Why I make changes to what I teach

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Once upon a time, I was invited to speak in front of a small group of librarians in my local area about the un-research project as part of their professional development day. As part of the presentation, I described the structure of the project itself, why I created it, and its various outcomes. At the end, there was plenty of time for questions. I had given this presentation before, so I thought I knew what kind of questions to expect. But the one in which my audience seemed most interested was one I had not anticipated.

I mentioned at the very beginning of the presentation that I am always making changes to what I teach, both big and small. I claimed that I had never taught the same thing the exact same way more than once or twice.

Apparently this was quite a shocking claim.

I think it was shocking for a couple of reasons. The first was a question of time. Like, how much time do you have to have on your hands to constantly be tinkering with what you teach? Interestingly, some recent research I conducted with a group of former colleagues on why academic librarians leave their jobs suggests that librarians tend to be overwhelmed by the number of job duties they are given. Often, whether our job descriptions reflect it or not, we’re asked to do the work of ten people. No wonder spending time on a revision process for a standard information literacy course seems like such a luxury.

To be honest, I have no idea how the demands of my own job compare to that of others, but it might help to know that I usually save the bigger, more sweeping changes I want to make for the summer, when I have a longer period between classes and (theoretically) more time to plan.

The second reason it might have been so shocking is because there’s a lot of risk in change. Not only does it potentially take a lot of time to plan, but there’s no guarantee it will even work. And that could really screw up things like course evaluations (for a credit-bearing course) and assessment data. Plus, once you find something that’s comfortable and that works, why mess with it?

These are legitimate anxieties and certainly I have tried things that didn’t work. But making changes is still worth it to me.

Here are some thoughts on why

Even stuff you love gets old after a while

A while back, I decided to retire a former favorite assignment of mine where I asked students to discuss an incident involving major errors in a fourth grade history textbook on the state of Virginia. In the past, this had sparked lively discussions in face-to-face courses but had fallen flat in the online environment. I was getting tired of reading the same rote responses semester after semester and nothing I had done to try to help students pick up on some of the hidden nuances in the story of this incident seemed to work. So I chopped it.

Though I’ve since second-guessed it, this turned out to be the right decision because it made room in my course schedule for other activities that give students more of an opportunity to think about their role as an information creator from different aspects. While I still think the Our Virginia case was a highly interesting one that deserves to be probed more thoroughly, it’s not something I use in class anymore.


Sometimes your thinking changes

When I started teaching, the structure for my course was organized by types of sources: books, scholarly articles, popular articles, government sources, etc. Each unit taught students how to identify, find, evaluate, and use each type of source. At the end of the course, there was a little extra time to learn about special information literacy-related topics like copyright issues but for the most part the course was about the basics of academic, library-based research.

I taught this way mainly because it was the way I had seen others teach information literacy. Also, this was a time when a lot of information literacy instruction had to reflect what was in the Standards and certainly that was the case here. Since then, the Standards have been replaced by the Framework but even apart from that my understanding of information literacy has evolved and the content of the course has evolved with it.

These days, topics in my course include: common myths about research,  how and why information formats are meaningful, using sources, creating information, and the ethical use of information. This change in structure didn’t happen all at once. It developed over time. Also, the content of what I used to teach isn’t gone entirely. A lot of it is still packed into the unit on information formats but even that content has changed to help students learn about the contextual nature of research, which is an element in the Framework that has become important to my own way of thinking about information literacy.

Learning from mistakes

So sometimes I make changes to what I teach for lofty, philosophical reasons and sometimes it’s more for practical purposes, like when I introduced quizzes as a mode of assessment for my online course.

Before, I avoided quizzes because I preferred to assess students using activities that were focused more on application. The way the course was intended to work was that students would do the reading and then apply what they had learned as part of those application activities.

You’ll never guess what the problem with this was.

Okay, you probably will, but I didn’t. Basically, it became extremely obvious that most of the students were not actually doing the reading. Instead, they were just skipping straight to the application activities and winging it. It was maddening.

So I created quizzes basically as a way to get them to do the reading, at least enough to answer a few questions. Even then, in addition to the multiple choice questions I had to add a reflection question at the end asking them to reflect on the content of the readings (the old “muddiest point” exercise, if you’re familiar) to make sure they were engaging with the material. For the most part, that seems to have worked. As an added bonus, the more objective nature of grading multiple choice questions has improved the grade variation in my course, which was an area I was asked to pay attention to after one of my term reviews and had to talk about in the narratives for my tenure dossier. So there’s that.


Of course, it should also be noted that I am lucky enough to work in an environment where I’m given enough autonomy to make changes to what I teach both large and small, so long as I don’t stray too far from the original intention. Not everyone has that flexibility.

But if you do, I think it’s important to stick a toe out of your comfort zone every now and then. Changing things up can help improve student learning. It can also keep things from becoming too rote by keeping them fresh.

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