How A Librarian Aids In Active Learning In STEM Classes

Marc Songini
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An eight years medical library veteran, Bethany McGowan is an assistant professor and health sciences information specialist at Purdue University. She joined the university in 2015, and in her role, she serves as librarian liaison to the nursing, nutrition, speech and other departments. As an instructor in the Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation (IMPACT) program, she teaches faculty to embed active learning practices and technologies into their classes. Bethany took time out of her busy schedule to speak with JoVE about active learning, video, STEM challenges and more.


Why is there an urgency to integrate more active learning curricula in undergraduate STEM classrooms?

Because active learning directly engages students in the learning process, by having them participate in activities, instead of passively listening. Active learning curricula often include lectures, but also include problem-solving activities and higher-order thinking tasks that require students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. It is a teaching approach that is valuable in any class setting, and particularly useful in STEM classrooms.


Why are faculty members sometimes hesitant to adopt new active learning curricula into their classrooms?

Faculty members who adopt active learning curriculum typically have less time to lecture, because their classes aren’t longer — they have the same 50-minutes or 75-minutes to both lecture and have students complete active-learning activities. It is a particularly troublesome issue for faculty who teach foundational courses that are prerequisites and have a required amount of information to cover. Imagine you are accustomed to lecturing for 50 minutes and covering a lot of information, you might be hesitant to reduce your lectures to 30 minutes.


What steps do you take to overcome that hesitancy?

Having clear course outcomes and objectives, recording a portion of lectures in advance (as pre-class assignments), and assigning interactive course material as pre-work. Active learning curricula require the instructor to thoroughly plan lectures and often require pre-work assignments to teach basic skills and competencies. Those skills are then built on during class, reinforced in brief lectures and through individual and group activities.


What special perspective can librarians bring to faculty collaboration when building active learning curricula?

Libraries Faculty of the IMPACT program

Librarians can play an integral role in the design of active learning curricula, assisting faculty and instructors with appropriate support material and suggesting relevant pre-work and in-class activities. Much active-learning is based on the premise that students should be able to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information — these are literacy-based competencies that make collaborations between librarians and faculty useful throughout the course redesign process and beyond. Additionally, librarians and information professionals are experts on knowing what library resources are available, or could be available. For example, I might know that JoVE already has an excellent video on an experimental method that could be assigned as pre-work. So, a faculty member won’t have to create original content. Such time-saving and effort-saving knowledge has proven very useful.


Can you provide an example of a classic active learning exercise that would be integrated into a STEM class?

Think-Pair-Share is a classic active learning activity. It can be simple: Students are presented an issue, given time to consider a response, and are paired with a neighbor to share their thoughts. To take it up a level, they share their thoughts with the entire class. With the right technology, they can share their computer screens or paper sketches, and talk the class through their thought processes. Most active-learning classrooms now enable easier group work and a higher level of sharing.


What role does video play in active learning curricula?

I’ve mostly seen videos used as pre-work assignments in active learning curricula. As I mentioned earlier, with shorter lecture times, faculty often turn to videos as course supplements. This often means that faculty create their own video lectures, but if preexisting videos do a good job covering basic competencies, the videos can be extremely useful. Streaming educational videos that can be easily embedded into course management systems, like those from the Jove Video Journal, are an ideal component of pre-work assignments. I often recommend JoVE Video Journal resources during my IMPACT consultations, especially for use in large, foundational courses. They cover basic competencies, while offering learners an engaging means to learn about experimental techniques and combating challenges related to poor reproducibility. These videos allow instructors to remain aware of new technologies being utilized in scientific research, and help students understand processes that can be reinforced during class.


What other types of resources have you been integrating?

Other useful resources include gamified learning assessment tools, like Kahoot and class discussion tools, like Hotseat.


What results/feedback are you seeing from IMPACT from Purdue students and faculty?

IMPACT (Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation) is a faculty fellowship program based on the premise that the creation of a student-centered learning environment helps foster student engagement, student competence, and increased attainment of course-specific learning outcomes. Faculty fellows come from a range of disciplines and IMPACT instruction is a collaborative effort between the Center for Instructional Excellence, Information Technology at Purdue, and Purdue University Libraries. Purdue recently opened the Wilmeth Active Learning Center (WALC), which houses our Library of Engineering and Science and several active-learning classroom spaces. Courses that have gone through IMPACT redesigns have priority in WALC and have been hugely popular, both with students and faculty. Course assessments and student evaluations are tracked before and after course redesigns, with students providing feedback about their preferences for course resources and support material. Resources and material are adjusted, as necessary.