Exploring Students’ Decision-Making Processes in Information Literacy

The actor-oriented transfer perspective can help librarians learn how are students using information literacy skills and why they decide to use the skills in the ways that they do.

All librarians have favorite memories. One of Karen’s is the day a student asked her for a piece of one of the ships that had been present at the Boston Tea Party. He held out cupped hands and explained that he needed a primary source to discuss in his paper. He explained that he needed a piece of one of the ships, because the tea would have gotten too wet to survive the centuries. Unfortunately, like most libraries, this one was not fortunate enough to have that particular primary source.

Karen Sobel and Scott McLeod

Karen and the student talked through alternatives. Much of his reasoning was on target. He understood the assignment and had clearly absorbed certain messages about primary sources. The problem seemed to lie in his narrow understanding of what a primary source could be. The “pieces” were there; he was just overly optimistic about the artifacts that the library had to offer. Karen was able to quickly set him on a productive path.

Stories like this point toward the usefulness of an approach called the “actor-oriented transfer perspective” (AOT). Teachers and researchers in STEM education have been using AOT for about 15 years. The method was developed by Joanne Lobato at San Diego State University. AOT offers a set of practices for learning about the processes that students use to solve problems, from their own perspectives. Most AOT-based studies have been conducted with middle and high school students.

Making your case with AOT

AOT techniques allow librarians to gather rich information on students’ work and thought processes, directly from the students themselves. This is similar to the concept of usability testing in the technology industry, during which software and web designers solicit the input of users to better understand how they work with the products.

A librarian who performs AOT-based work will be able to answer two related questions: How are students using information literacy skills that we have taught them? and Why are students deciding to use the skills in the ways that they do?

Imagine that students in a high school history class have an assignment where they have to find a primary source and write about the role that it might have played in a historical event. The history teacher and the school librarian team up to provide students with a lesson on finding primary sources, and to create some materials that students can read later if they need reminders. The librarian decides to conduct a small AOT-based study to learn more about how his students work with primary source materials. He randomly selects five students from the class. He sits down with each of them and asks them to identify the primary source that they would like to use for the project through an online search. He asks the students to narrate their process as they go. When he wants to better understand why a student has made a particular choice, he asks about reasoning while doing his best not to sound critical. After working with all five students individually, he compiles major findings about their processes. He notes the ways in which the processes that he and the history teacher had shared with the class appear in students’ decision-making classes, and where students seemed to prefer alternative methods. He also identifies a few misunderstandings—such as the student who believed that he must be able to find a piece of one of the ships present at the Boston Tea Party, which was not a realistic choice in this scenario.

The librarian and the history teacher look through the findings together. They decide on a few messages that they want to share with the students now, to help them succeed with the assignment. They also make notes on how they might update the assignment next year. This is enough for their current goals. However, they decide together that, when they have more time, they may gather more evidence and use it to plan a professional presentation on their methods. They may also want to use it to apply for a grant to create a more robust project on teaching primary source research in high school.

Phases of an AOT-based project

Librarians who perform an AOT-based project can incorporate several stages to help them understand the varied aspects of their students’ decision-making. If you’re thinking of putting a project together, consider what you would get out of each stage, as well as how much time and support you have.

The most common phase of an AOT-based project involves meeting with individual students and asking them to work through one or a few challenges, narrating their work as they go. When a student makes a choice that also could have been done another way, the librarian asks them why they opted for that method instead of others but does not otherwise disagree or try to teach the student a better choice. This is an information collection stage, not a teaching stage.

For example, a librarian might show a student a sample essay assignment in which the student would research and write about an aspect of the Boston Tea Party. She might ask the student to talk about how he would determine what the information sources the project required. The librarian then could ask the student to select two or three resources that he might use and to explain his choices as he went along. The librarian would take detailed notes throughout the session. Typically the librarian will meet one-on-one with several students. She might select students at random, or she might work with a teacher to identify students who were likely to take different approaches to the assignment. The librarian asks each chosen student to solve a problem while verbally walking her through the process. At points where the librarian feels that the student could have chosen to solve the problem in a different way, they ask the student to explain this choice. When the student makes a mistake in terms of the process, the librarian continues to ask about the student’s reasoning without criticizing the choice. However the student chooses to solve the problem, the librarian focuses on following their reasoning rather than on evaluating right or wrong answers.

Many AOT-based projects also include a phase in which a group of students actively solves a problem together. A librarianor the students’ teachertypically videotapes the interactions, then watches and analyzes it later for trends in the ways that students solved problems when working on their own. Specifically, they look for insights into how students chose to solve problems when they could have done so using one of several methods. The librarian also watches for points of confusion, especially in terms of misunderstanding when to use techniques. This phase emphasizes another focus of AOT: how students collaboratively use skills that they have learned in the classroom, particularly when they bring different strengths to their group. This group phase shows what students can accomplish when they support each other through collaborative strengths.

Most AOT-based projects involve gathering the materials that a teacher uses to teach students the skill sets needed to solve problems. These may include lesson plans, activities, worksheets, visuals such as posters, presentation slide decks, and more. The librarian examines these to examine what students have been told to focus on when they are working with the skill sets.

Librarians also can collect examples of prior student work that illustrate their use of the same skill sets. They look for connections between the things the teacher guided them to focus on while they used their new skills--in lesson plans, activities, and more--and the ways students chose to perform their work.

Ultimately, librarians using AOT approaches can look at all of the evidence they have gathered and make detailed notes on the content of each student interview, group interaction, or piece of student work. All the while they are looking for common themes or points of confusion, which point toward instructional aspects that help students decide to use the skills appropriately as well as aspects that could be revised for clarity. All of this AOT work supports more effective skill instruction by both teachers and librarians.

At its simplest

School librarians may not have the time to carry out a multi-step project. We appreciate that. AOT is about better understanding the decisions that students make using the variety of methods with which they’re familiar. If you are short on time--or just want to know more about your students’ thought processes in a certain aspect of their workfocus on a few one-on-one conversations. Ask students to talk you through their process on a sample assignment from you or a teacher. When you can think of different ways that they could have approached the process, ask them why they chose one approach rather than another.

The power of flaws

One of the most appealing points of AOT is its positive approach to students’ flawed decision-making. Instead of focusing on mistakes, AOT focuses on student reasoning. When a student explains, for example, that primary sources on the Boston Tea Party must either be tea or pieces of ships present at that event, librarians can use that as an opportunity to revisit what we and teachers say to students about primary sources.

Good luck with your self-study. Support each other in some AOT-oriented projects and let us know you are doing or if you want to brainstorm.

Karen Sobel is a teaching and learning librarian and associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver’s Auraria Library. Her work focuses on helping undergraduate and graduate students build information literacy skills that they can adapt over a lifetime. Scott McLeod is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado Denver. He is widely recognized as a leading expert on preschool to Grade 12 school technology leadership.

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Martha Leonard

This was a very interesting article. The memories it aroused in me reminds me of how all of us adults and students come to different learning situations with various preconceived ideas. I am reminded of a little first grader who ran into my school library and enthusiastically proclaimed that all the letters in his name were in the alphabet. What amazing learning occurred within him when I elaborated on the teacher's lesson and just as enthusiastically told him that all the letters in everybody's name and for that matter all the letters in all the words we speak and write were in the alphabet. "Wow!" was all he could say. What fun it would have been to introduce him to other alphabets at another time. On a higher and more sober level I was reminded of time when I was volunteering in the Friends of the Library Used Book Store. The older women I was working with had a strong accent and one thread of conversation led to another on this slow day of few customers. Soon I had heard her say she had immigrated to the states in the late 1940's at 18 years of age all alone. How and why was that I wondered aloud. Before I could find my words to ask, she had slowly nodded yes and pushed up her sleeve. She was showing me the unwanted tattoo of the concentration camp. Here was a real primary source, So many things I wanted to ask her, but so many things were hidden too deepen within her. No, she would not talk about any of that. No she would not be interviewed. She only wanted to look at the bright side life like her beautiful flower garden not the horrific dark terrible things she had suffered as a teenager. Her own family knew little of her war experiences or her family of origin. To them her life began when she set foot on American soil. Our best primary resources are, of course, the living and breathing ones. Students should have experience extracting information from them while they can. Old family letters need to be preserved as do information rich e-mails. Why did I not take notes of the little she was telling me? Some months passed and I was attending her funeral. No mention was made even then that she had been a holocaust survivor.

Posted : Oct 15, 2019 03:26



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