Problem based learning: We tried it!

A psychology instructor asked me to teach a one hour class for her third year Gender Relations class (n=60).  She wanted me to cover PsycINFO and general library search tips, but there isn’t a research assignment this semester.

I was nervous about engaging third years when their grade for the class isn’t at stake, so I turned to problem based learning for inspiration. This active learning strategy gives students a real-world scenario and has them work in groups to solve it. Librarians act as facilitators during the class.

With my colleague Heather Buchansky, I organized the 50 minute session as follows.

Welcome: 5 minutes

  • Break ice  (We used evidence from Project Information Literacy to show that research skills are important for after-graduation, too.)
  • Explain activity

Small groups of 3-4: 20 minutes

  • Create a concept map of provided real-world scenario
  • Generate a list of keywords to be used in searching
  • Search for sources in PsycINFO and other databases as desired
  • Document searches on worksheet
  • Select “best” three resources and copy onto worksheet in proper APA
  • State if sources are primary or secondary

Large groups of everyone with the same given scenario: 10 minutes

  • Debrief the previous step (discussion questions provided)
  • Assign a group member to document the discussion on a public Google Doc (link provided in worksheet)
  • Pick the single best resource from each of the smaller groups’ top three picks

Whole class debrief: 15 minutes

  • Ask questions (student)
  • Comment on Google Doc or student questions (librarian)

What went well

  • Students really engaged with their scenarios, and expressed a desire to learn more about the topic.
  • Students said that they appreciated the opportunity to collaborate on a search since they normally work alone.
  • I overheard groups discussing topics that would have been covered in a traditional IL class (ex. evaluating sources, narrowing search results).
  • There was a good ratio of librarians to students: two librarians for 39 students.

What we’ll do differently next time

  • Run this activity in classes of at least 90 minutes.  Most of the students commented that they felt rushed, and we felt bad cutting great discussions short.
  • Get students to take a minute to look over the whole worksheet and ask questions before jumping into it.
  • Change the concept mapping/keyword selection phase individual instead of group-based.
  • Give an example of a concept map and explain why it’s useful. Some of the students had never heard of it before.
  • Show access points for popular databases through the library website. Students didn’t always know where to find PsycINFO or how to discover other databases even though we put it on the handout.
  • Keep the larger groups to 8-10 people. One group was too large to foster effective discussion.
  • Make sure that at least 15 minutes is set aside to debrief the activity as a class.

Session materials

Huge thanks to Heather Buchansky for helping me plan and facilitate this new-to-us class style.

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