Some new things I tried this semester, part 1: The workshop class

One of the biggest challenges I have as a teacher is when I get a class where the students have wildly different backgrounds and experience with doing research.  Some of them might be second-semester first-year students who have never done college-level research before; others might be juniors or seniors with a number of research projects under their belts already.  (Others might be juniors or seniors who have never done college-level research before, and that’s a whole other set of issues right there.)

How do you address students with such disparate backgrounds? How do you avoid boring the experienced students while leaving the inexperienced students in the dust?  And how can you tell exactly how experienced and capable the students really are, anyway?

None of the strategies for this kind of class that I’ve tried have really worked all that well for my students, or felt terribly authentic to me as a teacher. So I tried something different this semester: I’m calling it a “workshop” class because it’s a little bit like what happens in a creative writing class when students bring in their writing, read it together, and work together to try to make it stronger.1

What I did this semester was, for several classes where I suspected this would be an issue, I asked the professor to ask the students to do some research ahead of time, with very little guidance on what, how, or where they should search, and to bring to class at least one source that they’d found and be prepared to share it with the rest of the class, in whatever format seemed most convenient.2  For classes where the students were working in groups, we asked each group to bring a source.

Then during class, we looked at a selection of the sources that students brought in, talked about what made them good or less-good sources, talked about how they’d found them, and used those as springboards to talk about places to search (databases, Google Scholar, Google tips, etc.), searching strategies (Boolean, keywords, etc.), and evaluating what they find.  It’s a way to meet them where they are, acknowledge the skills that they already bring to class, and give them tools and strategies to take those skills further.

How well did it work? Well, for a few classes it worked very, very well — but these classes were doing slightly different kinds of searching than most library instruction classes look for.  In at least one class, it worked sort of well, but not as well as I would have liked.  On reflection afterwards, the problem seemed to be that I had in my head several Platonic ideal “not quite perfect, but imperfect in useful and instructive ways” sources that I hoped students would bring to class, so that we could use them as examples and talk about how they were imperfect and what we could learn about them. And I spent far too much time trying to make the sources that they did bring to class into those kinds of sources, when they really weren’t.

So next time, I’m going to come in with a few pre-selected sources that really are “not quite perfect, but imperfect in useful and instructive ways” so that we can talk about them explicitly, and then move on to what they actually found. Or maybe do it the other way around.

Stay tuned for the next New Thing I Tried This Semester: Summative Assessment!


  1. I’m deliberately avoiding saying “students workshop their writing” because verbification drives me bonkers.
  2. Students universally chose online sources and shared them by putting them up on the projector screen. Not one picked, say, a book.

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