9
Aug
2017
and

We Used Problem-Based Learning in Library Instruction and Came to Question Its Treatment of Students

In Brief:

Two instruction librarians at a medium-sized liberal-arts college on the East Coast of the United States replaced their lecture-style teaching with Problem-Based Learning (PBL). They collaborated with two English instructors to bring PBL to a two-session sequence of library instruction. However, the more they used PBL, and the more they read about how other instruction librarians had employed it, the more they came to see how problematic it can be—especially in its failure to see students as teachers. In this article, you will consider if Problem-Based Learning needs a refresh with critical pedagogy.

In the studies that followed Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I sought for more clarity as I attempted to analyze student-teacher relations. I have insisted on making it clear that teachers and students are different, but if the teacher has opted for democracy, he or she cannot allow this difference to become antagonistic. This means that he or she must not allow his or her authority to become authoritarian. 1

How we found problem-based learning

We were two librarians at a medium-sized liberal-arts school on the East Coast of the United States when we began to replace our lecture-style information literacy instruction with Problem-Based Learning (PBL). At our college, there were about 4,000 undergraduate students, and at our library, we worked with thirty-one other librarians and staff, with ten of the librarians doing around 180-200 sessions of instruction each academic year.

Before we experimented with PBL, nearly all our instruction was one-shot and lecture-style. The ten of us who taught had a checklist of things we should cover in a fifty or seventy-five-minute session. This checklist started with library basics like how to contact librarians, find hours of operation, and check a library account. It then moved on to simple catalog and database searching before getting to specialized, subject-specific LibGuides we had made.2

We taught in a computer lab in the library, where we would stand at the front of the room, project the computer screen, and lead students through our list. We requested that students log onto computers and follow along as we went through our steps, but whenever any other librarians sat in the back of the room, perhaps to observe our teaching, they couldn’t help but notice that not all of the students took our lead. Instead, some students would go to Google or perhaps use library resources (like specialized databases) that weren’t being demonstrated at the time. Other students wouldn’t log on at all and would be using their phones. If we got through our program in thirty-five or forty minutes, we’d let the students know they could use the rest of the time—ten or fifteen minutes—to search on their own. Sometimes we would rove around the room at that point, and other times we wouldn’t.

This method of teaching worked for us because it was reproducible and predictable. By having one checklist that performed well enough for all classes, we didn’t have to come up with new or drastically different lesson plans; and by providing only one-shot instruction, we didn’t have to worry about covering twice as many (or maybe even three times as many) sessions. We were, after all, part of a small group of instruction librarians, a fact that constrained just how much we could experiment with additional teaching while shouldering other responsibilities. Besides, in the post-instruction surveys we sent to faculty and instructors, they either praised us or had no gripes. They were satisfied with what we were doing, and the instruction requests, on the order of 190 a year, kept rolling in.

Although we knew lecture-style, one-shot instruction worked well enough from our perspective (the librarian’s view), and though we knew faculty and instructors had no qualms with it, we had little idea about how the students felt. We were not sending post-instruction surveys to them, and in the last ten or fifteen minutes of a session, when we interacted with them directly, they weren’t commenting on our teaching methods, and we weren’t asking them for advice or critique.

It would have been easy to continue what we were doing, but the lack of student participation and feedback bothered us. We were familiar with ideas from critical pedagogy, and in many ways we realized our teaching epitomized Paulo Freire’s “banking concept” of education. To define that term, Freire writes:

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as a process of inquiry.3

The perniciousness of the banking concept isn’t just that teachers view students as empty or in deficit; it’s also that teachers fail to make space for students to learn in ways that call upon their unique lived experiences. Ira Shor, another practitioner of critical pedagogy insists that “Students are creative, intelligent beings, not plants or blank slates or pegboards for teacherly hammering.”4 And bell hooks, perhaps the most influential critical pedagogy theorist of them all, goes further by writing about pushback from teachers whose students seek to upend the banked class:

During my twenty years of teaching, I have witnessed a grave sense of dis-ease among professors (irrespective of their politics) when students want us to see them as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply as seekers after compartmentalized bits of knowledge.5

Passages like the ones above, with their clear, direct language, helped us define our vague but persistent worries about not involving students in the learning process. We saw that our methods of instruction were shutting down opportunities for mutual teaching and learning and that, in effect, as students walked into our computer lab, we were asking them to check themselves at the door and leave their histories, their identities, and their knowledge behind. Although critical pedagogy began to transform our thinking and served as our catalyst, strangely enough the instruction we designed next wasn’t based on the ideas of Freire, Shor, or hooks. Instead, because Problem-Based Learning was popular in library journals at the time, and perhaps because it superficially reminded us of critical pedagogy, we turned to it. Only later, when reflecting on the effectiveness of Problem-Based Learning, would we return to critical pedagogy.

Problem-Based Learning—From Medical School to Libraries

Problem-Based Learning started in Ontario, Canada, at McMaster University in 1969, a year before Paulo Freire published Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was developed by faculty in McMaster’s Health Sciences and was used in the medical school. Teachers observed that “students were disenchanted and bored with their medical education because they were saturated by the vast amounts of information they had to absorb, much of which was perceived to have little relevance to medical practice.”6 To address their concerns, they created PBL, a drastically different alternative based on these principles:

  • Learning Is Student-Centered
  • Learning Occurs in Small Student Groups
  • Teachers Are Facilitators or Guides
  • Problems Form the Organizing Focus and Stimulus for Learning
  • Problems Are a Vehicle for the Development of Clinical Problem-Solving Skills
  • New Information Is Acquired Through Self-Directed Learning.7

Because Problem-Based Learning and critical pedagogy started almost simultaneously and because they share certain features—like an emphasis on problem-solving and an aim of upending hierarchies—we’ve wondered if their theorists and practitioners were at all in conversation with one another. “Was there any exchange?” we’ve asked ourselves. Were there professional networks that bridged North America and South America? We haven’t been able to find any evidence of collaboration, so perhaps these ways of teaching and learning simply happened coincidentally and in parallel. Nevertheless, as we first read about PBL’s origin and history, we couldn’t help but to recall passages of Freire’s like this:

Those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety, adopting instead a concept of women and men as conscious beings, and consciousness as consciousness intent upon the world. They must abandon the educational goal of deposit-making and replace it with the posing of the problems of human beings in relation with the world.8

But even as we noticed similarities between critical pedagogy and PBL, we also began to pick up on stark differences, most of which concern the very definition of what it means to be a student or a teacher. In PBL, for instance, roles are clearly defined in that the learning environment should be focused on people identified as “students”; that is, education should be “student-centered.” Furthermore, anyone who had defined themselves as a “teacher” should ideally switch their role and behavior to that of a “facilitator” or “guide.”

A practitioner of critical pedagogy like Freire, in contrast, is wary of saddling anyone with roles that not only simplify but also dichotomize. He writes:

Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.9

These divergent ways of understanding what it means to be a “teacher” or a “student” became more pronounced and concerning to us as, much later, we got deeper into our own use of Problem-Based Learning and delved further into the writings of instruction librarians who had tried it. But early on, when we were gathering information about PBL in libraries, we weren’t yet critical of it. Instead, we were simply learning about something new—like that it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that librarians began to employ PBL and tout its efficacy. In articles from journals, we read about librarians who raise the importance of problems and case studies used in instruction10, 11, 12 and who, like the faculty at McMaster University, choose to redefine themselves as “tutors,” “guides,” “facilitators,” and “coaches.”13, 14, 15 In addition, “student-centered” learning becomes the fashionable term16, 17, 18 and small-group learning is what’s preferable.19, 20, 21 Oftentimes, these groups have to “report to” or “debrief” the rest of the class.

Although these methods are similar to the original McMaster program and to one another, too, there are also important differences amongst them. For example, some librarians claim PBL can be accomplished with a one-shot session22, 23, 24 while others argue that far more time is required.25, 26, 27 Some show librarians working closely with faculty and instructors28, 29, 30 while others show very little interaction or none at all.31, 32 Beyond all these similarities and differences about PBL in library journals, there is also a pronounced pattern in which some librarians and faculty members—the newly self-labeled “facilitators” and “guides”—characterize students in broadly negative ways, especially before intervening with PBL. Regarding students, they write lines like:

When [students] do not get what they think they are looking for immediately, they are apt to say, “This database sucks,” discard it, and try another source—just as uncritically as they might decide just to try another Web site or another store at the mall when they do not immediately find something for which they are shopping.33

[PBL] is also a great option for teaching information literacy to uninterested students who believe they already know how to find the information they need.34

We also began to better understand that students who are not given any support or structure to begin the research process only use what they already know (the Internet), because the unknown is too unknown or too invisible to their untrained eye.35

But we must take care to not move too quickly and must be sure to connect important concepts previously learned with new concepts to be learned. It is soon apparent that students who have not used and identified appropriate information sources will always be unable to identify believable solutions to real-life problems and to move beyond what they already know.36

We don’t recall if we took issue with these lines when we first read them. At the time, we were combing the articles for ideas, hoping they would help us put together instruction that would break us out of our banking-concept-based checklist. Later, though, as we began to work with PBL, and as we went back to these articles, we couldn’t help but to feel that statements like the ones above betrayed a contradiction in how librarians use PBL in instruction and write about it after the fact. Simply put, what’s the point of “student-centered” learning that dismisses where students are coming from? And what are we to do if, after our own forays into PBL, we can’t agree with such characterizations of students?

A Quick Sketch of What Our Problem-Based Learning Looked Like:

In putting together our version of Problem-Based Learning instruction, we elected to borrow elements from what several other librarians had tried as opposed to inventing something wholly new or recreating but one method exactly. This is what we put together:

  1. Similar to what Barbara Kenney37 recommends, before the PBL instruction began, we met with the instructor of the class to go over their assignment, settle on library resources to include in instruction, and come up with three problems. For our problems, instead of using case studies, which are what Kenney employed, we chose to go with questions.
  2. For the first of two fifty-minute instruction sessions, we started by asking the students about their assignment. After a brief discussion, we then presented them with the first question we brainstormed with their instructor. Next, with the students’ input, we discussed how the question could be broken up into keywords before we demonstrated how it could be plugged into two library resources. (Some librarians who have used PBL in instruction provide orientation about research materials38, 39, 40 while others, to great effect, choose to have students figure them out on their own.41, 42 ) After that, the students did their own searches with that same question while we roved around the room with their instructor, encouraging students to speak with us and with one another. We then demonstrated two more library resources before, again, the students did their own searches. Although this session did not include group work and reporting out, which are often components of PBL, we believe what we did here still fits the PBL description because problems were, in fact, the driver of the session. Furthermore, in some library articles about PBL, group work is not featured at all.43, 44
  3. In the second of two fifty-minute sessions, we did a quick review of what we did in the first session before we broke up the students into four groups. Two of the groups got the second question of the three that we had developed with their instructor, and two of the groups got the third question. For about twenty minutes, the groups explored their questions while we and their instructor circuited the room, speaking with them and listening them talk to one another. Then, for the final twenty minutes, the groups took the role of the teacher and taught us what they had learned. (For reasons we’ll get to later, we prefer to characterize what the students did at the end as teaching, not “reporting” or “debriefing.”)

A Closer Look At Our Use of Problem-Based Learning and What Came Out of it

Meeting with Instructors before Instruction:

In order to come up with problems to pose in two sessions of library instruction, we opted to team up with two instructors who were teaching English composition classes. Both of them were introducing assignments in which their students would have to identify a problem—it could be a local, national, or global issue—and propose a feasible solution by way of argumentation and research. Speaking with these instructors, we agreed to come up with three questions for the sequence of instruction. We decided to come up with questions, as opposed to problems or case studies, because both instructors stressed inquiry in their classes, and they believed that in order to come up with a good argument or solution, you must first be able to raise questions you genuinely want to know the answer to. Having decided on questions as our focus in Problem-Based Learning, we collaborated to come up with some that we not only thought worked with the assignment but also provoked us into feeling we’d want to write problem-solving papers of our own. These are the questions we came up with:

  • How does poverty affect the learning of college-age students in the US?
  • What are colleges doing to be more energy efficient? What, exactly, could our school do to be more energy efficient?
  • What do colleges do to provide resources for students who live off campus or who commute to campus? What does our school do? Should our school do something more?
  • At colleges, what are the attitudes toward terms like “safe space,” “microaggression,” and “trigger warning”?
  • Are there colleges that provide rape kits—and the professionals (SANEs) [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners] trained to administer them—for their students? Should our college provide these?45
  • What are colleges doing to address the cost of textbooks?
  • What actions are being taken to stem the rise of human trafficking in Europe and the US?
  • How is funding and security protection at UNESCO world heritage sites coordinated/handled?

Looking at these questions now, and having read more carefully about PBL, we see that some of them aren’t truly the open-ended or “ill-structured problems” that are preferred.46 To make these questions more open-ended, we should have taken better care to ensure their answers aren’t just bits of information found on websites or in databases. For example, our question “What are colleges doing to address the cost of textbooks?” simply requires students to discover something—like the initiative the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has put forward with Open Educational Resources. However, if we had described how costly textbooks can be on our own campus and asked students what can be done about that problem, then that would have been a much more open-ended question or an “ill-structured” problem.

Despite the fact that we could have improved our questions, we did find it was worthwhile to spend time with instructors, review assignments together, think about lesson planning, and come up with questions that were important to us. Oftentimes, theorists in critical pedagogy write about the power differential between teachers and students, but they don’t mention the oppressive dynamics that can exist between educators working together, like librarians and instructors or faculty. In these planning meetings we had, the instructor was not dictating a lesson plan to us, and we weren’t imposing banking-concept methods on them by assuming they didn’t know anything about worthwhile library instruction. Thinking about Paolo Freire, bell hooks writes, “There was this one sentence of Freire’s that became a revolutionary mantra for me: ‘We cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become subjects.’”47 By working closely with each other from the beginning, we were ensuring we’d both be actors—not the acted upon—in the classroom, and we hoped that students would also feel like agents once the instruction began.

The First Session of Instruction:

To describe our teaching method in this first session, which took place in our library’s computer lab and was only fifty minutes long, we came to refer to it as a “verse-chorus-verse” approach in that we would alternate between starting a discussion or demonstrating a resource for no more than five minutes before speaking about something or working together. So, after having introduced ourselves and given the students a few minutes to fill out a quick pre-instruction survey, we encouraged people to speak by asking them about what they knew about their problem-solving assignment.

In one class, the students said they weren’t sure what the assignment was because they had only just received it. We next looked at the assignment together, and one student identified that a peer-reviewed article was a requirement.

“What does ‘peer-reviewed’ mean?” we asked everyone.

One student ventured it’s when people in your class read a draft of your work. The instructor then stepped in and said that, yes, that’s one way of thinking about peer review but that another is a particular genre feature of scholarly writing. She went further by describing the process of the academic peer review.

In another class, when we were again speaking about components of the assignment, one student said they could cite newspaper articles in their writing. “When citing news sources, is there anything you have to be careful of?” we asked everyone. One person said newspapers can be biased, and as we continued to ask questions about bias, students mentioned that sources like The New York Times could be considered more liberal, while The Wall Street Journal was more conservative.

Next, we presented one of the questions we had concocted with the instructor. We explained that we thought the question we had come up with went well with the problem-solving assignment and that it was something we were truly curious about and wanted to investigate with their help. Breaking up our question into keywords, we next used that language to demonstrate how a couple databases (Academic Search Complete and JSTOR) worked before encouraging the students to use that same question—as well as those keywords and other language they generated—to conduct searches of their own. After that, we showed how ProQuest Newsstand (or Literati by Credo) operates and also shared some site-specific Googling tips before, again, opening up the time for students to do their own searches, keeping our original question in mind.

When the students were doing their own searches and experimenting with databases and the open internet, we and the instructors roved around the room, checking in with people individually and listening if students were speaking to one another. In a session in which students were using the question “How does poverty affect the learning of college-age students in the US?” we noticed one student had Googled a thesaurus in order to come up with synonyms for “poverty.” Another student, comparing Academic Search Complete and JSTOR, told us and other students around her that she believed JSTOR’s Boolean operators did not work as well as Academic Search Complete’s. She wanted to know why JSTOR broke up her terms if she had stipulated she wanted articles that must include both “college” AND “poverty.” In that moment, we said we didn’t know the answer but that, perhaps, we could look it up and encouraged her to do the same.

In a first session with another class, when we were exploring the question “What are colleges doing to be more energy efficient? What, exactly, could our school do to be more energy efficient?” a student found that “going green” was a useful term to use in ProQuest Newsstand.

Another student conducting a site-specific Google search with “site:.edu” found a university webpage from 2007. “Is this source too old?” he said. We asked him what he thought, and he came to the conclusion that it depends on what you’re writing about.

Another student was finding material in ProjectMUSE, a resource we didn’t demonstrate but that they found serendipitously on one of our library’s webpages.

Yet another student discovered she could start with a search in Literati–she was looking for reference material about “green energy”–only to get offered links that would take her to academic articles in JSTOR. She pointed all this out to us when we visited.

Although these are admittedly anecdotes (and clearly not generalizable to a particular population) for us they confirmed well enough that demonstrating resources for fifteen or twenty minutes and having students do their own searches for thirty or thirty-five minutes is a far better, far more active use of time than the other way around. In the past, when we had lectured to students and worked through our checklist, we could go through most of the session without hearing a single student voice. With Problem-Based Learning—even our modified version of it that, in this first session, didn’t include group work—the focus can be on a question instead of a lecturer. What this means is that there was much more time for everyone to participate, and people were speaking with us, their instructor, and one another from minute one. Deborah Cheney48 and Barbara Kenney49 have both written about how PBL brings about more interaction between the students, librarians, and instructors, and this is undoubtedly what we experienced as well.

Furthermore, moments like the ones above illustrated that first-year college students do have much to share and contribute when it comes to library research. As Ira Shor insisted, they aren’t plants, they aren’t pegboards; like anyone they are intelligent, curious humans who bring rich, varied experiences with them to the classroom.

As Eric Hines and Samantha Hines plainly state, “It is a commonly held opinion among teaching faculty that the average college student lacks sufficient skill and training in critical thinking and information literacy”50 but that wasn’t our belief or that of the instructors we worked with. Even if we had held that grim view, how could we have failed to notice what the students brought to this first session of instruction? Certainly, they showed they had something to learn when it came to the specific resources we were working with and the conventions of academic writing and research, but they also repeatedly proved they arrived to the session not as blank slates but as diaries full of lived experiences, many of which already equipped them with a framework for analyzing information. Thinking about these examples, we also can’t help but to return to Cheney’s words:

It is soon apparent that students who have not used and identified appropriate information sources will always be unable to identify believable solutions to real-life problems and to move beyond what they already know.51 [Emphasis ours]

Again, this just wasn’t what we observed, and even for the students who weren’t immediately able to find “appropriate information sources” related to the question we provided, it was obvious that what they already knew (that is, their lives, their memories, their experiences) wasn’t something to dismiss or discount. Having read Cheney’s article, we have only respect for how dynamically she teams up with faculty members, and her instructional design and teaching are clearly powerhouse, but in passages like the one above, she betrays something about PBL that we came across more than a few times in library journals; namely that while PBL might appear progressive and “student-centered” on the surface, it can still harbor banking-concept beliefs. To come back to Freire again, this happens in particular when students are seen only as objects to control—as “students of the teacher”—as opposed to “students teachers.” Really, for PBL in libraries to be truly effective, we have come to believe its tenets must be revised and paired with concepts from critical pedagogy.

The Second Session of Instruction:

After the first session of library instruction driven by Problem-Based Learning, no more than a week later, we met for a second fifty-minute session of PBL. To start this second session, which was in the students’ classroom and not the library’s computer lab, we spent about five to ten minutes reviewing resources from the last time—things like Academic Search Complete, JSTOR, ProQuest Newsstand, Literati by Credo, and site-specific Googling—before we broke the students up into four groups. We gave two of the groups a question we had prepared with their instructor during our initial planning meeting and the other two groups a different question. The students had twenty minutes to investigate their questions (they had brought laptops), and for the last twenty minutes of the class, each group stood up, embodied the role of the teacher, and taught us about what they had found, using the classroom’s desktop computer, big screen, and projector.

Similar to what other instruction librarians had done, we chose to have more than one session of Problem-Based Learning because we felt it was impossible for students to explore questions meaningfully in a one-shot sliver of time. Barbara Kenney, who argues that PBL can be done in a one-shot, insists that instruction librarians can make good use of a fifty-minute session “By creatively designing an instruction plan that relies on defined goals and objectives based on a problem that captures student interest.”52 However, she doesn’t show how this can be done in less than an hour because, when she gives an example of her own, it’s in an eighty-minute block of time.53

In another article that seeks to show PBL can be done in one shot, Katelyn Angell and Katherine Boss describe a program that’s more of a scavenger hunt (one branded “The Amazing Library Race”) where students search for answers to prompts like “Look in the library catalog for any books written by Jay-Z. Write down the call number of the book.”54 Such prompts are even more closed-ended and less “ill-structured” than the ones we had come up with and don’t push people into thinking about problems beyond how a catalog works, where books are shelved, and whether or not they’ll place in a competition. Furthermore, in “The Amazing Library Race,” although the students did work in groups, it was more to compete against instead of teach one another. The groups never had a chance to “report” to others or “debrief” what they discovered because they were pitted against one another. Really, though this event had elements of PBL in it (that is, problems and group work) it has more the appearance of an active-learning activity.

The more we conducted our own sequenced sessions of Problem-Based Learning, the more we saw that even 100 minutes weren’t enough; we would have preferred to have at least one more fifty-minute session. And the more we employed PBL, the more we valued its emphasis on group work, although we eventually came to see it much differently from other instruction librarians, not to mention the original architects of PBL at McMaster University. In the paragraph above, we chose to put quotes around words like “report” and “debrief” not just because we’re citing language that other instruction librarians prefer but because we want to distance ourselves from those verbs. In the final twenty minutes in which the students shared their findings, we could not say they were “debriefing” us, which is language that’s absurdly corporatized, even militarized. No, they were teaching us and each other. When Alexius Smith Macklin writes, “In PBL, there is no teacher, per se”55 we believe they are nullifying students who are also teachers. Responding to Smith Macklin, we would say, “In PBL, everyone has the chance to be a teacher or a student. Roles are not fixed but fluid.”

Again, this is not to discount how skilled instruction librarians clearly are in the PBL articles we read or to imply they don’t care about students. In Kate Wenger’s “Problem-Based Learning and Information Literacy,” she describes a beautifully designed series of five seventy-five minute sessions of PBL.56 While we aspire to teach as well as Wenger does in that sequence, we also find it strange she uses no form of the verb “teach” when describing the students’ actions. (Instead, the students “recorded,” “addressed,” “spent time,” “discussed,” “felt,” “gave,” “responded,” “started to develop,” and, for a second time, “gave.”57 ) What’s more, on the part of Wenger or the faculty member she worked with, there is no admission of having learned from the students. The student are never seen as teachers.

So it’s a great contrast in perspective that as we and the instructor roved around the room in the first half of this second session of instruction, we recognized that students were actively working with and teaching one another, not to mention us. For example, as one group of four students embarked on researching the question “What actions are being taken to stem the rise of human trafficking in Europe and the US?”, one student suggested they would start looking up terms in Literati and asked if someone else would like to give Academic Search Complete a try. When we checked back with this group a few minutes later, we noticed that the student who was using Literati had found its “Mind Map,” which is a feature that visually links words in the shape of a web. At the center of this student’s web was “human trafficking,” and they were sharing other language the program had generated with the rest of the group.

The student who had been using Academic Search Complete now wanted to know how you can figure out if an article is peer-reviewed or not. We said that, to start, in its results screen, you can check a box that says “Scholarly/Peer-Reviewed.” Another student in the group noted that JSTOR doesn’t have that checkbox.

“So how do you find out if something is peer-reviewed in JSTOR?” we asked the group.

Joking, the student using Academic Search Complete said, “Oh, I just won’t use JSTOR then.”

We laughed before we suggested they could always Google the name of a journal title to see if they could figure out if it’s peer-reviewed. That, or they could use a specialized database like Ulrichsweb to confirm what a journal’s designation is.

“And when you research,” we said, “You’ll often have to consult more than one database. Academic Search Complete gives you access to one pile of information, but JSTOR gives you access to another pile. When you research, you might have lots of luck in one place and little success in another.”

A student in another group in another class—one looking into the question “At colleges, what are the attitudes toward terms like ‘safe space,’ ‘microaggression,’ and ‘trigger warning’?”—wanted to know if site-specific Googling worked only in general for “.com,” “.org,” “.gov,” and “.edu” or if they could use it for combing a specific website.

“Can I use it to search YouTube?” she wanted to know.

We asked her to try it, and she plugged in “site:youtube.com” for a search about safe spaces on college campuses and got some results.

Someone else in her group had found an article on JSTOR and wanted to know if they had to read the whole thing to understand it.

“Does it have that thing at the beginning? The summary?” someone else in the group asked before we could respond. They explained that academic articles usually have summaries at the beginning, and we took the opportunity to say that, in the genre of scholarly writing, those summaries are often called “abstracts.”

Again, although these scenes are anecdotes, we do feel they capture the spirit of the seven follow-up sessions of Problem-Based Learning we participated in. In moments like these, it’s apparent that students benefited from working together in groups and that they were acting not just as students but also as teachers.

The students’ embodiment of what it means to teach was clearest in the final twenty minutes of this second session, when they stood up at the front of the classroom and, using the room’s computer and projector, taught us and one another about what they had found. One group that had looked into the question “At colleges, what are the attitudes toward terms like ‘safe space,’ ‘microaggression,’ and ‘trigger warning’?” said they had to use many different search terms in order to find anything in an academic database like Academic Search Complete. They showed us how, in the “Advanced Search” page of that database, they had even gone so far as to use the “NOT” Boolean operator in order to weed “high school” out of their search results.

“At first, we weren’t sure what the ‘NOT’ was for,” one of them said, “but it did help us find this article.” It was an article called “How White Faculty Perceive and React to Difficult Dialogues on Race,” and another student in the group mentioned that it would be especially good for people at our own school to read because, currently on our campus, a program called “Difficult Dialogues” had been started to address the campus climate, particularly with regard to race.

Someone else in their group showed how they had done a site-specific Google search of our college’s website, using terms like “safe space” and “microaggression” and were surprised that very few webpages came up. “It only comes up on a Women’s Studies course description,” this student said.

Another group that had explored the questions “Are there colleges that provide rape kits—and the professionals (SANEs) [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners] trained to administer them—for their students? Should our college provide these?” found that our college did not provide access to sexual assault kits or staff sexual-assault nurse examiners in our health center. The students pointed out that using the search term “sane” didn’t always get them the information they were looking for and that it sometimes resulted in resources about mental health. Nevertheless, they had used site-specific Googling to find universities, like the University of Iowa and Oregon State University, that did provide sexual-assault kits and counseling for their students. They also used Google Maps to show us just how far away the nearest hospital was from our own institution.

“This is how far a victim would have to drive to be examined,” one of the students said.

Their instructor praised them not only for finding salient information but also for making such a compelling argument. “These are the kinds of problems and solutions you could write about for your own papers,” she said.

As we cited earlier in this paper, one of the core tenets of Problem-Based Learning is “Learning Is Student-Centered.” In response to that declaration, however, we can’t help but ask, “But what happens when students are, in fact, teachers?” In such cases, does it mean the center shouldn’t be on them? From our experiences using Problem-Based Learning in library instruction, we have found it’s impossible to say that students aren’t also teachers, that they don’t teach themselves as well as their librarians and instructors. What’s more, to say they are “reporting” or “debriefing” when they are truly teaching is to misrepresent the agency they’re taking in the classroom. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes, “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.”58 Although we have enjoyed experimenting with Problem-Based Learning, and though it’s a significant improvement on the banking-concept education we had been relying on previously, for us it’s apparent that the instruction librarians who have used it are still trying to solve its contradictions. In fact, lately, we have been turning to people who work with Critical Librarianship because, through #critlib, we see that, years before us, librarians have been employing critical pedagogy and the ideas of theorists like Paulo Freire to question practices in information literacy instruction.59, 60 Practitioners of Critical Librarianship seem to find, as we did, that if students aren’t seen for who they are, and if their experiences aren’t respected and heard, then the education that results isn’t democratic but oppressive.

Results From Our Survey:61

In the articles we read about Problem-Based Learning in library instruction, no one had surveyed students about what their experiences with learning in libraries had been like in the past. Most of the students we worked with were first-year college students—and a good number of them were first-semester college students—so their experiences with library instruction often went back to their time in high school. In one of our pre-instruction questions, we asked students how they had been taught about library resources in the past. With a lecture? An activity? In groups? Other?

In response, eighty of the 110 students (73%) said they had been taught about library resources through lecturing. Four students (4%) said they had learned in groups. For us, this confirms that, when students come to our library instruction, they already have a history of learning only via banking-concept methods. Percentages like these convince us to continue with teaching methods that trouble the boundaries between what it means to be a “teacher” or a “student.”

Later, in a post-instruction survey, we asked students about the group work we had incorporated into our Problem-Based Learning. Ninety-six out of around 126 students took this survey, and seventy-six of them (79%) said that working together in groups was helpful. Furthermore, twenty-four of those students (25% of the total) responded positively to our prompt “Usually, I don’t enjoy working in groups, but this was still helpful.” We were surprised to see so many of the students approved of working in groups because, anecdotally, we had sometimes heard from them that working in groups can be problematic; that is, it can be awkward to have students assign roles for themselves that are equitable, and for some students, group work is associated with busy work. But, again, these results encourage us to continue finding ways for students to work together in groups, particularly in ones that lead students, librarians, and instructors to act as both students and teachers. The point is not to be “student-centered” because it’s just as important for the center to be on “students-teachers” and the problems they’re studying.

At the end of our post-instruction survey, we also left open-ended space for students to write about their favorite and least favorite parts of the instruction. Here is a sampling of their responses:

What was your favorite part of this instruction?

  • “It was good examples that were being used. I like that we were able to do a test to see what sources we can find as if we were actually writing the proposal paper.”
  • “Doing the research myself, instead of just listening the whole time. (Hands on feeling ).”
  • “Meeting as a group, and being given examples of how to properly research these topics”
  • “My favorite part was investigating the different terms my group had to research because I had not known what some of the words meant.”
  • “Seeing how other groups found their articles.”
  • “I think actually looking up real examples of research questions was very helpful to actually get used to using the online sources.”
  • “the group part because we could talk with others about what they were doing.”

What was your least favorite part of this instruction and why?

  • “The lengthy instruction of how to look through research information we already know how to.”
  • “My least favorite part was the group presentation because it was difficult for me to find good material.”
  • “lecturing how to use the data bases because i already knew how.”
  • “Learning how to search the databases because this has already been taught to me.”
  • “I have learned how to use databases many times. My least favorite part was having to sit throughout the entire presentation again. It was a nice refresher, but very repetitive.”
  • “the library instruction part because it wasn’t very interactive.”
  • “the repetitive instruction about some of it.”

There is richness in these responses, and they give us plenty to think about as we work to revise our instructional design. For one thing, although we see some people recognized the benefit in research questions provided to them from us and their instructor, we think it would be far better if they were to look into open-ended, “ill-structured” questions, problems, and case studies of their own design. These questions of their own could replace the ones we provided; that, or perhaps they could draft and investigate their own in a third session of instruction.

We also acknowledge that many students perceived our instruction as repetitive and not interactive enough, and that means we still have much to learn when it comes to offering library instruction in which they feel seen, engaged, and alive. At the beginning of this paper, we placed an epigraph that spotlights text from a letter of Paolo Freire’s. In it, decades after the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he admits he still thinks about the relationships of and differences between students and teachers.62 He raises the crucial point that anyone who identifies as a teacher must take pains not to let their authority veer into the authoritarian. We see that, in the future, as we work to bring more critical pedagogy to Problem-Based Learning—and to be in conversation with people practicing #critlib—the best way to guard against authoritarian practices is to share the dissonances and delights of teaching with others.

A sincere thanks to Amanda Hornby, Sofia Leung, Annie Pho, and Lead Pipe editors for your direct, thoughtful feedback about this final paper and earlier drafts. Through your generous comments, we came to see new perspectives and found connections we had missed.

Bibliography

Angell, Katelyn, and Katherine Boss. “Adapting the Amazing Library Race: Using problem-based learning in library orientations.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 23, no. 1 (2016): 44-55.

Barrows, Howard S. “Problem‐based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 1996, no. 68 (1996): 3-12.

Beilin, Ian. “Beyond the threshold: Conformity, resistance, and the ACRL information literacy framework for higher education.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe (2015).

Cheney, Debora. “Problem-based learning: Librarians as collaborators.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 4 (2004): 495-508.

Diekema, Anne R., Wendy Holliday, and Heather Leary. “Re-framing information literacy: Problem-based learning as informed learning.” Library & Information Science Research 33, no. 4 (2011): 261-268.

Freire, Paulo, and Macedo, Donaldo P. Letters to Cristina: Reflections on My Life and Work. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Freire, Paulo, Ramos, Myra Bergman, and Macedo, Donaldo P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.

Hines, Samantha, and Eric H. Hines. “Faculty and librarian collaboration on problem-based learning.” Journal of Library Innovation 3, no. 2 (2012): 18-32.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Kenney, Barbara. “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2008): 386-91.

Pelikan, Michael. “Problem-Based Learning in the Library: Evolving a Realistic Approach.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 4 (2004): 509-20.

Riedler, Martina, and Mustafa Yunus Eryaman. “Transformative Library Pedagogy and Community Based Libraries: A Freirean Perspective.” Critical Theory For Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social From Across Disciplines (2010): 89-99.

Shor, Ira. When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Smith Macklin, Alexius. “Integrating Information Literacy Using Problem-based Learning.” Reference Services Review 29, no. 4 (2001): 306-14.

Snavely, Loanne. “Making Problem-Based Learning Work: Institutional Changes.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 4 (2004): 521-31.

Spence, Larry. “The Usual Doesn’t Work: Why We Need Problem-Based Learning.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 4 (2004): 485-93.

Kate Wenger. “Problem-Based Learning and Information Literacy: A Natural Partnership.” Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice 2, no. 2 (2014): 142-54.

Pre- and Post-Instruction Survey Questions:

Pre-instruction Questions:

What kinds of research materials have you used for assignments? Check all that apply.

  • Databases (like JSTOR)
  • Academic journals
  • Books
  • E-Books
  • Encyclopedias
  • Wikipedia
  • Google
  • Google Scholar
  • Other (please specify)

Generally, how confident are you using research materials for assignments?

  • Very confident
  • Confident
  • Somewhat confident
  • Not very confident

What do you look for to assess the quality of research materials? Check all that apply.

  • Author
  • Date
  • Publisher
  • Peer-review
  • Format (print material or online)
  • Bias
  • Popularity
  • Type of web address (.com, .org, .edu, .gov)

How confident are you assessing the quality of research materials?

  • Very confident
  • Confident
  • Somewhat confident
  • Not very confident

Have you been taught how to use research materials?

  • Yes. In one class
  • Yes. In more than one class
  • No
  • I’m not sure / I don’t remember

Who taught you?

  • A teacher
  • A librarian
  • The teacher and librarian were team teachers
  • I taught myself
  • Other (please specify)

How were you taught? Check all that apply

  • With a lecture
  • With an activity
  • In groups
  • Other (please specify)

If you’re working to finish an assignment, how likely are you to try to use a research material that you don’t have experience with?

  • Very likely
  • Somewhat likely
  • Likely
  • Not very likely

Rank from 1-5 (1 being the most credible, 5 being the least credible) the credibility of these materials.

  • An article from a national newspaper
  • A blog
  • A scholarly, peer-reviewed journal
  • An advocacy organization’s website
  • A government website

Post-Instruction Questions:

What kinds of research materials have you used for assignments? Check all that apply.

  • Databases (like JSTOR)
  • Academic journals
  • Books
  • E-Books
  • Encyclopedias
  • Wikipedia
  • Google
  • Google Scholar
  • Other (please specify)

Generally, how confident are you using research materials for assignments?

  • Very confident
  • Confident
  • Somewhat confident
  • Not very confident

What do you look for to assess the quality of research materials? Check all that apply.

  • Author
  • Date
  • Publisher
  • Peer-review
  • Format (print material or online)
  • Bias
  • Popularity
  • Web address (.com, .org, .edu, .gov)

How confident are you assessing the quality of research materials?

  • Very confident
  • Confident
  • Somewhat confident
  • Not very confident

If you’re working to finish an assignment, how likely are you to try to use a research material that you don’t have experience with?

  • Very likely
  • Somewhat likely
  • Likely
  • Not very likely

Rank from 1-5 (1 being the most credible, 5 being the least credible) the credibility of these materials.

  • An article from a national newspaper
  • A blog
  • A scholarly, peer-reviewed journal
  • An advocacy organization’s website
  • A government website

How effective for your learning was using problems that your teacher provided?

  • Not at all effective
  • Somewhat effective
  • Effective
  • Very effective

How helpful was it to research these problems in groups?

  • Usually, I don’t enjoy working in groups, but this was still helpful
  • Usually, I don’t enjoy working in groups, and this was not helpful
  • Usually, I like working in groups, and this was helpful
  • Usually, I like working in groups, and this was not helpful

What was your favorite part of this instruction?

What was your least favorite? Why?

Pass it on.
  1. Paulo Freire, Letters to Cristina: Reflections on My Life and Work (New York, Routledge, 1996), 162 []
  2. LibGuides are a Springshare product that enable librarians to make simple websites full of images, links, and widgets. At our institution, we used them to make resource guides for majors like “Biology,” “Black Studies,” or “Women’s Studies.” []
  3. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), 72 []
  4. Ira Shor, When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 12 []
  5. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994), 15 []
  6. Howard Barrows, “Problem-Based Learning in Medicine and Beyond: A Brief Overview.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 68 (1996): 4 []
  7. Barrows, “Problem-Based Learning in Medicine and Beyond: A Brief Overview,” 5-6 []
  8. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 60 []
  9. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 61 []
  10. Debora Cheney, “Problem-Based Learning: Librarians as Collaborators.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 4 (2004): 495-508. []
  11. Eric Hines and Samantha Hines, “Faculty and Librarian Collaboration on Problem-Based Learning.” Journal of Library Innovation 3, no. 2 (2012): 18-32. []
  12. Barbara Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2008): 386-91. []
  13. Katelyn Angell and Katherine Boss, “Adapting the Amazing Library Race: Using Problem-based Learning in Library Orientations.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 23, no. 1 (2016): 44-55. []
  14. Anne Diekema, Wendy Holliday, and Heather Leary, Diekema, Holliday, and Leary. “Re-framing Information Literacy: Problem-based Learning as Informed Learning.” Library and Information Science Research 33, no. 4 (2011): 261-68. []
  15. Kate Wenger. “Problem-Based Learning and Information Literacy: A Natural Partnership.” Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice 2, no. 2 (2014): 142-54. []
  16. Angell and Boss, “Adapting the Amazing Library Race: Using Problem-based Learning in Library Orientations,” 44-55. []
  17. Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning,” 386-91. []
  18. Wenger,”Problem-Based Learning and Information Literacy: A Natural Partnership,” 142-54. []
  19. Alexius Smith Macklin, “Integrating Information Literacy Using Problem-based Learning.” Reference Services Review 29, no. 4 (2001): 306-14. []
  20. Alexius Smith Macklin, “Integrating Information Literacy Using Problem-based Learning.” Reference Services Review 29, no. 4 (2001): 306-14. []
  21. Wenger, “Problem-Based Learning and Information Literacy: A Natural Partnership,” 142-54. []
  22. Angell and Boss, “Adapting the Amazing Library Race: Using Problem-based Learning in Library Orientations,” 44-55. []
  23. Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning,” 386-91. []
  24. Smith Macklin, “Integrating Information Literacy Using Problem-based Learning,” 306-14. []
  25. Cheney, “Problem-Based Learning: Librarians as Collaborators,” 495-508. []
  26. Hines and Hines, “Faculty and Librarian Collaboration on Problem-Based Learning,” 18-32. []
  27. Michael Pelikan, “Problem-Based Learning in the Library: Evolving a Realistic Approach.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 4 (2004): 509-20. []
  28. Hines and Hines, “Faculty and Librarian Collaboration on Problem-Based Learning,” 18-32. []
  29. Pelikan, “Problem-Based Learning in the Library: Evolving a Realistic Approach,” 509-20. []
  30. Smith Macklin, “Integrating Information Literacy Using Problem-based Learning,” 306-14. []
  31. Angell and Boss, “Adapting the Amazing Library Race: Using Problem-based Learning in Library Orientations,” 44-55. []
  32. Diekema, Holliday, and Leary. “Re-framing Information Literacy: Problem-based Learning as Informed Learning,” 261-68. []
  33. Diekema, Holliday, and Leary. “Re-framing Information Literacy: Problem-based Learning as Informed Learning,” 261-68. []
  34. Wenger, “Problem-Based Learning and Information Literacy: A Natural Partnership,” 147. []
  35. Cheney, “Problem-Based Learning: Librarians as Collaborators,” 497. []
  36. Ibid, 506. []
  37. Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning,” 388. []
  38. Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning,” 388. []
  39. Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning,” 389. []
  40. Smith Macklin, “Integrating Information Literacy Using Problem-based Learning,” 308. []
  41. Cheney, “Problem-Based Learning: Librarians as Collaborators,” 498. []
  42. Pelikan, “Problem-Based Learning in the Library: Evolving a Realistic Approach,” 515. []
  43. Diekema, Holliday, and Leary. “Re-framing Information Literacy: Problem-based Learning as Informed Learning,” 263. []
  44. Hines and Hines, “Faculty and Librarian Collaboration on Problem-Based Learning,” 22. []
  45. When we came up with this pair of questions with the instructor, at the time, there were many articles in the national news about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and how problematic their investigations were. We thought these questions could go well with a problem-solving assignment in which a student could write about how they might right injustice on college campuses, but looking at these questions now, we see they obviously could, and potentially did, raise past trauma. This is not to say that we shouldn’t encourage students to investigate topics like sexual assault, but it is to acknowledge that we were rash to offer up these questions without developing trust over time with students and giving them the clear option to opt out or select an alternative topic. Paul Baepler and J.D. Walker’s article “Active Learning Classrooms and Educational Alliances: Changing Relationships to Improve Learning” in particular reveals how trust can be forged between teachers and students, not to mention where we went wrong. []
  46. Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning,” 390. []
  47. hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 46 []
  48. Cheney, “Problem-Based Learning: Librarians as Collaborators,” 497. []
  49. Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning,” 390. []
  50. Hines and Hines, “Faculty and Librarian Collaboration on Problem-Based Learning,” 19. []
  51. Cheney, “Problem-Based Learning: Librarians as Collaborators,” 506. []
  52. Kenney, “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session Using Problem-Based Learning,” 387. []
  53. Ibid, 389 []
  54. Angell and Boss, “Adapting the Amazing Library Race: Using Problem-based Learning in Library Orientations,” 47. []
  55. Smith Macklin, “Integrating Information Literacy Using Problem-based Learning,” 309. []
  56. Wenger, “Problem-Based Learning and Information Literacy: A Natural Partnership,” 149-50. []
  57. Ibid. []
  58. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 72. []
  59. Martina Riedler and Mustafa Yunus Eryaman. “Transformative Library Pedagogy and Community Based Libraries: A Freirean Perspective.” Critical Theory For Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social From Across Disciplines (2010): 89-99 []
  60. Ian Beilin. “Beyond the threshold: Conformity, resistance, and the ACRL information literacy framework for higher education.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe (2015). []
  61.  We went through the IRB at our school, and our application did not end up “under review” or “exempt.” Instead, they determined that our project was not technically research and, as a result, was excluded from the IRB process altogether. (They said what we were doing was more of an assessment of a practice.) Though we were excluded from the IRB process, at the beginning our first session of instruction, before we gave the students surveys, we still gave them consent forms, letting them know about our project and how we intended to present and write about it. The form also let them know that participation (or lack or participation) in the surveys or sessions of instruction would not affect their grades. []
  62. Freire, Letters to Cristina: Reflections on My Life and Work, 162 []

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