Formative Assessments: Our Compass for Understanding Affective, Cognitive, and Physical Aspects of Information Search Processes

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

I’m currently working with a section of American Literature/Composition students who have been asked to look at a historical or current event that embodies a degree of hysteria or abuse of power and compare that to the hysteria or abuse of power in the play The Crucible.   This research task is a fairly typical high school assignment for this text and course.  Initially, the teacher wanted me to cover five major areas of research in one class period in lecture format with no hands-on learning activities because she initially thought they had a greater degree of prior knowledge.   However, after a series of email conversations, we worked out a series of learning experiences to implement this week to address student learning needs in a richer and more meaningful way for students.   As many of you know, these collaborative conversations are sometimes really difficult and uncomfortable to broach, especially when you are new to a school or don’t know a teacher very well as you want to be respectful yet honest when you realize a particular request for instruction might not be realistic or effective for students.    I also try to remember that many teachers have never had the experience of working with a school librarian who is genuinely interested in being a co-teacher and instructional designer, so they might not want to ask much of you simply because they’ve never had that kind of expectation or instructional services.

We began our efforts earlier this week by introducing the students to specific databases and search tools in GALILEO through our project LibGuide.  We also talked briefly about some basic search features and tips for each of the databases.  I also showed students how to sign up for our EasyBib account and how to export potential sources to their EasyBib project bibliography.  In an ideal world, I would not attempt to cover so much territory in one session, especially with students who have little experience using databases, but when forging new collaborative partnerships with faculty, it often takes time to establish the trust and rapport needed to jointly fine-tune project pacing and the instructional design process.  It is also a regular challenge many school librarians face as we try to balance our desire to go deep with hands-on learning activities and time to engage in inquiry while respecting the pressures and time constraints classroom teachers face with pacing calendars, common assessments, and other aspects of modern classroom life.

Yesterday we formed “Birds of Feather” groups by research interest.   Topic areas/groups included McCarthyism, post 9/11 racial profiling, Japanese Internment Camps, and then “undecided” for students who were still exploring.   I created topic placeholders for each table to make it easier for students to self-form groups because I wanted them to work together to talk about search terms and databases they were trying so that they could hopefully tap into the power of collaborative thinking.   My plan was for them to collaborate as searchers, to work on their search maps, and then complete a group debrief/”ticket out the door” assessment we’d do with big sticky pads (see below).


Teens being teens, though, some decided to sit with friends rather than by topic; as a result, we lost a little instructional time because the teacher wanted to get them in the “like” groups at the beginning of the period before we proceeded any further.   Once everyone was settled in, though, we jumped into the day’s agenda:  I reminded them how to get back to the LibGuide (and they also had a set of notes/graphic organizer I had provided the day earlier to help them as well) and did a brief introduction to search mapping.    I did not take as much time as I normally would because:

1.  We had already lost about 10 minutes of class.
2.  I originally thought this might be an optional activity,  but after observing their initial seach efforts on Tuesday, I realized they needed this form of scaffolding to help them navigate the databases with some deliberation and intention.

I told the students I would collect their maps and whatever progress they had made as their ticket out the door and provide feedback the next day.  They then set about searching the databases and beginning their search maps; the teacher and I walked about providing feedback and answering questions with individual students and small groups. This was also a great opportunity to just observe and see what students were doing and how they might be thinking. Toward the end of the class period, I asked students to flip their maps over and complete the simple and fast self-assessment below:


I collected their maps at the end of class; this morning, I read through their work as well as their self-assessment reflections for about 90 minutes taking time to provide brief written comments and making notes about points of confusion and questions.  By looking at this simple self-assessment, I was able to see patterns of misunderstanding or difficulty while noting specific questions to address/answer.   In particular, I could see that students were struggling with:

  1.  Slowing down the process and doing pre-search with more intention as they worked with the search mapping process (new for all students).  This “slowing down” process  also included reading beyond skimming and scanning.   I call this “doing the work”; I recommend this brief but terrific post by Pegasus Librarian on this challenge of reading and search; also see her brilliant post Information Literacy in a Utopian High School.
  2.  Working through informational text—-some were having difficulty pulling out the big ideas, so I pulled together some resources from Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey on text annotation (this is not new or unfamiliar territory!).  I also decided to create a template for a Venn diagram to help students visualize their big ideas since the teacher had suggested that to some students yesterday, and it seemed to help them make sense of the research task (another area that I soon realized later in the day was a clear area of misunderstanding for some)
  3. How to deal with dead-ends with search terms and understanding that one database would not be enough for this research task as well as additional strategies for search terms specific to databases.

By looking at the students’ work, I could provide some specific written feedback and help resources (either in print format that I attached to their maps and/or as resources I added to the LibGuide this morning).

When students arrived today, we returned their maps.  I then shared how I had looked at their work and the three big areas of concern/patterns of response; I also showed them resources added to the LibGuide (handouts, graphic organizers, how to videos, website links) to help them negotiate those challenges.

I also tried to allay their uncertainty and discomfort by talking about the fact that search is often just difficult and takes a great deal of reading, browsing, and persistence in trying different strategies.   We also talked about “digging in”, making sure our conversation with peers was constructive, and advocating for ourselves by asking questions and choosing a different seat if the current workspace was too distracting.  Last but not least, we celebrated the exemplary search maps from Day 1, and I showed them where they could download or print a copy of these model search maps (which of course are still in progress) on the LibGuide.

The class was then given the rest of the period to continue their presearch/search mapping , and they were encouraged to seek help from both me and the teacher.  She circulated about and answered content related questions for the research task while I set up an area where students could come and do 1:1 or small group conferencing with me, an activity that was very insightful for me as well as the students.    These mini-conference/conversations were very revealing and helped me see that some students just needed verbal reinforcement of what to do while others clearly didn’t understand the research task at all.  Other students needed a visual graphic organizer to unpack the research task (see this simple Venn diagram I was inspired to create for the students after hearing Ms. Sidell, their teacher, suggest it to a student yesterday).

Sidell Venn Diagram

It was also a great opportunity to ask students about what they had learned in their initial reading yesterday, and that opened up honest yet encouraging conversations with individual students about taking time to actually read the texts and the importance of reading in developing search vocabulary and ideas for interpretation and discussion in their papers.

These two methods of formative assessment in 24 hours reminded me to look to the work of Carol Kuhlthau to help me contextualize much of what I was seeing and  hearing from the students.    Her Information Search Process model underscores the affective aspect of information seeking behaviors and reminds us that we need to help students acknowledge, honor, and own the feelings of confusion, doubt, and frustration that can come with the messiness of Initiation and Exploration.  Teachers, students, and librarians can embrace the discomfort and leverage these teachable moments as opportunities to help students hone and grow their strategy toolkit that will ultimately help them develop persistence and resilience in the face of challenging information seeking tasks.  I highly recommend you read these three posts from my colleagues and fellow practitioners Heather Hersey, Marci Zane, Meg Donhauser, and Cathy Stutzman:

As many of you know, working through these rough patches is often a healthy mix of tough love and patient TLC with a generous helping of practical strategies for learners.  By engaging in formative assessment in various formats early in the inquiry process, I stay grounded and can better understand the stumbling blocks for the students.   It also helps me to unpack what might initially be seen as negative behavior such as resistance or even hostility when in reality, that behavior is camouflaging sincere student distress and fear, especially if they have little experience in negotiating challenging or difficult academic endeavors.  Consequently, I’m then better positioned to offer practical coaching and help rather than getting stuck in the weeds of frustration that can spring up as quickly for us as it does the students.    These formative assessments also give us evidence and guideposts for adjusting instruction, something that is particularly important when we are helping the classroom teacher think through the kinds of learning activities students need and how to appropriately pace them by being responsive to student needs.

How are you engaging in formative assessment?  Where does this intersect with Kuhlthau’s ISP for you, and how do you help students and teachers work through the messy and uncomfortable chaos that is in inherent in search and information seeking tasks?  How do you help frame the feelings of uncertainty and confusion in a constructive and positive light?

Libraries, Communities, and Lifelong Learning: Heather Braum’s Ignite Talk at DML 2012

Check out my friend Heather Braum’s inspiring Ignite Talk at DML 2012 !  Be sure to watch the other talks from this year’s conference on Digital Media and Learning’s YouTube channel.

Teacher Reflections on the Value of Pre-Search and Presentation Zen Style for Student Learning

I’m excited to team up again this month with Deborah Frost, one of the most experienced and talented teachers here at Creekview High School.   Deborah’s 9th Honors/Literature Composition students are in the library for the rest of the month as they inquire into a controversial/hot topic of their choice and craft a persuasive research paper on that topic as well as an oral presentation.  Through trial and error over the years, Deborah and I have learned much together as instructional partners as we’ve reflected long and hard about what has worked and what hasn’t in each collaborative project we’ve endeavored to do with her students.

Last year, Deborah was more than willing to implement two new aspects to the research design we were crafting.  As part of my effort to make a more concentrated effort to frontload the initial connecting, wondering, and investigating stages of inquiry, she agreed to let me build in a larger initial chunk of pre-search time with the students to help them:

1.  gain background knowledge about their controversial/hot topic and determine if that was really the topic they wanted to explore or to see if there were other topics of more interest to them

2.  read more intentionally and thoughtfully to help them begin discerning big ideas from facts

3.  to begin building background knowledge to develop research questions and to determine if the articles really spoke to their information seeking needs

The students worked for approximately six weeks as they researched, submitted research questions, and collaboratively composed a persuasive paper in Google Docs.  The other new component of the learning experience was teaching students skills and concepts associated with the “Presentation Zen” style PowerPoints for a class presentation to compose an oral presentation supported by those visuals that helped tell the narrative of the learning and insights.

Because that design was so rich and successful, we are doing it with this year’s freshmen.  We’ve made a few tweaks to the new and improved pre-search graphic organizer (see below).

We’ll also be incorporating some new search skills to the students as well.  The other new component for the project is the use of EasyBib in place of NoodleTools since EasyBib allows us to more easily create citations for our database articles.   We will once again do the Presentation Zen style presentations, and in April, I’ll blog a few new minor but helpful modifications I’ve come up with this past year to help support the learning curve for the skills associated with that endeavor.  Finally, we’re being flexible with the schedule/timeline of learning activities to be responsive to student needs; while we have a working calendar, we’re letting it be fluid so we can be responsive to the students if they more or less time for a specific skill or learning activity, then we can do that without feeling married to “the calendar”.   I’m appreciative that Deborah Frost is willing to experiment and to be improvisational as needed within the larger framework we’ve co-designed for the students.

I invite you to check out our research guide and to take a few minutes to listen to Deborah’s reflections on the value of pre-search and Presentation Zen style for student learning!

Video: The Librarian as a Catalyst and Learning Specialist in K12

English teacher Lisa Kennedy and librarian Buffy Hamilton discuss partnerships for learning between the librarian and classroom teacher; they also share how this partnership between librarian and teacher influences Lisa’s evolution as a teacher and her instructional design and in turn, Buffy’s practice as a librarian.


Harada, V. H., & Zmuda, A. (2008, April). Reframing the library media specialist as a learning specialist. School Library Monthly, 24(8). Retrieved from‌articles/‌Zmuda&Harada2008v24nn8p42.html

Circulating Ideas Interview

I am proud to be the inaugural interview at Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast.  A sincere thank you to my colleague and friend Steve Thomas for inviting me to join him for this podcast!  I hope you enjoy this interview that is just shy of fifty minutes in which we canvas a wide range of topics.  Be sure to follow Steve as well as the Circulating Ideas podcast series on Twitter!