Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Utilizing Active Learning in Library Instruction


Academic Library Instruction has grown dramatically in current times. What was once a card catalog of librarians searching for and delivering specific books to students has become an online experience of self service, utilizing all information formats for research purposes. With reference services changing, the need for accurate instruction of library services and research skill development has changed as well. Instruction librarians use many different teaching methods for their students, both in one-shot instruction and in long-term instruction.
In current times, these different methods have taken a more active role rather than lecture based. Since the late 1800’s, library instructors have noted how lecture-based learning has failed students. “The assumption that library instruction should be lectured based probably has driven the opposition of many academic librarians to library instruction. After all, if lecturing to students about library use does not work, why do it? (Lorenzen, 2001).” Instead, many academic libraries are turning toward active learning in the library classroom for instruction purposes.

What is Active Learning?

            Active learning, in essence, employs instructional methods opposite to that of passive learning. Passive learning teaching style engages a lecture-based learning with heavy note taking and memorization. It relies strictly on a one-way learning from teacher to student (Holderied, 2011). Active learning, on the other hand, “has struck a chord with educators for the way that it enables instructors to accommodate varying learning styles and encourage active participation of students” (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). It takes the student beyond the role of the listener and engages them to be more proactive in their learning. By employing a variety of techniques, including small group discussion, hands-on activity, and role playing, the students become involved in discovering for themselves the answers to their research and library needs. This allows them to have the first-hand knowledge of the necessary skills and the ability to utilize them in their academic careers.
          The push for active learning in the library classroom in modern times have come from three voices. In 1991, David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Karl Smith wrote a book entitled “Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom” and began their campaign promoting active learning as an essential part of library instruction. Their findings revealed that students have trouble focusing on lectures and that their focus weakens over the time period of the class. They also found that students found lectures, frankly, boring. Lectures might promote the rote memorization of facts but do not utilize a student’s higher functioning such as their analyzing and synthesizing skills (Lorenzen, 2001).

Drueke and the One-Shot Active Instruction

          In 1992, J. Drueke wrote an article entitled “Active Learning in the University
Library Instruction Classroom.” Within the article, he notes four barriers of active learning in the library setting. For one, librarians usually see a group of students only once and are not their usual teachers. This ‘one-shot’ instruction makes it difficult to fit all the necessary ideas into the short time frame without lecturing. Students also find librarians to not be a source of information because they are not their usual teachers. This creates a sort of mental block from forming the information presented to them during the instruction. Another barrier is the sheer lack of time to cover all the material necessary in these ‘one-shot’ instruction. Many librarians feel that an active learning approach will take away precious time that is needed to actually teach the material. Finally, the instruction librarian does not have total control of the class and their material. The primary teacher usually comes into the instruction time with requirements and suggestions of topics to cover, putting the librarian in a more subordinate teaching role. The materials covered would, in theory, be controlled completely by the library instructor. However, any good library instructor would know to structure their teachings to fit the needs of the students.
          Another large obstacle is the instruction librarian’s reluctance to employ active learning in the classroom.
C. E. Mabry said: I found, however, that the instructor's first step in applying cooperative learning techniques involves rethinking his/her role in the classroom. It is not easy to give up lecture time in a 50 minute BI session. But one of the primary tenets of cooperative learning is that, if instructors are prepared to give up some control, students will learn more and retain that knowledge longer. (p 183)

          In order to combat this lack of control and the desire to stay with the lecture-based learning, Drueke came up with nine strategies of active learning for librarians:
I. Talking informally with students as they arrived for class.
2. Expecting that students would participate and acting accordingly.
3. Arranging the classroom to encourage participation including putting chairs in a cluster or circle.
4. Using small group discussion, questioning, and writing to allow for non-threatening methods of student participation.
5. Giving students time to give responses, do not rush them.
6. Rewarding students for participating by praising them or paraphrasing what they say.
7. Reducing anonymity by introducing yourself and asking the students for their names. Ask the class to relate previous library experiences as you do this.
8. Drawing the students into discussions by showing the relevance of the library to their studies.
9. Allowing students time to ask questions at the end of class.
          These strategies, when utilized by the librarian, show that a little effort can turn a one-shot library instruction into an active library experience. Employing these tactics can improve the students’ instruction quality and their learning outcome.


          Active learning can take a student from a role of a listener into that of an initiator in their own learning. This can dramatically affect the amount of information retained from library instruction, particularly in one-shot classes which most academic libraries now employ. With active learning, students are engaged in their own education. With a bit of work to their curriculum and teaching style, librarians can enlist their students to learn further than in lecture-based forums, utilizing the analytic and synesthetic skills in the process.



Bonwell, C.C. and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. Washington DC: The George Washington University (Eric Clearinghouse on Higher Education).
Drueke, J. (1992). Active learning in the university library instruction classroom. Research Strategies, 10(Spring), pp. 77-83.
Holderied, A. (2011). Instructional design for the active: Employing interactive technologies and active learning exercises to enhance library instruction. Journal of Information Literacy, 5(1), 23-32.
Johnson, D., Johnson. R. and Smith. K. (1991). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Books.
Lorenzen, Michael. (2001). Active Learning and Library Instruction. Illinois Libraries, 83(2), 19-24.
Mabnv. C. E. (1995). Using cooperative learning principles in BI. Research strategies, 13(Summer),182-185.