New Construction: Epilogue

Long, long ago, I started a little series here on the ol’ blog about using the ACRL Information Literacy Framework to design my Fall 2018 Introduction to Philosophy syllabus. The course was built with the Information Creation as Process frame as a guide for doing a wee bit of backward design magic to generate outcomes and then fill in tools and methods for instruction and assessment.

The time has come at last, as this semester staggers off into a snowy sunset, to take stock of the success (such as it is) of my attempt. In this post, as promised back in September, “I’m going to take a look at likely problems and issues worth taking seriously in consideration of this course as a model for applying the Framework.”

The Best Laid Plans…

A palace on paper (one floor of a plan for one, anyway), courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art via the Internet Archive

The course I designed (built specifically to meet the needs of intro-level non-majors with varying levels of prior writing experience and no other acquaintance with philosophy) was fairly straightforward: students would read a general audience-friendly set of texts, take regular quizzes, a midterm, and a final exam to demonstrate their comprehension of the assigned reading, write two essays to practice identifying their own positions and making their own arguments, and learn some basic research and reading skills through a regular end-of-unit article collection assignment.

Under ideal conditions, this course setup would result in (I hoped) a class of students who could at least dip a brave toe in the waters of proper philosophical argument and analysis, having acquired some of the necessary reading, thinking, writing, and research skills for doing so. They would, at minimum, leave the course slightly more able to find and analyze information and slightly more practiced at developing their understanding and presentation of that information. The Process would be more familiar to them, and they could take what they learned in this class to other disciplinary areas and put it to good use. 

Of course, the class wasn’t actually run under ideal conditions. Some things got edited in mid-stream to fit changes in the schedule. Quizzes sort of…disappeared, late in the term, because I fell behind in creating them. The research assignment turned out to need more tweaking, mostly to account for tech and accessibility problems. Still, I think that when things did work, they worked well, and for the most part when they didn’t, it was because I wasn’t keeping up as well as I would have liked, not because the plan itself was faulty (so: execution errors, not design errors, were the major issues here).

Outcomes

Bran Castle (6)
Into every castle courtyard, a little snow must fall…

Let’s break this down by assignment type:

Quizzes and Exams

The quizzes were all short — 5 questions, 2 pts per question, a mix of multiple choice and short answer/short essay tasks. While I had originally intended to confine myself to multiple choice questions (mostly to save myself grading time), I discovered that the short answer/essay responses told me a lot more about where the students were in their comprehension of the reading material. The accomplished what I used to use pre-meeting online discussions to do: getting students to generate their own explanations and arguments. If I were ever to teach a course of this kind again, I’d spend the month before start of term rewriting the quizzes; even with the increased grading time needed to manage short essay tasks like this, it would be worth it.

The midterm exam (really more of a Supersized Quiz) was written right around the time I realized I needed to lean on essay/answer instead of multiple choice, and turned out to be a reasonably good indicator of who was “getting it” and who wasn’t. The final (to take place in a couple of weeks) will be much the same, I expect.

Essay Process

I was most happy with my essay process, even if I did find myself tweaking and changing details up to the last minute for each one. The process for each of the two essays began with a set of questions meant to help each student to identify her own position and think about its advantages and potential shortcomings. Then students generated outline-shaped drafts of their papers (filling out a template that I gave them), and posed questions and offered comments to each other in a discussion forum for the purpose of peer review. Finally, taking on board both their peers’ comments and mine, they revised their initial outline drafts into a final paper. I ended up quite liking the results — the students who entered into the process in good faith and put some thought into it got pretty reliably decent results (nothing I’d send on to a conference, but solid work demonstrating a grasp of essentials nonetheless). When it went well, it went very well, and students did a good job of actually engaging their peers’ critical notes and suggestions.

Research Assignment

This went…less well. I set my class up in Zotero and arranged for them to contribute a set number of articles (one per unit, typically) in a Group there. I showed them how to use the system to generate correctly formatted citations for their own papers, how to tag and organize, etc. We talked about what constitutes an appropriate source for this assignment (i.e. STOP LINKING SEP AND WIKIPEDIA ENTRIES, DARN IT, AND GO DO FURTHER RESEARCH!). Some of them really got into it and used the system well. Others didn’t seem to grasp the relationship between the information they entered, linked, or created and the information the system put out when they tried to generate citations. We struggled, early on, to manage some tech issues. I admit that I didn’t always find the time to comment and correct work on this assignment as much as I can now see that I should have.

The in-class discussions of the articles we found reminded me, too, that a) I needed to ensure access to material much earlier to make sure it got read — I hadn’t allowed enough time, and b) I would have been better off picking articles and only requiring the class to address short sections of them, perhaps with some specific reading comprehension agenda in mind. 

This one was fine for a first try in Intro, but I’d definitely do it differently now that I’ve seen how it goes. I would certainly budget more time early on for learning to find materials, learning how to evaluate them, and learning some reading comprehension tricks. I would also budget more time for learning the Zotero tools, and perhaps set up a couple of small introductory quizzes or tasks to check student understanding of the system.

Final Thoughts

Was this a successful use of the Framework? I think, on the whole, that it was — or that it at least came close to it. If I were in the position to regularly teach this class again, I know exactly which things to change to make it work better. As a model for others, I would suggest it not as a tried-and-true template for a course, but rather as an example of the kind of thinking it might be worth doing in order to create a class in which information literacy instruction is built into the whole thing rather than added as an embellishment or optional feature.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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