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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2003

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[Board accepted]

Connecting Engineering Students with the Library: A Case Study in Active Learning

Brian D. Quigley
Electronic Outreach Librarian
Kresge Engineering Library
University of California, Berkeley

Jean McKenzie
Assistant Head Librarian
Kresge Engineering Library
University of California, Berkeley


When asked to provide library instruction to Technical Communication classes, the authors developed a lecture and demonstration covering information literacy, the research process and relevant electronic resources. During the first classes, it became obvious that neither the lecture format nor the content met the instructional objectives. This article delineates the evolution of these classes from lectures to active learning classes. Working closely with the instructors, the authors have developed classes to meet four library instruction objectives in the context of course goals and assignments. The changes have been guided by feedback from instructors and students, as well as the continuing education and cumulative experience of the authors as teachers.


Active, or experiential, learning has been known at least since the time of Socrates, and there is an extensive literature on its effectiveness in promoting intellectual development across the educational spectrum. Active learning requires students to do more than listen, to use their higher-order thinking skills while engaged in activities that help them explore their own attitudes and values. In short, active learning "involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" (Bonwell & Eisen 1991).

Active learning and its underlying educational theories are covered by Bonwell and Eisen (1991), Meyers and Jones (1993) and Johnson, Johnson and Smith (1991). All give practical examples of active and cooperative techniques that can be adapted for library instruction.

References to active learning used in libraries go back further than one might expect. Lorenzen (2001) gives an historical overview and basic introduction of active learning techniques in the academic library. A more detailed review and discussion of the many components of active learning is found in a paper by Allen (1995). She briefly describes the salient points of seven active learning techniques and how they might be used for library instruction. Keyser (2000) takes the discussion further into cooperative learning and concludes with descriptions of active and cooperative techniques that one might use when making the transition from lectures to active learning.

Several authors note the problems with traditional lectures, as well as the difficulties with one-shot library instruction classes, before going on to describe their initial implementations of active learning for some of their classes (Drueke 1992; Ragains 1995; Engeldinger 1988). Jacobson and Mark (1995) discuss a number of active techniques they use to promote learning that also address students' anxiety in learning new information technologies.

Most literature dealing with active learning in libraries is directed towards lower division students in humanities and social sciences. For a discussion of the implementation of active learning in health science libraries, see Francis and Kelly (1997). An article by Leckie and Fullerton (1999) provides insight into science and engineering faculty attitudes and teaching practices regarding library instruction. It highlights many non-content, non-process factors librarians need to be aware of as they work towards strengthening ties with the faculty.

Moving from lecture to active learning for library instruction is, we hope, a step on the way to working collaboratively with faculty across the curriculum. A four-year plan for working with faculty is discussed in an award-winning paper by Nerz and Weiner (2001). Fosmire and Macklin (2002) discuss their initial work collaborating with faculty to create problem-based learning classes. Abowitz (1994) describes a faculty/librarian collaboration from her point of view as a faculty member. In addition to teaching a class how to find an article and use an index, Abowitz also values that librarians "...can teach about the content, nature and connections among and between different information resources."


In January 2001, we began providing library instruction to the engineering course on Technical Communication (E 190). Initially, we provided instruction to four sections of this course. Over time, this has grown to ten sections taught by five different instructors. Two additional instructors have declined our offers of library instruction for their three sections. Each instructor allots 1.5-2 hours of class time for library instruction. Anywhere from 15-25 students enroll in each section, and we typically reach over 200 students each semester. The course is required for students majoring in electrical engineering & computer science (EECS), industrial engineering & operations research (IEOR) and mechanical engineering (ME). As a result, most of our students come from these departments. The classes consist almost entirely of seniors, with a few juniors and graduate students enrolled. Anecdotally, we have learned that most of these students have never had library instruction of any kind at the university.


For several reasons, the initial instruction for the Technical Communication classes consisted of a lecture plus demonstration. The initial request for classes came just as the semester was to start, which left no lead-time for developing anything new. Nor was there time to locate a computer training room, something that our library lacks. We had been reading literature on information literacy and library instruction and quickly identified a list of twenty-five objectives covering information literacy, the research process, the life cycle of information and engineering research resources. Using PowerPoint slides as an outline, the lecture covered as much as possible, and the class included a demonstration of the two main engineering indexes.

Though the instructors expressed their approval for our efforts, we were not happy with the classes and began analyzing them immediately. We had observed that the students were passive, uninterested, and unresponsive, which is consistent with the weaknesses of lectures as discussed in a paper by Cashin (1985). As we had not asked the students any questions or engaged them in conversation throughout the lecture, we had no feedback on whether any part of it was successful. We also knew from our reading that a lecture does not address all the various learning styles. We had done all the talking, and had not succeeded in connecting the students with the information in any meaningful way.

To reduce our objectives to a reasonable number, we concentrated on what it was we felt the students needed to know and pared the list to six items. To accomplish these objectives, the students would need hands-on practice, so we found computer training rooms elsewhere on campus that we could reserve for future classes. We met with each of the instructors to discuss what they wanted the students to know how to do as a result of our classes. One instructor, in particular, thought it would be most useful to the students if they actually had some citations on their topic by the end of the library instruction class. With that in mind, we developed a second version of the class that included a shorter lecture, a demonstration of resources and a guided practice. The guided practice provided activities for the students to carry out using their own topics, with us as their guides. The activities included developing keyword lists on a concept grid provided, then creating a search strategy, choosing an appropriate article index and searching for articles they could use.

A major problem arose immediately, namely, that very few of the students had come prepared with a workable topic, even though the instructors had asked them to have one. Helping individual students start to think about topics was very time-consuming and left little or no time to do any searching of the indexes. The result was that students could not go deeply enough into the resources to begin to think critically about what they found or to consider how they might revise their search strategies to improve the search results. Because students did not progress far enough into the search process, important questions about the details and complexities of library research never came up. Somehow it was just too difficult for students to think about a newly chosen topic and learn a new resource at the same time.

  • Students work on their own topics
  • Students not prepared with topics
  • Required too much individual attention
  • Did not teach details/complexities
  • Lacked opportunities for critical thinking
  • Failed to prompt important questions

In subsequent discussions with the instructors, we highlighted the difficulty students have in choosing a topic. As a result of these discussions, all the instructors began addressing the choice of topic earlier in the semester, and they encouraged the students to do this in conjunction with professors from their majors. In our classes now, many students have developed their own topics to the extent that they can effectively use them for the class searching activities.

In the following semester, we designed a step-by-step checklist for students to complete in class. Trying to move further away from the lecture format, we eliminated the PowerPoint slides and divided the class time into sound bites and activities. Each sound bite introduced one concept or technique in 2-5 minutes, followed by the section of the checklist that reinforced it. Where our guided practice provided too little direction, the step-by-step checklist laid out all the steps in detail; this eliminated the need for a demonstration. The checklist helped students learn the mechanics of specific resources, but it failed to teach broader concepts and completely lacked opportunities for critical thinking.

Because few students had had topics in the previous semester, we specified the exact searches for students to perform within the checklist. Our goal was to provide the students with examples from which they could learn specific ideas. However, because the checklist did not require critical thinking, the students did not appreciate the points being made by our examples. In addition, during this semester, most students had already chosen topics and wanted to work on them instead. Consisting almost entirely of seniors, the class reacted negatively to the checklist, perceiving it as demeaning busywork. Because they were not engaged in the activity, we could not help them by providing direction or answering questions - none arose. Instead, we could only try to keep them working through the checklist, policing the students rather than facilitating their learning.

  • Taught mechanics of specific resources
  • Librarians maintained certain degree of control
  • Required less individual attention
  • Focused too much on mechanics
  • Failed to teach broader concepts
  • Required no critical thinking
  • Failed to prompt important questions
  • Too simplistic for audience

In light of its failures, we decided to eliminate the checklist and entirely overhaul our classes. Around this time, both librarians attended a library-sponsored workshop on information literacy and active learning. Additionally, one of the librarians participated in the Institute for Information Literacy's Immersion Program. These educational opportunities had significant impact on the redesign of our classes.

First, we realized we were still trying to cover too much content, so we narrowed our objectives further. We identified four main objectives related to finding journal articles and conference papers on a topic. Namely, after our sessions, students should be able to:

Second, wanting to address all learning styles, we focused on incorporating a variety of instructional techniques. As its basic structure, we divided the class into four parts: (1) a mini-lecture with visual aids, (2) a group discussion activity, (3) a demonstration and (4) task-based activities. With only minor revisions, it is this overhauled structure that we continue to use today.

We begin each class with a mini-lecture consisting of about ten fast PowerPoint slides briefly describing the resources we plan to cover and their relationship to each other. This gives students an outline for the class while providing us an opportunity to explain the invisible web. We reincorporated the PowerPoint slides into the mini-lecture for those students who learn best visually. We also introduced some visual diagrams for their benefit.

[Two-step diagram]

To encourage critical thinking and engage the students, we probe them with questions throughout the mini-lecture. For example, many of the instructors want us to cover review articles to give the students an introduction to the research on their topics. Rather than explain review articles to the students, we ask them what they think a review article might be and why they would want to use one. Although unfamiliar with the concept, the students often come up with the correct answer after some thought. As another example, we lead the students in a discussion of the most appropriate article indexes for sample topics supplied by the class.

After the mini-lecture, we facilitate a group discussion activity in which we construct a complex search. The students break the example topic into three core concepts, develop keywords for each one, then connect these keywords into a search statement with truncation, boolean operators and parentheses. It should be noted here that we do not cover these concepts within our class. In general, these students know the components of a search from their mathematics and computer science classes. However, they do not understand how to apply them to constructing a complex literature search. Through this group discussion activity, we help them transfer their knowledge.

We then demonstrate the use of an engineering index, using the complex search constructed by the students. We limit our demonstration to one article index, but emphasize that all article indexes use the same search techniques; they just implement them somewhat differently. We encourage the students to use other article indexes if appropriate for their topics and stress that we will assist them individually with whatever indexes they choose.

After the demonstration, we ask them to complete a series of activities in one of our article indexes. Initially, we provided a few sample topics and encouraged students to use them. We have since eliminated the sample topics, encouraging students to research their own. As the students complete the activities, we visit each student to discuss his or her progress. If the students still lack a topic, we suggest ways to identify one or even talk with them about their interests. If their topic is too broad or narrow for the assignment, we help them refine it by probing the core of their interest in it. We discuss appropriate article indexes with each student, evaluate search statements and generally assist with searching. Although this requires more individual attention, students are more engaged, thereby facilitating learning.

  • Focuses on outcomes rather than mechanics
  • Teaches broader concepts
  • Requires critical thinking
  • Learning seems transferable
  • Stimulates essential questions
  • Requires librarian to give up more control
  • Requires more individual attention

Throughout the evolution of our instruction sessions, we witnessed significant changes in the papers assigned by each instructor. In the beginning, all the instructors required similar assignments. Students had to write research papers on a technical topic in their field. Over time, the instructors began changing their assignments, going through several variations before reaching the divergent ones assigned today. Where one requires a research paper based on the technical literature, another requires one based on more general sources. A third now requires an industry overview for a technical product or service. As these assignments have diverged, our instruction has become more tailored to each. Tailoring our instruction to each assignment increases the students' interest by addressing their immediate needs.

Our evaluation methods have also adjusted over time. In our lecture stage, we administered a simple satisfaction survey to the students. While the students indicated high levels of satisfaction with our instruction, we realized from experience that they had learned little. The satisfaction survey provided no information that we could use to improve our classes. After meeting with the head of our Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center, an expert in assessment, we replaced the satisfaction survey with the one-minute paper. In the one-minute paper, students take the last few minutes of class to respond to specific questions posed by the instructors. Although this evaluation tool does not assess student learning quantitatively, it does provide useful feedback for improving the class. To close the feedback loop with the students, we respond to common questions raised in their one-minute papers. Of course, this feedback loop is immediate and does not reflect student perceptions after completing their assignments. For this reason, we ask the instructors to include questions about our library instruction in their course evaluations at the end of the semester. Most of the instructors have incorporated these questions, and the responses have provided additional feedback for our instructional design.

Themes -- Recurring Questions & Challenges

As these classes evolved from lecture to active learning sessions, the number of key points covered was reduced, and the time for class discussions and hands-on activities increased as much as possible. We explicitly address the four need-to-know objectives and depend on the students to ask questions about what else they want to know. In giving up some control of class content, we were concerned that major points would be missed. However, our experience has been that students will ask questions about what is important to them during the activities, if these activities are constructed to be meaningful and useful. These point-of-need questions provide the optimal opportunity for learning. While each class is unique, every class raises questions about the following:

These recurring questions indicate a number of challenging concepts for students. While they seem to catch on quickly to the idea of using indexes to identify articles of interest, locating the articles when there is not a direct URL to the full text is a barrier. Most students do not understand the concept of a catalog or index and therefore do not understand the relationship between them. Rarely do we have a student who knows to search the catalog directly if he or she has a citation in hand. When they search the catalog, students are confused about which title to search for -- the article title or journal title. The final challenging theme is that of finding conference proceedings. Our sympathies lie with the students on this one, as it seems conference publishers and cataloging decisions have conspired to make these unfindable without the help of a librarian. Our challenge is convincing the students that conference papers are worth the effort.

Tips & Conclusions

We have learned a great deal from the evolution of our classes, which can be summarized as a set of tips to other library instructors. Although these tips may not work in every instructional situation, we have found them essential to the success of our active learning sessions.


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Bonwell, C.C. & Eison, J.A. 1991. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Cashin, W.E. 1985. Improving Lectures. Idea Paper No. 14. Manhattan, Kans.: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development in Higher Education. [Online]. Available: [May 27, 2003].

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Engeldinger, E.A. 1988. Teaching only the essentials--the thirty-minute stand. Reference Services Review 16(4):47-50,96.

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Ragains, P. 1995. Four variations on Drueke's active learning paradigm. Research Strategies 13(1):40-50.

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