Follow-up to “annotated bibliography as artifact” and reflection on spring teaching

So the information literacy course I teach is an eight-week course which means that, since there’s only one section per semester, I usually have a choice between teaching in the first half of the semester or teaching in the second half of the semester. I generally choose the first half for a couple of reasons. First, it’s easier for students to remember that they signed up for an eight-week course if it starts at the same time as all of their other courses. Second, students who take the course in the first half of the semester tend to be more engaged than those who take it in the second half. This is particularly true when it comes to the second half of the spring semester when students are basically burned out on the whole school year and just want to get to summer and/or graduation. Students are usually so checked out in the second half of spring that I tend to avoid teaching at that time at all costs.

This year, I didn’t have a choice. I was still on sabbatical for the first half of the spring so I had to teach the second half. I wasn’t looking forward to it, especially with everything I was hearing about the extra difficulties students were (understandably) experiencing related to the pandemic and remote instruction. I was open to being pleasantly surprised but I was not expecting great things.

So I’m pleased to report that this was probably one of the better classes of students I’ve had. They definitely did lose steam toward the end (honestly, same) but overall the students in this class were much more engaged than I was expecting. I think this can be attributed to a couple of factors: the first is that students are now more used to taking online courses than they were before and so I didn’t have to do as much work to get them to treat the course as “real” course even though it didn’t meet in person and second I think the new material I created based on my ideas about the contextual nature of research helped to spark some of the students’ curiosity.

Creating a sense of community

Inspired by conversations I’d seen online about how amidst the pandemic it’s been more important than ever to create a sense of community in the virtual classroom, I decided to try a few new things to help students make those connections with me and with each other. The biggest new thing was introducing an optional extra credit opportunity to participate in “live” discussions on Zoom.

When I first set them up, I was positive that no one would actually participate but I thought it was still important to have them as an option. To my surprise, a couple of students did actually log in to chat, which gave me a chance to interact with them directly and also put faces to names (and for them to put a face to my name). I’m not saying it was a rousing success. More than once, it was just me and one student in the Zoom having a short, one-on-one chat rather than a community discussion, which I’m sure they found a little awkward. But what really struck me was that the students who logged in to these chats were actively seeking interaction with their classmates.

Part of this eagerness, I think, came from our class discussions. Each week, the students had a discussion activity as well as a quiz on the week’s topic. This is nothing new for my course. Usually what happens is I have these discussions, students post their response, and no one really tries to interact with each other. But it was different this time, due in part I think to the personality of the class and also to the fact that students are more used to online classes than they used to be. I made a point early on of responding to each post but soon students were responding to each other as well. This was especially the case in our discussion early on where students got to share topics they were curious about. Many of them discovered shared interests and enthusiasms, both personal and academic. It was a lot of fun to see them making these connections, even when I wasn’t requiring them to do so.

So I think I got lucky that this group of students were able to form some sense of community on their own, at least in a small way. But I can see using these strategies again and seeing what happens. Since different classes have different personalities, I don’t expect this level of interaction every time, but encouraging it seems to have been a move in the right direction.

The annotated bibliography as artifact part 2

This semester was my second time using the new version of the annotated bibliography project where students complete the annotated bibliography early on in the course and then reflect on their work and their growth as researchers at the end. The first time I used this, I had some really encouraging results. I was curious to see if I would have similar success the second time through, with no changes to the way I did it before.

What I saw this time around has pretty much convinced me that doing things this way and framing the project around students’ curiosity is a worthwhile change. I saw a lot of the same patterns as I did the first time, including students’ enthusiasm for researching topics of personal interest, something that many of them said they were never allowed to do before. I also saw some annotated bibliographies that were a bit all over the place in terms of format and quality but the reflections students wrote were enlightening and showed me better than any research assignment by itself what their thinking was both about research and about what they’d learned in the course. What I saw showed me that students were still very much developing their understanding of information literacy and the contextual nature of research but there was definite progress.

The one issue that came up this time that I don’t remember from the first go-around was that there seemed to be more incidents of students including information in their reflection because they thought it was what I wanted to hear. In my module on evaluating information, I talked about the CRAAP test as something of a cautionary tale but for whatever reason (either because they’d only skimmed the lecture or because I didn’t convey the information well enough), a lot of students really latched on to the CRAAP test as if it was some kind of golden key for evaluating information. It could be that some of them genuinely felt that the CRAAP test was a useful tool but I got the impression that at least a few students were referencing it superficially, a recognizable buzzword that would earn them points more than anything else.

Students telling the teacher what they want to hear in order to get a good grade is always a little disappointing but also nothing new. Hell, I used to do it myself as a student. So I can’t claim that this new version of the annotated bibliography solves that particular problem, but I doubt anything short of a complete overhaul of how higher education itself works really would.

Besides all of this, this was my first time teaching my information literacy course through a more explicit contextual lens. I discovered a few things along the way related to that, which I’ll save for another post. All in all, I think the course went well and after a year away, it was nice to be back teaching again.

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