reflective journaling: my latest dabbling in instruction assessment

Since becoming an instruction librarian, I’ve always battled with assessment. I have been at institutions that used a mini quiz and student feedback form. I usually knew what the answers to the questions on these forms would be, and they usually showed signs of regurgitation and didn’t provide me with data to help improve my instruction.

The past few years I tried minute papers. Students were given a half-sheet of paper with two questions. Only one was mandatory. I asked students to reflect on what they learned and what still confused them – an open-ended, one or two sentence response or bullet points. I also asked if they had any specific questions they would like answered. This allowed the quieter students to get an email from me rather than raising their hand in class.

However, like the mini quiz, I knew the answers I’d get based on student responses during class, working individually with students, tuning in to the classroom environment, and reflecting with the faculty member afterwards. I still really wasn’t gathering data to help me improve my instruction. I knew what worked and what didn’t before reading the minute papers.

In a moment of insanity (or procrastination) I analyzed all my minute papers. Not surprisingly, information management was the most useful practice learned during a class. For most of my classes, this means Zotero. In some ways, students are getting better at finding sources (we’ll leave evaluation out of this for the moment) because there are so many ways to, well, find sources. They can blindly swing a bat a hit something. But, simultaneously, they are finding more sources and need to both evaluate and organize. Students immediately see how an information management tool like Zotero can improve their research process in every class. “I wish I knew about this earlier” is a common comment left on minute papers as well as the simpler “amazing” or “wow.”

Learning about specific resources was the second most-listed practice. This makes sense in a liberal arts setting. Many of the students in my classes are non-majors and don’t know about subject-specific databases or tools. Learning about databases like ArtStor (art) or RILM (music) was much appreciated.

A close third was search strategy and topic development. Research exercises learned here include concept mapping or other brainstorming activities, visual analysis, Boolean logic, and advanced search options in databases.

After these top three, practices learned by students move in many directions. One that is greatly appreciated but often goes undiscussed is finding books in the library. Students responses included simply “I didn’t know where the books actually were” to “I love walking around and finding books together. Could have done this for hours!” When I walk with students into the stacks, either to browse or find books they first located in the library catalog, I often hear about how many times they’ve gotten lost in the stacks or how they asked for help and someone “pointed at a door and said go up on floor” (she left the library sans book). I’ve heard enough sad stories of students not finding books that I almost always leave time in my sessions for searching the stacks. Students tend to be a lot more chatty outside the classroom, too, so I can find out a bit more about their needs and any research anxiety. I now get quite a few emails from students that begin “you once helped me find a book in the library  – thanks. Now I need…”

But, as I stated,I knew what worked and what didn’t before reading the minute papers. Because the goal of my assessment methods is to improve my instruction, I’ve ditched the minute papers. As if knowing I was struggling with instruction assessment, someone on Twitter posted a link to a 2009 article from College & Undergraduate Libraries, “A Reflective Teaching Journal: An Instructional Improvement Tool for Academic Librarians” by Elizabeth K. Tompkins. She provides a literature review on the subject and discusses her own practice of keeping a reflective journal to improve her instruction. 

This semester, when I’m contacted for an instruction session, I begin a Google document. I record the details of the class (when, where, how many students) and any email exchange or notes from a meeting with faculty. Then I plan the session, usually pulling from exercises and notes from previous instruction sessions. I wrap up planning by reflecting on the ACRL Framework. This helps me evaluate my lesson plans and consider language or targeted questions I might use in class.

After the session, I record details of the class. I include how much time was spent on a given activity and questions asked. Then I reflect on the class. Were students engaged? How did I know? Were questions asked on task or indicated students were falling behind? What response did I get from the faculty member – was he/she even engaged (or even present) and how can I follow up with them for any possible evaluation of long-term learning?

So far, I’ve found this activity very rewarding. Reflective journaling requires me to pause after a session and document both my actions and my thoughts. It isn’t very time consuming and in the future I should be able to text-mine the documents to look at my teaching practice holistically. When I return to a class in the spring (or next fall), I will not only have a planning document drafted, but a full reflection on how the class went and therefore how, in this next class, I might improve.