Making it their idea: The Learning Cycle in library instruction


Librarians are always struggling to convince someone of something: convincing voters to say ‘yes’ to a library bond; persuading a library director to invest in a text-messaging reference tool; trying to get students to use library resources instead of Google. One of the most effective ways to be successful is to learn the art of “making it their idea.”

In his book, The Education of an Accidental CEO, David Novak (2009) illustrates a crucial idea in advertising a product:

You can tell people to go out and buy something, but that doesn’t make them do it. But if you appeal to both the head and the heart in a compelling and relevant way, then people will come up with the idea to buy of their own accord (p. 44).

Novak goes on to describe how Nike uses minimal language in its commercials, never telling viewers to buy their shoes. Instead, they fill the screen with images of professional athletes performing amazing feats in their products. The idea is to let the customer come to the conclusion that Nike shoes will help them accomplish their athletic goals.

In fact, very few advertisements tell people explicitly to do anything. They present information that leads customers to come up with the idea of buying their product on their own.

Convincing people by “making it their idea” isn’t unique to marketing. In Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up (Bing, 2003), there’s a chapter devoted to “convincing the elephant that it was the elephant’s idea” (followed by “Getting Drunk with the Elephant” and “Frightening the Elephant with Mice”). Though done with a little more tongue-in-cheek panache, this book highlights the usefulness of the concept in leadership and management.

Why does this approach work so well? Business people might argue that “making it their idea” is an ego boost managers need in order to act on something. However, educators have long understood the value in letting people come to their own conclusions, and it has less to do with ego than it does with the way the brain learns. People feel a rush of pride when they come up with ideas, solutions and concepts for themselves and see the value in what they have just learned much more clearly than if they had simply been told a good idea. When it comes to seeing the value in libraries and their resources, we need to leverage a mode of teaching that allows students to experience information literacy concepts in this way.

The Learning Cycle

In The Learning Cycle, Ann Cavallo and Edmond Marek (1997) describe a teaching technique used in science education that presents students with deliberately confusing or confounding situations. With minimal instruction, students try to make sense of these situations based on prior knowledge, observation, and experimentation. At its core, the learning cycle method embodies the nature of science and helps students develop critical thinking skills.

Cavallo (2008) describes an example of the learning cycle, illustrating how it works. In an activity called “The New Society,” a small subset of a class is sent outside while the instructor tells the remaining students that they are a new society with three simple rules:

  1. They can only say the words ‘yes’ and ‘no.’
  2. They only respond to people of the same gender and ignore those of opposite gender.
  3. Regardless of the question, they always respond ‘yes’ if the questioner is smiling and always respond ‘no’ if the questioner is not smiling.

The students sent outside (called ‘the anthropologists’) are asked to find out as much information as they can about this new society that has recently been discovered on a remote island.

As the anthropologists move about the classroom, they are confronted with confounding answers. They quickly discover the first rule through their initial observations. The second rule takes more time – often students will develop hypotheses and test them on students leading to the discovery of the second rule.

The third rule is much more difficult to figure out. Students feel frustration, anxiety and impatience. Proclamations of “They’re lying!” and “They answer randomly!” are flung about until they finally figure out the third rule.

Throughout this process, the teacher simply provides guiding questions when people get stuck, on occasion reminding them how scientists find things out by making hypotheses and testing them out.

Two results of this lesson for students: utter joy or relief from solving a frustrating problem and experience working in a confusing environment but inventing a solution to a problem themselves (without the instructor providing the answer).  The joy or relief is what builds a love of learning into the experience, and the act of inventing a solution is critical thinking in action.

How People Learn

While many of us have been told that active learning and critical thinking are vital for our information literacy programs, very few of us understand the ‘how’ and even fewer the ‘why.’

Active learning is important because it more closely models the way that humans learn. Experiments carried out by Piaget (1973) and other noted educational psychologists (Renner & Marek, 1988; Inhelder & Piaget, 1969) indicate that all learning begins with data collection (called assimilation in Renner & Marek, 1990).

This assimilation can be the observation of a phenomenon or reading of new materials. In many cases, the new data is incongruous with the learner’s current view of the world, and they can’t make sense of it.

The next step in learning is trying to make sense of the new information (called accommodation in Renner & Marek, 1990). Critical thinking skills are developed during this phase as learners make sense of the new information by inventing rules, testing hypotheses, and changing their world view in light of this new data.

In this stage, they are no longer just memorizing information or learning a series of clicks; rather, they are actively inventing new ways of understanding the world and taking ownership of the knowledge they’re creating.

The final step is called organization (Renner & Marek, 1990), and this is when they use their newly created knowledge and skills to solve other problems, and figuring out where else their new knowledge can be applied.

The learning cycle instructional method – giving students a new situation, asking them to make sense of it, and serving merely as a guide in their process – models the way people learn, and as a result, generates authentic, meaningful learning experiences for students. Compared to lectures or demonstrations where students are told what the answers are and then perform exercises that verify that what they are told is correct, they are making the new knowledge out of their own ideas.

Library Instruction as Science?

Modeling instructional activities after the way people learn is vital for making learning experiences that ‘stick.’ Typical library instruction involves copious amounts of “click here, then click here, and once you’re there, click here.” There’s little discovery or invention of core information literacy concepts. Students are told how to use information resources, told how to use citation styles, and told the consequences of unethical use of information. How can we make discovery of information literacy concepts more… scientific? Can students invent information literacy concepts on their own, given a scenario and a librarian as a guide?

Let’s take peer reviewed journals as an example. At its worst, library instruction on this topic is equivalent to “Check this box for peer reviewed articles in your results. It’s what your professors want.” This kind of instruction not only goes against the way people learn new ideas, but also undermines the importance of the peer review process by reducing it to “because your professor wants it.”

Active learning can be used to get students to explore issues of peer reviewed journals and have them compare them to magazine or popular literature. While this introduces the element of discovery and active learning, it’s only discovering the difference between the two types of publications, not the importance of the peer review process. If a librarian in this class room tells them why peer review is important, even after this activity, it’s still telling, not students discovering.

Instead, I develop learning cycles that reflect how people learn. In this instance, I give students a situation where they don’t have an answer but must work together to solve a problem. I tell students they have decided to start a magazine and they want to publish the best, newest research done in educational psychology (or whatever field they’re majoring in). Unlike TIME or Newsweek, their articles should be useful for researchers who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge in their field. They plan on sending out a call across the Internet asking for people to send in their best papers for the magazine.

I then ask the students to come up with a method for judging how good a paper they receive is and let them go to it. As they come up with criteria (e.g., “It has to be undiscovered knowledge” and “It must be based on sound evidence”), I ask how they, as college students, will be able to tell what’s good and what’s not. Who is qualified to answer those questions? How will they, as the editors, use these people?

As they work to create this new publication, they will be inventing peer review. Peer review will be an idea that they came up with themselves. They may call it something else, but the core purposes of peer review will be in their responses. As a library instructor, my goal is to guide them with questions that challenge their thoughts, and finally, give it the label of ‘peer reviewed’ once they’ve established the concept.

This lesson models how the mind actually works.

There Isn’t Time!

Learning cycles, like the one described above, take lots more time. It would have taken at most two or three minutes to explain peer review and have students tell you why it is an important feature of scholarly research. However, if students don’t invent it, it’s much less likely to stick.

The learning cycle on the other hand would take twenty or thirty minutes. Librarians don’t have the luxury of time!

There are some solutions. In an article for the Texas Library Journal, Jeremy Donald suggests a model of library instruction that offloads most of the technical details to online tutorials and learning modules (see “Step 6” in Donald, 2010). This enables library instruction to devote needed time to the learning cycle.

Donald’s model requires librarians to think about the instructional needs of student in a different way. Rather than think linearly about what skills and knowledge students need to have, think about the tasks they need to do in order of difficulty or complexity. What parts of the lesson will be most confusing and most important? Identify one or two concepts, and plan on spending at least half of your time on those topics, including time students explore new tools and ideas independently and running learning cycle-style lessons.

The rest of the time is devoted to brief introductions and answering questions. This type of model not only creates the time needed to run meaningful, engaging lessons on key topics, it forces library instructors to identify what those core topics are, the first step in developing good learning cycle lesson plans.

Developing Learning Cycles

With that said, the first step in developing a learning cycle lesson plan is to identify those core concepts students should learn. For example, for a lesson on plagiarism, some of the topics that may come up are:

  • What is plagiarism?
  • What are the penalties for academic dishonesty?
  • How do you effectively use quotes or paraphrasing?
  • How do you cite articles using a specific citation style?

Of these, I see the second (academic dishonesty policies) and the fourth (mechanics of citation) as topics that could easily be off-loaded to online tutorials or even printed brochures. There’s no need to spend time in class covering these topics, short of connecting students with resources to learn more about them and their importance.

The other two are great topics for learning cycles. I usually approach these topics from a personal perspective: how did I come to understand these concepts myself? What’s important about them? How can I create situations or activities that will lead students to invent the concepts on their own?

At its core, avoiding plagiarism means giving credit for someone else’s work. How can I get students to come to understand this concept without simply telling it to them?

Before I tell students what the class is about, I ask them to take out a sheet of paper and be prepared to write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind after I say a secret word. When students are ready, I shout, “Plagiarism!” They scribble words and phrases down then I ask them to hold up their papers. Words associated with malicious cheating usually crop up: stealing, dishonest, and sometimes lazy.

I then ask them to take on the role of summer school teacher with an imaginary group of low-performing students in an English class. They are told they’ve received a paper from a student written fairly poorly, but right in the middle, a sentence or two of pure academic gold. What happened? When they say “Plagiarism!” I ask them to describe the actual events and student actions that led up to this. I ask them to think about student motivation and behavior, and I prompt them with questions like, “What was going through the student’s mind when they pulled in these sentences into this document?”

What results is astounding. Students describe quite innocent situations: perhaps the student didn’t know that copy-and-pasting information without quotes was wrong; maybe they couldn’t find an author on the website and assumed you didn’t need to cite anonymous sources; or perhaps it was malicious cheating.

Usually students don’t view this situation as the latter. Instead, they’re forced to revise their own definitions of plagiarism based on the critical examination of the scenario they were presented with. Plagiarism is no longer cheating or stealing… so what is it?

Again, these discussions take time, but they’re valuable experiences that students will be able to apply in more situations.  In these scenarios, students are employing critical thinking skills – they are working through problems by discussing them with peers, proposing potential solutions, and evaluating their own and others’ responses. There’s more to a learning cycle than rote memorization of the concepts the instructor intends to teach; instead, it’s problem solving.


Library instructors should develop a “less is more” philosophy. There is real value in spending time on learning cycles because it does more than just pay lip service to active learning and critical thinking – it helps students develop them.

Faculty members and students alike may be anxious if they don’t get the step-by-step instructions they’re used to from the library session. Combating this expectation is our challenge. Donald (2010) also addresses buy-in and collaboration as a way of preparing faculty members for these kinds of drastic changes to the typical library session.

Appropriately, Donald says, “They are likely to wait to hear your ideas before introducing their own, and they may re-state an idea of yours as one of their own. This is to be encouraged, as it signals their investment in the collaboration and its outcome” (2010, 129). How’s that for “making it their idea?”

For a visual representation of Jeremy Donald’s instructional design model, see his slides from a recent Texas Library Association webinar, titled “Technology & Information Literacy Instruction: A Model for Active Learning Environments” at http://bit.ly/cpt6ON.

Thanks to Michelle Millet, Ellie Collier, and Kim Leeder for their feedback on this post.


Bing, S. (2002). Throwing the elephant: Zen and the art of managing up. New York: HarperBusiness.

Cavallo, A. M. L. (2008). Experiencing the nature of science: An interactive, beginning-of-semester activity. Journal of College Science Teaching, 37(5), 12-15.

Donald, J. (2010). Using technology to support faculty and enhance coursework at academic institutions. Texas Library Journal, 85(4), 129-131. Retrieved from http://www.txla.org/ce/Collaboration/Donald.pdf.

Inhelder, B. & Piaget, J. (1969). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Marek, E. A. & Cavallo, A. M. L. (1997). The learning cycle: Elementary school science and beyond. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Novak, D. (2009). The education of an accidental CEO: Lessons learned from the trailer park to the corner office. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Piaget, J. (1973). Psychology of intelligence. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams and Co.

Renner, J.W. & Marek, E.A. (1988). The learning cycle and elementary school science teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Renner, J.W. & Marek, E.A. (1990). An educational theory base for science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(3), 241-246.

7 Responses

  1. What a great post, Eric!

    I was wondering how this might affect my teaching in a medical school, where complicated searches with not so user-friendly search interfaces (yes, I’m talking about OVID’s Medline interface) take the most of our teaching time. I can spend an hour teaching a group of students where to click, how to look for applicable MeSH terms, and how to create Boolean searches– but I fear that the opportunity to engage in learning cycles in this environment is really limited– much less trying to get more time integrated into the rigorous medial and nursing school curricula.

    I’m going to have to seriously sit down and think about what are the goals of my instruction sessions, and flesh out how to make it a learning cycle…

  2. Fiona Grady

    I really enjoyed this Eric, especially your method of teaching the concept of peer-review. Lori Townsend, Korey Brunetti and Amy Hofer gave a really good presentation at Loex last year on Using Threshold Concepts to Teach Information Literacy that referenced work by Meyer & Land. You might be interested since it’s a similar concept. Information is available at http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html. Thanks for the post.

  3. Eric Frierson

    Thanks for the comments!

    Fiona: I went to that presentation and really enjoyed it! I think that the Learning Cycle of lesson planning provides us with a practical approach to helping our students accomodate threshold concepts into their world view. Identifying them for information literacy topics (as the LOEX presenters did) is a great way to identify topics to develop Learning Cycles for!


  4. I agree so strongly with the less is more approach. I’ve been working more and more to teach fewer and fewer concepts, with my current focus typically being two areas – (1) a better understanding of choosing keywords and (2) on thinking about how to approach looking for information – asking students to think about who cares about their topic and why, and how they share their opinions and research.

    I actually have never been asked to cover plagiarism and am only asked to cover peer review maybe 1/3 of the time. Most of my sessions are an introduction to databases or library basics.

    Thanks for the great explanation and food for thought. I’ll be looking for more ways to make it their idea more often.

  5. laura westmoreland

    This was a really interesting post — thanks for taking the time to share. I was particularly interested in incorporating the learning cycle to help students better understand plagiarism. At my institution, our Research and Instructional Services department is working on overhauling a program we’ve had in the past called “Writing with Integrity.” Generally, this instructional module was used as an educational rather than punitive action following an Honor Code violation related to plagiarism. It has also been used to introduce undergraduate researchers to the idea of plagiarism. It allows us as instructors a full hour to focus on plagiarism and related issues, and I can really see great possibilities in utilizing the learning cycle in that setting.

    As you acknowledge, time constraints and faculty expectations for real deliverables in library instruction sessions make it difficult to get away from the “click here, then here, then here” model. But I imagine there are ways to incorporate learning cycles even in smaller chunks: perhaps just approaching each learning objective from the problem-based learning approach instead of the “tell them” approach. Thanks again for the food for thought!

  6. Eric, great post. My colleague Miriam Rigby pointed this out to me, and I’m so glad she did. I mainly teach research methods to graduate students, and I’m still sort of casting about to find the best way to do this–but this is great encouragement to keep casting!

  7. Michelle Costello

    Thanks for this post Eric! The real life examples are great and reinforce the notion that “less is more”. It can be a struggle to give up parts of our lesson plan but knowing that students can learn some of what we want to teach them using online tutorials and web guides is reassuring!