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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2013

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Laboratory Logistics: Strategies for Integrating Information Literacy Instruction into Science Laboratory Classes

Kathleen Gregory
Assistant Professor
Science & Engineering Reference Librarian
University of Denver
Denver, Colorado

Copyright 2013, Kathleen Gregory. Used with permission.


Active learning is a hallmark of the traditional science laboratory class, making it a natural place for librarians to integrate active information literacy instruction. The course structure of science lab classes, particularly large entry-level undergraduate classes, can make the logistics of such integration a challenge. This paper presents two case studies, each highlighting a different method of providing information literacy instruction to large undergraduate science classes for non-majors. In the first, teaching assistants helped to provide instruction within scheduled lab periods; in the second, a set number of workshops occurred outside of the regular meeting times of the lab classes. To measure the success of these strategies, instructors, teaching assistants, and students provided formal and informal feedback. Evaluation of these results points to a third possible strategy for integrating library instruction into science lab classes. Moving librarian-led instruction online and reserving class time for activities mediated by teaching assistants may solve many of the logistical challenges to teaching information literacy in science labs.


Whether teaching students how to evaluate online information or to synthesize an organic compound, many instructors use strategies that will help their students to better understand a discipline. Active learning, directly engaging students in the learning process, is one approach to deeper levels of student understanding. Active learning requires that students not only interact with new information, but also reflect on their learning and employ higher order skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Bonwell & Eisen 1991; Prince 2004).

Laboratory classes are an ideal place to integrate the active learning approach. Science labs have long played a unique role in science education, providing an opportunity for inquiry-based investigative learning (Hofstein & Lunetta 2004). These classes provide an opportunity for hands-on experiences designed to help students further understand concepts learned in the classroom (Reid & Shah 2007). The modern lab provides students opportunities to learn specific procedures and instrumentation and to develop skills such as problem-solving and communication (Carnduff & Reid 2003).

Science faculty are not alone in using the lab environment to integrate active learning strategies. Librarians conducting information literacy instruction also can make use of labs to provide meaningful learning opportunities. Despite this seemingly natural association, the course structure of science labs, particularly large, undergraduate ones, presents challenges to librarians.

Lower-level undergraduate courses, particularly introductory-level classes or those designed to meet a science requirement for non-science majors, often have hundreds of enrollees attending multiple lecture sections. Each lecture section may have numerous lab sections with fewer students. It is possible to have 10-15 (or even more) lab sections associated with a single class, often instructed by graduate teaching assistants (TAs). In order to provide information literacy instruction within the context of science labs, librarians need a strategy for reaching all of the lab sections and for collaborating with both science faculty and the TAs.

The literature provides examples of successful active learning strategies that librarians implement within science lab classes (Quigley & McKenzie 2003; Hsieh & Knight 2008; Fosmire 2012; Flint 2013). However, there is little discussion about the most effective way to overcome these logistical challenges. A brief review of the methods used by librarians to deal with these logistical hurdles follows.

Literature Review

One common method that librarians employed when working with lab classes was to provide a single information literacy session within the context of a regularly-scheduled lab period. Bowden and DiBenedetto (2001a) provided information literacy workshops to 13 lab sections of approximately 20 students each. A primary and assistant librarian taught each class in the library's electronic classroom. Two weeks prior to the session, librarians presented the workshop to the lab teaching assistants, so that both the librarians and TAs could gain confidence with the lesson. Since different instructors presented the material, it was important to have a strict outline of the lesson plan to ensure consistency (Bowden & DiBenedetto 2001). Similarly, Martin (1986) conducted one information literacy session for each of the 25 lab sections of a general biology course by working with a team of two other librarians, splitting the instruction workload. Although instruction occurs only one time in such a model, it is possible to further embed information literacy into the curriculum through homework assignments, librarian-authored chapters in lab manuals, and other lab exercises (Ferrer-Vincent & Carello 2008). It can be challenging for a single librarian to meet with all the lab sections of a class, even for a "one-shot" session. However, some librarians claim that even though the demands of meeting with all of the lab sections personally are rigorous, the advantage of providing face-to-face instruction makes it worthwhile (Ferrer-Vincent & Carello 2008).

Other librarians met with lab classes multiple times throughout the course. Chemistry and biochemistry undergraduates at the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, received library instruction within three sequential courses (Peters 2011). Each course had an associated lab, and each lab received library instruction at least twice. In 2009, three lab sections of a single chemistry course received three different two-hour library workshops in one term. Although the specific logistics of the instructional effort were not available, the author mentioned that at least one, and possibly two, librarians monitored each section (Peters 2011). Teaching assistants completed the library exercises prior to the sessions in order to better assist students in the lab (Peters 2011). Petzold, et al. (2010) provided multiple instruction sessions to the learning groups associated with a large, lower-level undergraduate biology class. While not lab classes per se, the learning groups had many of the same qualities as lab classes: they were small in size, informal in nature, and led by graduate TAs. In this model, one librarian and one TA provided three, non-consecutive workshops to each of the learning groups throughout the term. While the project was an overall success, the authors noted that having librarians physically present for all of the learning group sessions may not be sustainable in the future, and that they might need to explore other instructional delivery methods (Petzold et al. 2010).

Other librarians experimented with alternative methods for delivering library instruction. MacMillan (2010) combined three lab sections that normally met separately into one 90-minute workshop. Not only did this method cut down on the number of instruction sessions that the librarian provided, but it also meant that each session had the extra support of the three regular lab instructors. For this larger group, one or two additional library staff members also provided assistance (MacMillan 2010). Alternatively, given the physical constraints of the library classroom, Schuetz (2009) split larger organic chemistry lab groups of 40 students into two subsections. While one section received instruction and performed exercises in the library classroom, the other group performed a library scavenger hunt (Schuetz 2009). Kearns and Hybl (2005) used other resources, such as science faculty and web tutorials, in their classes. Students in the Introductory Biology Program began their library instruction with a 30-minute discussion about the culture of scientific research led by the regular lab instructor. After an in-class experiment, students went to the library for a tour led by one of several librarians. The actual detailed library instruction occurred via a web-based tutorial and associated homework assignments (Kearns & Hybl 2005).

Librarians also used the multiple lab sections associated with a single curriculum as an opportunity to conduct research regarding the efficacy of scientific information literacy instruction. Fuselier and Nelson (2011) provided a single 50-minute information literacy class to four of seven lab sections; they demonstrated the effect of the classes by comparing the abilities of students that received instruction to those that did not (Fuselier & Nelson 2011). Shannon and Winterman (2012) taught a modified version of an existing information literacy program to only one section of a required lab class. By comparing the assignments of the experimental group to two control groups that received the previous method of instruction, they gained support for their new program (Shannon & Winterman 2012). Using lab sections as a platform for conducting research reduces the challenge of teaching a large number of classes during the experiment. However, if the research supports the efficacy of the program, librarians must face the logistical problem of providing instruction to all lab sections.

The below case studies present two different strategies used at the University of Denver to teach information literacy skills within the lab sections of large undergraduate classes for non-science majors.

Case Studies

The University of Denver is a private doctoral/research university. In the fall of 2012-2013, the university enrolled 5,394 undergraduate students and 6,262 graduate students. Of those students, a total of 20% of undergraduates and 6% of graduates enrolled in programs in the schools of Natural Science & Mathematics and Engineering & Computer Science (Quick Facts [updated 2012]). All undergraduate students complete classes in the university's Common Curriculum, a series of cross-curricular courses designed to introduce students to a variety of disciplines. Unless the students meet the Common Curriculum science requirement in another way (e.g., science majors, have transfer credits), they must take 12 sequential credit hours in courses exploring Scientific Inquiry in the Natural and Physical World. Students select one of nine possible course offerings in the departments of Biological Sciences, Geography & the Environment, Physics & Astronomy, Chemistry & Biochemistry, or Engineering to meet this requirement (Common Curriculum Matrix [updated 2010]). One librarian is responsible for information literacy instruction within the science, engineering, and mathematics departments.

Case Study #1: Using Teaching Assistants within Scheduled Lab Classes

In the fall of 2012, a faculty member approached the science librarian with the idea of restructuring the Common Curriculum biology class to focus on information literacy. Although the instructor would not teach the redesigned course until the following academic year, the librarian and faculty member decided to experiment with some proposed activities in the lab sections before that time.

The "information labs" occurred in two consecutive three-hour lab periods. A total of 129 students, split into eight lab sections of 8-20 students, enrolled in the class during the winter term; this meant that over a two-week period, 16 three-hour classes needed to be taught. Four teaching assistants regularly taught the lab classes, which met at various times between 9:00a.m. and 9:00p.m., Monday through Thursday.

It was not possible for the librarian to teach all eight of the lab sections. The biology faculty felt that it was important for all of the labs to meet according to their regular schedule, and due to a library renovation, the sessions needed to take place within the lab classrooms. In order to reach all of the classes, the librarian decided to teach five of the eight lab sections; the remaining three would be taught by TAs: two biology graduate students, and one library science graduate student. TAs not responsible for direct instruction would provide assistance as necessary within their regular classes.

The librarian and the library science graduate student attended the weekly biology TA meeting to introduce the project and to give the TAs an overview of the lab activities. The librarian also created extensive online research guides for each lab session; a tab viewable only to instructors was added to each research guide. The librarian used this tab to provide detailed lesson plans as well as passwords and links needed for the in-class lab activities. Each TA instructor observed a librarian-led class followed by a brief question and answer session. They also completed a two-question survey regarding their experience after each class that they taught. The first week, the response rate for the survey was 100%; only one TA completed the survey the second week. The survey questions and responses are detailed in Table 1.

Table 1. Questions and Responses for TA Survey



Week One

What was the best part about teaching today?

"Being in the classroom again and seeing students actively engage in the in-class exercises"

"Interactive surveys online"

"Student presentations, because they don't usually take an active role in class…"

Week Two

"Seeing students get excited about certain library tools…"

Week One

What was the most challenging part about teaching today?

"Getting the students to listen to each other when presenting"

"Making the lecture/PowerPoint presentation piece interesting for all students."

"Keeping students interested. Apparently they had a core curriculum course that covered research and writing and there was overlap with it, so I got some comments like ‘what is the point of this?' "

Week Two

"I could tell that some of the students weren't engaged during the lecture. I also found it difficult to tie social tagging to the importance of using controlled vocabulary for research."

The TAs thought that the best parts about teaching the information labs were the active learning strategies (such as student presentations and online student polling) and seeing students get excited about library resources. Classroom management and maintaining student interest during the lecture sections were among the more challenging aspects. One TA mentioned that the information seemed repetitious to some of his students. Another TA had difficulty connecting one of the in-class exercises regarding social tagging to the broader concept of the need for controlled vocabulary.

The librarian, all the TAs, and one of the faculty members involved in the project met for a debriefing session after the information labs were complete. In this meeting, many of the TAs said that they had learned something new during the sessions. The librarian suggested shortening the length of the sessions or combining material to just offer one session in the future. All agreed that the active learning strategies incorporated in the sessions were successful. One TA suggested that the sessions occur earlier in the academic year, as some of the students had already had similar library sessions in other classes. The TAs who did not teach said that they would like to be more actively involved next time, while those who taught seemed to wish that they had been less involved.

Students in the classes completed an anonymous pre-test at the beginning of the first information lab and a corresponding post-test at the end of the final lab. The biology faculty distributed the assessments using the lecture class Blackboard pages, rather than the pages associated with the lab sections. As a result, it was not possible to determine which students received librarian-led instruction and which had been taught by TAs.

The pre-test consisted of seven multiple-choice questions; two free-response questions were added to these questions for the post-test. The librarian designed the multiple choice questions to measure learning outcomes derived from the Information Literacy Standards for Science & Engineering/Technology (American Library Association (ALA)/Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)/Science and Technology Section (STS) Task Force on Information Literacy for Science and Technology n.d.). Table 2 lists the standard that was tested in each question, the desired learning outcome, and the percentage of correct answers on the pre- and post-tests.

Table 2. Pre-test and Post-test Results


ACRL/STS Standard

Learning Outcome Measured

Pre-test Correct Answers (%)

Post-test Correct Answers (%)

Question 1

Standard 1

Has a working knowledge of the literature of the field and how it is produced



Question 2

Standard 2

Selects the most appropriate information retrieval systems for accessing the needed information



Question 3

Standard 2

Constructs and implements effectively designed search strategies



Question 4

Standard 2

Selects the most appropriate information retrieval systems for accessing the needed information



Question 5

Standard 3

Summarizes the main ideas to be extracted from a scientific article



Question 6

Standard 2

Refinement of search



Question 7

Standard 1

Has a working knowledge of the literature of the field and how it is produced



The percentage of correct responses increased for five of the seven questions. Students' abilities to select the most appropriate retrieval systems, to construct and refine effective searches, and to summarize the main idea of a scientific article increased as a result of the information labs. Interestingly, the two questions that did not show an increase in correct responses measured the students' knowledge of how scientific information is produced. Students responded correctly to these two questions on the pre-test more than they did to any of the other pre-test questions. The difference between the percentage of correct responses on the pre-test and post-test is small, and may or may not be significant.

Librarians ask the two free-response questions added to the post-test at the end of all library workshops at the University of Denver. The first question asks students to identify the most important part of a workshop, and the second question asks students to list any topics that they would like to learn more about. In order to further assess student learning, the librarian used descriptive coding to code student answers for the first question to the Association of College and Research Libraries' Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (Association of College and Research Libraries 2000). The librarian then identified specific learning outcomes within the coded answers. The librarian chose to code the answers to the general information literacy standards, rather than to those specific to science and technology, in order to maintain consistency with the method used to analyze the responses for other library workshops. The librarian tallied the coded results for each outcome; Table 3 lists the top five learning outcomes identified by the students.

Table 3. Biology Learning Outcomes for Question 1

ACRL Standard

Learning Outcome

Number of Coded Responses

Standard 2

Search strategies


Standard 2

Search refinement


Standard 3



Standard 2

Specific databases


Standard 2

Discovery tool (Summon)


Students overwhelmingly identified aspects of Standard Two, particularly a knowledge of search strategies, search refinement, and specific databases, as the most valuable learning outcomes. Students also thought that learning how to evaluate resources was an important outcome of the information labs. The librarian designed the sessions to focus on three outcomes: evaluation, effective searching, and knowledge of how scientific information is produced. While the students identified the first two outcomes, they did not identify the third desired learning outcome as being a valuable part of the workshops.

Case Study #2: Out-of-Class Workshops

In the spring of 2013, the instructor of the Common Curriculum chemistry class asked the science librarian for assistance in introducing a research component to her lab classes. Ninety-eight students, divided into seven lab sections of 7-20 students, enrolled in the chemistry course; four TAs normally taught the lab sections. The librarian and faculty member decided that the best way to integrate instruction into the labs would be to offer five library instruction workshops during the course of one week. Rather than attending their regular lab meeting that week, students signed up to attend one of the workshops.

The librarian offered five one-hour workshops, including one session on Friday, a day when students at the University of Denver do not typically have class meetings. Most of the sessions took place in the afternoon, although one class occurred in the evening. As the library renovation had been completed, workshops were held in the library instruction classroom. TAs attended one of the workshops and took attendance at the session. They did not participate in the planning of the sessions, nor did the librarian provide any advance training for the TAs. Two weeks after the "library lab", students presented their research projects at a mini-poster session during their regularly-scheduled lab classes. The librarian was not responsible for assessment, but attended one of the mini-poster sessions to informally evaluate the finished products by looking at the students' bibliographies and discussing the research process with student groups.

At the end of the library workshop, students completed the standard library instruction feedback form, and identified the most important part of the workshop and any areas that they would like to learn more about. The librarian used the descriptive coding method described in the first case study to analyze the results of the first question. The top five reported learning outcomes are listed in Table 4.

Table 4. Chemistry Learning Outcomes for Question 1

ACRL Standard

Learning Outcome

Number of Coded Responses

Standard 2

Specific databases


Standard 2

Search strategies


Standard 2

Knowledge/use of library resources


Standard 2

Search Refinement


Standard 3



Students reported outcomes associated with Standard Two as the most valuable, particularly learning about specific databases and search strategies. Knowledge of general resources, such as the library web site, ranked third; students also mentioned learning to refine a search and evaluate resources as being important. The desired learning outcomes of this workshop differed from those in the biology information labs. The librarian designed the chemistry workshops to introduce students to locating chemical data and peer-reviewed literature effectively. The student-identified outcomes, particularly developing a knowledge of subject-specific databases and search strategies, mirror the librarian's goals for the session.

The librarian also evaluated the value of the workshop informally. A few students from the class set up individual research consultations with the librarian. In the course of the consultations, the students mentioned that they would not have known how to locate chemical information without attending the workshop. At the mini-poster session the librarian attended, the librarian examined the bibliographies that students included in their presentations. When asked, the students explained how they had used the resources listed in their bibliographies to locate particular chemical data or literature. Some groups discussed the research process better than others; the majority of groups, however, used resources introduced in the workshop in their bibliographies.

The chemistry faculty member reported that the majority of students attended one of the library workshops. Initially, the librarian was concerned that students would not be able to adapt their class schedules to attend a session offered outside of regular class time. A high attendance rate indicates that students did not have this problem. Offering the Friday and evening workshops may have helped to alleviate this potential problem.

Many of the TAs indicated that they learned something from the instruction session, and one approached the librarian after the workshop with further questions about her own research. However, the TAs did not have a deep knowledge of the requirements of the assignment, nor were they prepared to help students work on their projects during the session.


Many librarians have discussed the need for close collaboration with the TAs of lab classes (Martin 1986; Schuetz 2009; Peters 2011). There is not much of a precedent for using TAs to actually teach information literacy classes within the sciences. There are a few cases in the humanities where, due to a lack of human resources in the library, TAs provided library instruction. The success of these programs depended on extensively training the TAs and providing them with detailed, behind-the scenes support (Sult & Mills 2006; Samson & Millet 2003).

Using TAs to provide library instruction to the Common Curriculum biology students at the University of Denver presented some challenges. While the TAs responded positively to the active learning strategies used in the sessions, they also noted that it was challenging to make some of the connections between those activities and the content. Keeping students engaged during the presentation portion of the workshops was also challenging for the TAs.

The biology sessions did not completely fulfill the librarian's desired learning objectives. While the quantitative and qualitative results of the pre- and post-test indicated that students learned search and evaluation strategies, students did not appear to learn as much about the production of scientific information. While using TAs could have been a factor in this outcome, other variables such as student motivation, instructional design, or the content delivery method could also have contributed to this result.

Using TAs was a very time- and labor-intensive method. Not only was it necessary to create detailed lesson plans and training opportunities for the TAs, but the librarian also needed to gain buy-in for the project and convince the TAs that they had the skills necessary to conduct the sessions. This was no easy task, and was only partially successful. Two of the TAs were notably anxious throughout the training process; this anxiety may have been apparent in their instruction, leading to the students questioning the rationale behind the sessions. In contrast, the third TA, the library science graduate student, was excited about the opportunity to be involved in the project. Perhaps in future iterations of the course, library science students could be trained and used to provide library instruction, rather than using the regular lab TAs.

The TAs not involved in providing instruction indicated that they wished to have a greater role, pointing to a need to involve the TAs at some level in future classes. The results from the second case study also support this idea. The TAs for the Common Curriculum chemistry classes did not have a deep knowledge of the project; they were unable to answer questions about the assignment or to be of much help while students were performing-in-class searches. If they were more involved in the project, they might have assisted with the learning activities, with a greater personal investment in the classes. In future sessions, activities could be designed so that TAs would have a more active role; another possibility would be to involve them in the design of the sessions and assessments. Although both of these ideas would increase TA involvement, it is important to note that some of the logistical challenges to using TAs, such as advanced training and extra meetings, would still be present.

Offering a set number of out-of-class workshops presented fewer logistical issues. Students did not have a problem adapting their schedules to attend one of the sessions. Adding an evening and Friday session ensured that students with possible conflicts could still attend a session. The librarian taught a limited number of workshops and arranged her schedule to easily accommodate the classes. Student responses on the feedback form reflected the librarian's desired learning objectives for the session. Informal discussion and evaluation of student bibliographies also demonstrated the success of the workshops. In hindsight, a TA training meeting should have been scheduled in order to make better use of the TAs within the chemistry sessions. Even with advanced TA training, the amount of time required to prepare and deliver these classes would not have been inordinate.

In the next iteration of the biology class, information literacy will be integrated more deeply. Instruction will span three academic quarters, requiring the librarian to brainstorm new ways of providing instruction. A change in the format of the overall course may point to a solution to some of the logistical challenges. With recent grant funding, the biology instructor will transform the course into a hybrid class. In this new format, students will attend one 3-hour lab class and one 2-hour lecture period each week; the remainder of instruction will be online.

The lecture portions of the information labs could easily be transformed into short video tutorials, which students could watch online. The successful active learning strategies could then be integrated into the in-person lab classes. In this model, the TAs would be able to focus on what they liked most about teaching the classes, the in-class activities, while shifting the responsibility for the lecture back to the librarian.

This idea follows a broader trend in higher education to move direct instruction online and transform the classroom into an active, collaborative space (Bishop 2013). This method, known as flipping or inverting instruction, could be applied easily to other lab classes, or to classes at other institutions, as many libraries already have the infrastructure (e.g. video tutorials, online research guides, etc.) needed to move direct instruction online (Valenza 2012).

Science labs are a natural place to integrate active library instruction. Determining the best method to do that, however, requires a bit of experimentation. While the two methods used in the case studies were an overall success, flipping information literacy instruction is a strategy that will be examined in the future.


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