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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2014


Breaking Ground: Improving Undergraduate Engineering Projects through Flipped Teaching of Literature Search Techniques

Tasha Maddison
Science Liaison Librarian
Engineering Library

Donna Beneteau
Sessional Instructor, Drill/Blast/Excavate
Department of Civil and Geological Engineering

Brandy Sokoloski
Summer Research Assistant (and Drill/Blast/Excavate Student)
Department of Civil and Geological Engineering

University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan


This case study describes the use of flipped teaching for information literacy instruction in a new course, Drill, Blast, and Excavate GeoE 498, within the mining option for geological engineering (GeoE) students. These students will enter the mining industry with less discipline-specific knowledge than a student that graduated with a degree in mining engineering, yet on-the-job training provided by the employer will fill in most of the technical gaps. Engineers in the workplace can connect to information sources online and do not need to rely solely on co-workers, short courses, and conferences for upgrading their knowledge. With this in mind, we developed a flipped teaching assignment to teach students how to effectively and efficiently access electronic information on topics faced by geological engineers in the field. The course included a research project that allowed the students to practice these information retrieval and evaluation techniques so as to better prepare them for the working world. Student feedback revealed a high level of engagement in the discovery of these research strategies and the instructor noted that these techniques were applied successfully in the students written reports and oral presentations.


In a flipped classroom, a student's 'homework' happens before the class, in the form of assigned readings and/or video captures of lecture content. The 'lecture' or classroom time then is used to elaborate on key concepts or themes from the homework (readings or recorded lecture content) using interactive activities that are directly related to the course materials. Class time may also be used to work on course assignments under the supervision of the instructor. The concept of flipped teaching is not unique, as many undergraduate English majors are familiar with in-depth literature studies that rely on them having read the text in advance. While it could be argued that humanities and social sciences have been using the flipped teaching method for many years (Berrett 2012) it is the addition of video captures of lecture content and the inclusion of active learning principles in class, which really define flipped teaching. Flipped teaching is generally described as the "inver[sion] of the traditional lecture-plus-homework formula. By moving the delivery of foundational principles to digital media ... class time is freed up for engaging activities that allow students to apply these basics to practical scenarios in the presence of their instructor" (Arnold-Garza 2014, pg. 10). The flipped teaching approach is typically most successful when the instructor is already well versed in adding active learning techniques into classroom activities in which all students are encouraged to apply their learning.

The impetus for this application of the flipped teaching method for the Drill, Blast and Excavate course was grounded in collaboration between the librarian and the instructor and their desire to improve the student's research skills. Their initial meeting centered on a search query that the instructor found arduous, thus seeking assistance from the librarian. The conversation quickly evolved into a discussion of information literacy principles and how this query could be used to demonstrate efficient search strategies to students in the class. Both the instructor and the librarian worked together for the next four months developing the content for the information literacy session. The librarian correlated all of her in-class activities to the capstone research assignment that would be assigned to students by the instructor.

A subsequent goal for this class was to showcase subscription-based literature resources that are available only to those directly affiliated with the university as well as to highlight alternative information sources that are openly accessible to all. According to Musser (2007) "journal articles remain the most heavily used format, followed by conference papers, books, technical reports, dissertations/theses, and other materials -- the same order of importance as engineering as a whole." The 'homework' video demonstrated to students how to access online journals from several sources as well as several search strategies for finding relevant research materials as it is critical that students understand how to retrieve this type of information. The primary in-class activity focused on the evaluation of materials for authority, creditability, accuracy, etc. along with an exercise comparing various aggregated sources. The instructor felt that it was essential to teach these students the value of published literature, and not to rely solely on web sites as their main source of information. It is imperative that students can efficiently retrieve relevant information for their studies, but also to encourage them to publish valuable case studies whether they end up working in industry or pursuing an academic career in the future.

Literature Review

It was possible to conduct a comprehensive literature review of the library research, as there is very limited coverage of this technique with regards to library instruction in higher education at the moment. Indeed a survey of library databases reveal limited resources but valuable information on the topic. Literature searches were conducted using only the term 'flipped' to broaden the scope as much as possible in library databases and then the results were filtered for academic and/or higher education and/or library applications.

Roehl, Reddy, and Shannon (2013) expand the definition of flipped teaching by acknowledging the use of "class time for active learning versus lecture provides opportunities for greater teacher-to-student mentorship, peer-to-peer collaboration and cross-disciplinary engagement" (pg. 44). The authors go on to suggest that flipped teaching is most successful in "courses in which a lecture is primarily based on disseminating information and learning occurs when students apply these instructions to complete a task or an assignment" (Roehl, Reddy and Shannon 2013, pg. 46). Strong parallels can be drawn from the author's research to information literacy instruction in libraries that provides students with foundational research principles and then asks students to apply those skills by searching, retrieving, evaluating, synthesizing, and summarizing the research literature. Roehl, Reddy and Shannon further suggest that "teachers must include clear expectations of self-direction" (2013, pg. 48), a point which is echoed by Ebbeler. The concept of flipped teaching needs to be introduced to students and the instructor will need to spend "time training students in how to take such a class, and in what their role in a flipped class will be (and what yours is)" (Ebbeler 2013). Ebbeler (2013) also raises some interesting points regarding students and their expectations of the classroom setting as "[she] soon discovered ... that nobody told the students they were supposed to hate lectures. They were genuinely disoriented when [she] didn't spend class time lecturing."

Arnold-Garza (2014) and her colleagues at Towson University endeavored to understand the effectiveness of providing information literacy instruction using a flipped teaching method through a pilot project that assessed 14 sessions delivered by seven librarians. The homework given to students in advance of the library instruction were repurposed tutorials that had previously been available through the library's help guides. In addition to the video tutorials, "each assignment included a quiz or other task ... provided an opportunity for students to reflect on their own understanding of the materials, and gave librarians an idea of the number of students who completed the assignment" (Arnold-Garza 2014, pg. 11). The in-class session began with a brief review of the materials followed by structured or unstructured activities based on a specific assignment, where "librarians guided students through active learning exercises that required them to apply the concepts introduced by the pre-library session assignment" (Arnold-Garza 2014, pg. 11). Assessment for this pilot project was conducted through a post-instruction questionnaire as well as group interviews "conducted by librarians ... to gather more detailed feedback about their observations" (Arnold-Garza 2014, pg. 11). Although the librarians struggled to determine the level of engagement of students and their understanding of the materials, the professors felt very positively about the overall outcome of the library instruction session as noted in their personal comments (Arnold-Garza 2014, pgs. 12-13).

Datig and Ruswick (2013) offer many practical suggestions for the implementation of the flipped teaching method into information literacy instruction through four separate librarian led activities: searching databases, keyword searching, web site evaluation, and identifying source types (pgs. 250-251). A key factor in successful flips is developing a strong partnership with the faculty member as this technique relies heavily on the willingness of students to review the course content outside of class time. The faculty member can reinforce the importance of watching the video content in advance and then recommend that students enter the class prepared to work on a graded assignment or some other form of assessment directly tied to the curriculum. The collaboration between the librarian and the faculty member ensures that the assignment and/or assessment are relevant and appropriate for this particular group of students; so much the better if they create the assignment together. This approach "requires the librarian to relinquish control and authority over the classroom" (Datig and Ruswick 2013, pg. 257), thus relying on the confidence of the librarian with the materials when participating in student-led learning as the agenda may not always go according to plan.

Drill, Blast and Excavate (GeoE 498)

The first iteration of this class with 13 students, was offered in the winter term of 2014. Preparation for the library instruction session started in October 2013, while the class (both homework and lecture components) were delivered in early January. Prior to the in-class session, students were provided with an instructional video on advanced research techniques that was prepared by the librarian. The instructor also disseminated Assignment1A (Appendix A) that corresponded with the video content which was to be completed by the next class. The overall assignment involved four steps, as outlined below:


  1. Watch the 14-minute video at home on search techniques for the query, mine "slimes" from underground. This topic was chosen due to the complex nature of finding relevant information on this topic.
  1. Answer Assignment sheet 1A prior to the next class. The questions included were:

In-Class Activities

  1. The class met in a computer room with the librarian for a hands-on workshop using the techniques showcased in the video. Part of the purpose for the hands-on instruction component was to evaluate their search techniques and the results they obtained for the search query, blasting accidents. Students were provided with Assignment 1B (Appendix B) that was to be completed before leaving the class. Questions included:
  1. The students were requested to provide one article obtained through interlibrary loan before the end of the term, detailed in Assignment 1C (Appendix B); so that they could experience how easy it is to retrieve material that is not available in the campus library.

In addition to the library instruction session, the instructor demonstrated information literacy skills throughout the course by noting all the sources that were used to develop course materials in order to acknowledge the variety of sources available such as scholarly and/or grey literature in mining engineering, as well as the value of the research process and how it affects the construction of knowledge. The students were assigned an overarching research project and tasked with presenting on this topic at the end of the semester. Integrating search strategies was an important building block around which this course was developed. Students were encouraged to use all sources of information including but not limited to Wikipedia, Google Scholar, web resources (government and industry), books, and subscription-based online access to conference proceedings and journal articles available through the library, such as, Engineering Village, Scopus, and ScienceDirect.


Results of this application of the flipped teaching method are limited due to the inherent components of conducting a case study as well as the small class size. It is impossible to state that the flipped method was more successful than the traditional delivery of information literacy instruction for these students, yet further investigation and application of this method in similar classrooms is warranted due to positive student feedback.

General questions about library instruction and students' confidence level conducting research were asked in advance of the in-class library session and feedback was also gathered afterwards. Students ranked their confidence before participating in the library instruction session at an average of 2.8 (standard deviation 1.2) out of 5. After the session, the average increased to 4.3 (standard deviation 0.5). Students watched the video an average of 1.7 times. Students felt that the video and the in-person class complemented one another as one offered skills-based knowledge that could be reviewed multiple times and the other allowed for application of those skills through interactive class activities. The small class made it easier to focus and students felt encouraged to ask questions.

The student evaluation of teaching queries the effectiveness of the librarian and also how the session was conducted. Students ranked the librarian's ability to hold their attention as 4.69 out of 5. Students were also asked if the information presented in class was useful, which rated 4.77 out of 5. Without a control group we cannot conclude that this feedback indicates that the flipped teaching method was more successful than a traditional lecture-based model; however, it does indicate that students were interested and engaged with the content and that the information was useful to them.

Overall, the general impression from the student feedback was that a combined video and lecture assignment was effective as each method of teaching has its strengths. Their before/after statistics regarding confidence suggest that the two hours invested in participating in both activities greatly improved their learning over the lecture-based method most had experienced in another class. Several students complained that this type of instruction helped them so much that they wish they had received it earlier in their academic career.

30% of the mark for the student's research projects was allotted to documenting and demonstrating the research process. This provided further feedback on their comfort with the research process, as noted by the students during their final presentations:


This case study demonstrated that there was a benefit for the librarian to engage the students with library instruction which was relevant to classroom activities, and as such the format in which the information was delivered could be very important. There is no disputing that signals of boredom are simply more obvious in the classroom as students disengage with the material and start playing on their phone, tablet or laptop. The flipped teaching method can be more challenging for instructors and librarians as providing this delivery mechanism requires creativity, time, and a reliance on active learning principles such as peer-to-peer learning and sharing of information, yet student engagement can increase due to their participation in active learning activities.

Another benefit for this particular class was that there were only 13 students. This smaller class fostered discussion and gave every student a chance to ask questions and discuss what they discovered in their own research. Similar classes in the engineering program typically use a lecture style format when teaching research methods, in classrooms of up to 120 students at a time where small group discussions can be problematic. In this case study, the feedback indicates that students did benefit from smaller class sizes where they have the freedom to ask questions, participate in peer-to-peer learning, and work in small groups. Flipped teaching can employ a number of different teaching methods ensuring that all students regardless of learning style (visual, auditory, etc.) have an opportunity to discuss their thoughts or opinions and ask questions. In pre-planning, larger classes could be subdivided into smaller groups to capitalize on the delivery of information literacy instruction when a lot of time is made available throughout the semester for group work. Another option would be to have the librarian work with individual teams to assist in the initial literature search on their topic. Students in GeoE 498 acknowledged that they would have benefited from this type of learning in their second year, so further discussion is needed with faculty members teaching those courses to identify if this type of instruction would be feasible.


Using flipped teaching requires significant planning in advance; for instance, discussion for this particular project was initiated in October and the instruction was delivered the following January. The video appealed to these students because they could learn at their own pace and then apply these skills to a research project that accounted for 10% of the overall mark.

The student projects very much highlighted what the instructor experienced while preparing the course. In the field of engineering, it is very important to critically evaluate all sources of information including textbooks, online journals, industry web sites, newspaper articles, government web sites, YouTube videos, etc. Mining is a fairly small community and those involved are using the Internet to provide resources that allows them to stand out amongst their competitors. The information is available and depending on the topic, different resources are more helpful than others.

Organizations like the ISEE (International Society of Explosives Engineers), ISRM (International Society for Rock Mechanics), and CIM (Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum) are starting to post technical libraries online. We must teach the engineering students not only how to access these resources, but also the importance of becoming future contributors. This video-lecture model provided students with an opportunity to see advanced search skills demonstrated, and then asked them to apply those skills in their own literature searches. Once skills are gained they can be broadly employed regardless of platform (subscription based or open access). Information literacy instruction is the first step in interactively teaching, where students are encouraged to continuously learn after they have moved on from a learning institution.

Finally, this example of flipped teaching could be applied successfully in any problem-based courses in the engineering curriculum where library instruction is appropriate. If part or all of the theory was delivered through videos, this would leave class time for additional sample problems. Instructors and/or librarians could provide fill-in-the-blank worksheets or mini quizzes to ensure that students are familiarizing themselves with the theory before class.

In future iterations of this class, further research should be conducted including the addition of a pre- and post-test to assess student learning outcomes.


Arnold-Garza, S. 2014. The flipped classroom: Assessing an innovative teaching model for effective and engaging library instruction. C&RL News 75(1): 10-13.

Berrett, D. 2012, Feb 19. How 'flipping' the classroom can improve the traditional lecture. [Internet]. [Cited August 22, 2014]. The Chronicle of Higher Education Blog. Available from:

Datig, I. & Ruswick, C. 2013. Four quick flips: Activities for the information literacy classroom. C&RL News 74(5):249-257.

Ebbeler, J. 2013. Introduction to Ancient Rome, the flipped version. The Chronicle of Higher Education 59(43). Available from:

Musser, L. 2007. A study of references in mining engineering publications. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 49. [Internet]. [Cited August 22, 2014]. Available from:

Roehl, A., Reddy, S.L. & Shannon, G.L. 2013. The flipped classroom: An opportunity to engage millennial students through active learning strategies. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences 105(2): 44-49.


Appendix A - Homework Part 1

Appendix B - Homework Part 2

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