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Library Instructors' Toolkit : Active Learning

Learning Styles

People learn in different ways and most people learn through a mix of learning styles. In library instruction, you've got to mix it up!

The three main sensory preferences involved in learning are

  1. Visual (seeing) - these learners are predisposed towards visual learning learn best through readings, visual aids, slides
  2. Auditory (hearing) - learners who learn best through lecture, discussions
  3. Kinesthetic (doing) - learners who learn best through hands-on experimentation

And four basic learning-style dichotomies are

  1. Active/reflective - "doing vs. thinking" : The preference for doing something physical with the information vs. thinking through, or processing the information in one's head.
  2. Visual/verbal - The preference for charts, diagrams or pictures vs. the spoken or written word.
  3. Abstract/concrete : The preference for tackling information first through concepts, theories, and interpretation of facts vs. through specific applications, examples, data or facts.
  4. Global (holistic)/sequential (analytical) : The preference for getting the "big picture" before individual pieces fall into place vs. making linear connections between individual steps

None of these dichotomies are mutually exclusive in the classroom; good teachers are able to cater to a variety of sensory preferences and learning styles without coddling anyone!

Books with Lesson Plans

Active Learning Exercises

Activity Title: Think-Pair-Share
What it is: Pose a question or problem to the class and give each student a short time to think about the question and write down some possible solutions. Have students pair up to discuss their thoughts. After the students have had an opportunity to discuss in small groups, come back together as a class and ask for volunteers to share their ideas.
Time Required: 5-10 minutes   
Audience: any level
Technology/Supplies Needed: none


Activity Title: Index Card Q&A
What it is: At the beginning of class, pass out index cards and ask the students to write down one or two questions they have about library research. Collect the cards and read some of the questions aloud to the class as a way of assessing their knowledge prior to delivering your lesson. Save several questions to read at the end of class, and ask for volunteers to answer them.
Time Required: 5-10 minutes
Audience: First year/Sophomores
Technology/Supplies Needed: Index cards


Activity Title:   Quick Flipped Classroom
What it is: After your lesson, give students 5-15 minutes to search for an article related to their assignment. After everyone has found at least one relevant article, ask for volunteers to come to the front to demonstrate their search. This activity can also be done in groups, where each group is assigned a different database to search.
Time Required: 15-30 minutes
Audience: any level
Technology/Supplies Needed: Multiple computers and projector screen


Activity Title: Cephalonian Method
What it is: Prior to class, prepare index cards with questions relating to the material you plan to cover in your session (i.e. How do I locate books in the stacks?; What is a subject guide? ) Color code or number each index card. As the students arrive, randomly pass out the index cards to the class. During your presentation, use the cards as a way of generating student participation. At the appropriate time in your presentation, call out a number or color and have the student holding that card read the question aloud. Use the student’s question as an opportunity to discuss the library’s services and resources or to cover simple information literacy concepts. This method is a good way of incorporating humor into a lesson as well.
Time Required: 5-30 minutes
Audience: First year -- especially good for orientations
Technology/Supplies Needed: Index cards. PowerPoint is optional, but can be useful as a guide.



Center for Faculty Excellence. “Classroom Activities for Active Learning.” University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Nov. 2009.

Datig, Ilkaand Claire Ruswick. "Four Quick Flips." College & Research Libraries News 74.5 (2013): 249-257.

Morgan, Nigel, and Linda Davies. "Innovative Library Induction - Introducing The 'Cephalonian Method'. SCONUL Focus 32 (2004): 4-8. 


Activities to Engage Different Learners

Try adding one or two activities like these in to your session.  You can even tie student learning outcomes and some informal assessment in to your activities.  For example:

1. Take an example topic sentence and ask your students to help you extract the keywords out of that sentence.  Write those on the white board.  Ask them to then help you brainstorm some additional synonymous or similar terms that can be connected with OR. (verbal and auditory)  Build your keyword search with ANDs and ORs and explain boolean further with ven diagrams.  (visual)

Learning outcome: Students will be able to create a keyword search strategy in order to search for information effectively.

Assessment: Give students 10 minutes to pair up and help each other develop some possible keyword searches on their topics and try them out.  Call on them to share their strategies with the class. (active/kinesthetic)

2. Show examples of various kinds of citations, such as from a bibliography or a database search.  Ask if anyone knows with which part of the citation to start in order to track down the full text--good examples may be for items that Find it @ NU cannot locate. (auditory) Demonstrate how to track down the full text.  (concrete and sequential)

Learning outcome: Students will be able to identify the elements of citations in order to locate books, articles, book chapters and other materials.

Assessment: Ask students to call out in class which part of the citation to use to track down an item or ask them to identify whether the citation in question is for a book, article, etc.  (auditory and active)

3. Demonstrate searches in various search tools (catalog, news database, scholarly database).

Learning outcome: Students will be able to distinguish among various search tools in order to search for books, news, and scholarly articles required for their bibliographies.

Assessment: Poll your audience with one or two quick multiple choice questions asking them to choose the best search tool for finding books in the library, scholarly articles, etc. (active/kinesthetic)

Even building 10 minutes into your 50-minute session for students to begin to search their topics can give them an opportunity to start to apply what they are learning in a way that is meaningful to them and hopefully will stick!  You can do informal assessment through observing them and answering any questions they encounter.  Those questions they may have while searching actually give you a chance to re-teach or explain something needing clarification and allow you to improve or revise your teaching and students' learning even before they leave the session!