Category Archives: Active learning

An experiment in using Twitter to foster student engagement and information literacy

This semester I am attempting two very different experiments in my classes, though both aim to foster greater student engagement with course material. One experiment — which I will write more about later — involves developing a role-playing scenario modeled on Reacting to the Past to teach the intellectual and political conflicts of the Reformation in 16th century European Christianity. The other is to require students in my Core course, Theology of Work, to tweet about their reading and writing between classes.

What possessed me?

A couple of experiences coalesced at the right time to make the Twitter experiment seem appealing. First, I had an exchange via Twitter with a couple of bloggers who are, like me, interested in how to make theological sense of work. By the end of the conversation, I had gained a new way to think about the issue, and I realized that this was exactly the kind of conversation I wanted my students to be able to have by the end of the course. Past experience had told me that they could do it, but I hadn’t really given them the opportunity.

Around the same time, one of the reference librarians at King’s told me that the Association of College & Research Libraries was about to approve a new Framework for Information Literacy, which would emphasize using information in the process of inquiry within a community of inquiry, with the aim of creating new knowledge. This framework helped me to imagine my course as a node within the wider conversation about theology and work and my students as producers of knowledge that others in that conversation could benefit from.

Twitter seemed like a simple way to realize both of these insights. With Twitter, it is absurdly easy to locate, listen in on, and contribute to conversations occurring on any topic. If I required my students to tweet about their reading assignments between classes, then I could use those 140-character essays as springboards for in-class discussion. This could save time in class, as so many of the basic points of the reading would already be on the table. Additionally, students could engage with others who care about the issues we address in class.

Successes: Bringing experts to students

The preliminary results have been good. Especially taken as a whole, the students’ between-class tweets do zero in on the major issues I would want them to pick up from the reading. I don’t need to begin class by asking, “So, what did you find in the reading?” It’s all there, already Storified. Once class begins, it’s projected on the screen.

In terms of engagement with wider conversation, we had  a big win on the first night of class, when David Graeber, anthropologist at the London School of Economics, wrote back to students who had mentioned him in their Tweets about an essay he wrote on “bullshit jobs.” Graeber’s comments really helped clear up a misconception we’d had about the essay. When I was a college student, an exchange like this would have been impossible. It would be as if I made a comment about a John Rawls essay, and then five minutes later, the phone rang, and Rawls was on the line wanting to speak with me.

We also used Skype to bring a great writer on religion and economics, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, into class to speak with the students about how she has used various electronic platforms, including Twitter, to generate and communicate her ideas. We spoke as well about how intellectual authority is constructed (a key element in the ACRL Framework). Liz began her writing career at the end of her college career; at first, she wrote out of her expertise on living in Boston during the Marathon bombing and its aftermath. An expert doesn’t have to be a 50-year old with multiple degrees. By the end of the course, my students should begin to think of themselves as experts who are “developing their own authoritative voices” on the course topic.

Since then, the class hashtag has gotten some notice from other bloggers and academics.

And other authorities have helped us understand more about their areas of expertise because we’re tweeting about things they know about.

Cautions: No one is used to this

While we have had some interactions with people outside our classroom, we can stand to have a lot more. Students are used to hearing their professors tell them to put their phones away when they study. They are not used to thinking of social media as academic tools. Similarly, we tell students all the time that they cannot seek outside help on their assignments, so it may seem strange for them to hear me encourage them to reach out to living, breathing experts and expect a response. This week’s assignment is meant to address that; students must use Twitter to link to and comment on a blog, mentioning the author’s Twitter handle.

There also has not been much student-to-student interaction on Twitter. I need to do more to make that happen. When I reply to a student’s tweet, usually by asking a question their tweet prompts, they nearly always reply back. I may try mentioning more than one student in my replies, thereby potentially starting conversation among a few students who had different ideas. It can take hard work to get students to speak to each other (and not just to me) in the classroom; it’s no easier to make that happen online.

Do you have ideas about how to help students form intellectual communities within and beyond the classroom? If so, please say so in the comments.


Supporting Stronger Papers & Research: Digital Research & Course Guides at King’s College

This is the second of two blog posts about the recent workshop “Supporting Stronger Papers & Research,” offered at this year’s Teaching for Technology Day by Adam Balcziunas (Electronic Resources Librarian) and Andrea Baer (Instruction/Reference Librarian). This post looks at the digital research guides LibGuides as a way to support student research. The previous post discusses the citation manager Zotero as a tool for collaborative learning.

The wealth of information now available in the Internet age has greatly complicated how we and our students approach research. Data deluge, the varying quality of online information sources, and students’ overconfidence in their ability to locate and evaluate relevant information are just a few of the challenges instructors face when teaching research practices and critical use of information.

One tool which supports both faculty and students in teaching and learning about the research process is the online research guide. Recently the King’s College Library began developing such digital research guides through the platform LibGuides. These guides point students and researchers towards quality information sources, while also offering research tips and explanations of certain research concepts and practices. To see the Library’s current list of research guides please visit

More guides will be developed this summer and throughout the fall. If you are interested in having a guide created for a particular course, topic, or discipline, please contact one of the King’s librarians (contact information below).

Course Guides

Guides can be created for a specific discipline, topic, or course. While guides for a discipline tend to be broader in scope, course guides are targeted to the particular needs of students in that course. Research has shown that course guides are perceived to be especially helpful. According to a study of LibGuides conducted at Cornell University and Princeton University, 85% of faculty perceived an improvement in students’ assignments, and 100% stated the guide was valuable for class (Horne & Adams, 2009). Of the students surveyed, 90% found the guides to help with assignments, and 90% said they would like a LibGuide for future courses. (Horne & Adams, 2009).

Given this data, the King’s librarians are especially interested in collaborating with faculty to create guides that will be support your students’ learning and your teaching. A course guide might include instructions and tips for an assignment, suggested resources for the class or for an assignment, or information about a key concept or issue explored in the class. The form that a guide takes depends largely on the needs of the students and instructor. If you have an idea for a course or research guide please let us know!

Below are our email addresses:
Andrea Baer –
Adam Balcziunas –
Janet Ruddy –
Marianne Sodoski –

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Adam Balcziunas for his research on the use and reported effectiveness of LibGuides.

Horne, A., & Adams, S. (2009). Do the outcomes justify the buzz?: An assessment of LibGuides at Cornell University and Princeton University. Presentation presented at the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) 2009 Annual Conference, University of Washington. Presentation retrieved from

Teaching with Zotero: Building Learning Communities & Research Skills

This is the first of two blog posts about the recent workshop “Supporting Stronger Papers & Research,” offered at this year’s Teaching for Technology Day by Adam Balcziunas (Electronic Resources Librarian) and Andrea Baer (Instruction/Reference Librarian). The first post discusses the citation manager Zotero as a tool for collaborative learning; the second entry looks at the digital research guides LibGuides as a way to support student research.    

At last week’s Teaching for Technology Day, I asked faculty what challenges they face with giving student research assignments. Getting students to find credible sources, to evaluate sources critically, and to research through tools other than Google: these are very common frustrations for instructors who incorporate a research component into their curriculum. Most students tend to resist researching beyond Google, and perhaps even fewer carefully evaluate their sources and integrate them into their work in critical and reflective ways.

How can instructors respond to these student tendencies? While there is no magic answer to this question, there are numerous ways of developing the research components of a course that encourage more critical and reflective engagement in the research process. The online citation manager Zotero is one rich technology tool that can serve this goal.


Zotero is an online citation manager that functions as an Add-on in the web browser Firefox. In short, Zotero allows you to collect, organize, cite, and share research sources online.


Basic functions of Zotero

  • Access sources online
  • Create bibliographic citations
  • Organize sources into folders
  • Add attachments, notes, and tags to sources
  • Share sources with individuals or groups
  • Create group libraries

Gathering sources: Zotero simplifies the process of gathering and managing sources when researching through databases, library catalogs, and the Internet. As the Zotero software “reads” the bibliographic information in, for example, a list of database articles, you can add any or all of those sources to your Zotero library with a couple of clicks.

Note: No citation manager is perfect; they will make mistakes in formatting citations. When teaching Zotero, emphasize to students that they must check their citations for accuracy. A citation manager is no replacement for understanding the guidelines for any given citation style.

Managing sources: Citations can be organized into folders, and tags, notes, and attachments such as PDFs can be added to individual citations. You can then search your Zotero library using keywords.

Sharing sources: If you wish to share your library with others, invite individuals to view and/or add to your library. There is also an option to make the library entirely public, though you should not do this if includes attachments of copyrighted material, such as database articles.


  • Support group and individual research and writing projects
  • Encourage evaluation of sources (add tags and notes to sources)
  • Build learning communities and information sharing
  • Track student progress

Gathering and evaluating sources: Used in its simplest form, Zotero helps students to manage their sources for research projects. Having a central place to store citations and comment on them can facilitate reflection on and integration of the sources into a paper or other research assignment. The ability to add notes to individual citations is especially useful for encouraging evaluation of the relevance and credibility of sources. This focus on evaluation discourages students from simply throwing in sources for the sake of meeting an assignment requirement.

Supporting group work and community building: Zotero becomes an especially exciting teaching tool when used for collaborative projects. Individuals can share their sources with others, and can explain to one another how those sources support their academic work. Furthermore, students can offer one another feedback on their evaluations and uses of specific sources. Through such conversations, students have opportunities to build learning communities and to develop understandings of scholarship and research as parts of a dialogic and often communal process. (To further reinforce the importance of evaluating sources, an instructor might use Zotero to help in conducting a peer workshop on source evaluation and/or on integration of sources into a larger assignment.)

Tracking student progress: Many faculty express their frustration with the quality of sources used in student papers. Often in these instances the instructor does not know what sources the student planned to use until the final paper has been submitted.

A great advantage of Zotero’s shared libraries is the ability to assess student work over time. Instructors, by emphasizing to students the process of evaluating and integrating sources into an assignment, and by checking student progress at several stages, can increase the likelihood that students will incorporate sources in more reflective and meaningful ways.


Zotero has clear relevance for annotated bibliographies and research projects and papers. Literature professor and ProfHacker blog author Brian Croxall assigns an Annotated Zotero Group Bibliography with clear and detailed instructions. He recommends assigning multiple due dates for various stages of an assignment. This way students can receive feedback during their research process, and they are discouraged from completing all their work in one night. Professor Anne-Marie Deitering also provides an excellent example of her Zotero group bibliography assignment.

When assigning a Zotero bibliography, you may also wish to consider these general suggestions:

  • Provide detailed assignment guidelines.
  • Make clear how/where to get technical support if needed.
  • Use folders and tags to identify key concepts and to organize sources.
  • Use notes to evaluate relevance and credibility of sources.
  • Have students provide feedback to peers on usefulness of sources.


The very basics steps for getting started with Zotero are below. For more detailed instructions please see this Zotero research guide (thanks for Jason Puckett of Georgia State University Libraries for permission to copy and modify the guide), or contact me at also provides extensive documentation and easy-to-follow tutorials.

  • Download Zotero from through the web browser Firefox.
  • Create a free Zotero account at
  • Log into your Zotero account to save citations to your online library.
  • Access citations and add anywhere with Internet access.
  • Save citations directly from the Internet or from databases, or add citations manually.
  • Create a Zotero group. Invite members.

If you use Zotero with any of your classes or students, I would love to hear about your experiences.

Constructivism and active learning

In a new post at Faculty Focus, Maryellen Weimer calls attention to Joel Michael’s “Five Key Principles of Active Learning.” The first principle:

Learning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner. This well-established principle involves the fact that students link new information with information that they already know. New and old information are assembled into mental models. If the old information is faulty, that compromises the learning of new information. “Learning can be thought about as a process of conceptual change in which faulty or incomplete models are repaired.” (p. 161) Fixing faulty mental models can be very difficult, as witnessed by research documenting that even after taking a course (physics is often used as an example), students still hold serious misconceptions.

In other words, constructivism, with its attendant challenges, is a key presupposition of active learning. If students aren’t building or rebuilding new mental models, then they are not actively learning. This leads right into the second principle, that “Learning facts and learning to do something are two different processes.” This may account for the struggles many “good” students face early in college.

What steps do you take to help students replace old mental models to new ones? What obstacles have you encountered in attempting this?

Constructing learning

We can probably all agree that students learn best when they are thinking, whether that means that they are thinking along with a lecturer or are thinking aloud with their peers. But what is actually going on in the learner’s brain? On one influential account, students learn when they construct a new understanding of the material. This outlook on learning is the theory of constructivism.

CELT recently hosted the first in a planned series of brown-bag discussions of the literature on constructivism. Participants came to a few conclusions about constructivism’s prospects and limitations and evaluated some examples of how a constructivist theory of learning can inform concrete in-class pedagogy. Continue reading