasing the level of learning that takes place in the library classroom.  Osterman claims: "Also by encouraging students to make an actual decision about a question, the SRS makes them less likely to sit back and let the information wash over them unabsorbed.  Instead they evaluate a question and answer with engaged minds" (52).

"Law Students Use PRS."  by jonalltree on Flickr.com

As you can tell, this article really caught my interest; I can hardly stop from quoting from it.  The next section talks about how library instructors can and ought to adjust their instruction when using an SRS tool.  She talks about an average library workshop, then suggests that student questions and answers can determine the little parts of instruction that should be taught once more, passed over entirely, or explained more thoroughly.  With some forethought, instructors could devise some questions to generate discussions.  Likewise, sensitive questions could be asked that could then be compared to published data.  Along these lines Osterman suggested that students could be asked about their incomes, and then those figures could be compared with data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau as it pertains to their particular locale, for example (53). 

The system could be used to ask students to predict what might happen.  When they are required to answer, they become more committed and, thus, engaged.  She offers a pair of questions related to Boolean operators, which invite the student to predict if more or fewer results will be retrieved.  For the serious-about-learning types, she tells how some SRS systems collect the data, so they can be analyzed, which would allow for instructors to adjust their methods even more (54). 

We often hear that technology should not replace teaching, that it is just a tool to enhance learning.  This is true.  We should remember this.  As with any technology, pros and cons exist.  Osterman warns that with this technology less content may be taught, it may "distract instructors from their teaching," and students may forget clickers, use them to cheat, and may even walk away with them.  Fortunately, the benefits of learning "might easily outweigh" the con of less content being taught, and libraries who buy their own systems would not need to worry about students forgetting their clickers, though students could walk out the door with them at the end of class if one wasn't careful (54).

The last section of the article discusses "The Experience of American University Library" where Anne Osterman works.  In it she talks a bit more about vendors, different systems, training library instructors, necessary adjustments, some sample questions, using the SRS in library training sessions, and questions to ask with the system.  Encouragement and support should be given to those using the system for the first time.  Making the system available for individuals to practice with is best (55). 

From the experiences of her colleagues as well as her own, Anne Osterman writes: "Just as many beginning library instructors try to teach too much in the short amount of time they have and gradually slim their material down to an amount that is digestible, some instructors found that their first attempts in creating questions for a class were too complex" (56).  She recommends that librarians use the same questions in a series of classes; this will help instructors know how one class is different from another.  Again, the question "Have you used X resource?" may be a great standby.  "Overall, the response from library instructors at American University Library who have used the system has been very positive" (56). 

In summary, Osterman repeats that anonymity and novelty of the system generate an engagement with library instruction that increases learning.  If money is an issue, then a home-grown system may work or a "Web-based voting system" (56).  The short list of references looked helpful as well.

This article drove home the idea that polling students can really increase engagement, participation, and learning in the classroom.  Anonymity helps students participate more readily, and simple questions need to be the norm.  I really liked the sample questions she included.  This was quite helpful.

Work Cited
Osterman, Anne C.  "Student Response Systems: Keeping the Students Engaged."  College & Undergraduate Libraries 14.4 (2008): 49-57.  Print.

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