New lesson plan: “Guided Pandemonium”

I tried a new lesson plan idea a couple of weeks back, and I’m not really sure how it went. It was a one-shot instruction session for an intro communications class; I’ve worked with this class and this faculty member before and it’s always gone well. The students are working on informative speeches on an aspect of popular culture (their choice) where they need sources to fill out their speeches, but they don’t necessarily need to be peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles – in fact, those often aren’t the best sources for them to use.

In the past, I’ve done a combination lesson plan where I break them into groups and give each group a reference book (St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Gale’s American Decades/American Eras series, etc.) and have them report back to the class about the book. Then we explore what I call “trusted site” web directories – hand-culled directories of useful links like Librarians’ Internet Index and the Internet Public Library. Then they get some time to search on their own using those directories.

This time, I wanted to try a more free-form approach, so I divided them into six groups from the get-go, assigned each group an information tool, and had the groups spend 10-15 minutes searching their tool for information about a sample topic. I had them vote to choose the sample topic: the choices were Dilbert, Playboy magazine, The Sound Of Music, diners, and Avon and/or Mary Kay Cosmetics. (And yes, I okayed the topics with the instructor first: she was totally cool with Playboy, and our computers are unfiltered, so… As it turned out, the students chose The Sound Of Music.)

The six information tools that were assigned to the groups were:

  1. Google
  2. Wikipedia
  3. A pre-selected set of reference books
  4. The library catalog
  5. Academic Search Premier
  6. Three “trusted site” directories: the two mentioned above, plus Intute from the UK.

Most of the class time was devoted to the groups reporting back to their classmates about what they found, with me interjecting comments designed to make sure that all the essential points were covered. There was also a handout, which was only distributed at the end of class, that reiterated the essential points, how to get to the various tools (URLs for web sites, call numbers for books, etc.), and other important information.

It was a lot of fun, and the students seemed really into it. But I’m not so sure how well it actually worked. I got the distinct impression that, of the sources available to them, the students came away thinking that Google and Wikipedia were the most productive. Sigh. The situation wasn’t helped by several factors:

  • We couldn’t find anything useful in Academic Search Premier. No, really! It was bizarre.
  • Our reference book collection isn’t particularly strong in music or musicals, so the “print sources” group had a hard time finding anything to use.
  • The Wikipedia article and the first page of Google search results were actually relatively reliable. They would have been less strong candidates if the students had needed scholarly articles, but for this assignment, they didn’t.

The assessment that I did at the end of the class – a combination of the “one minute paper” and the “muddiest point” assessment, where I ask the students to quickly write down one useful thing they learned and one thing they still have questions about – was inconclusive.  Lots of students said they liked learning about the “trusted site” directories, and a number mentioned Google Scholar as a useful resource.  I’ll be curious to follow up with the professor to find out what kinds of sources they ultimately ended up using for their speeches, and whether this worked better than the old lesson plan. The students were more engaged and active, but did they get a misguided impression of appropriate research?

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