Active Learning in Special Libraries

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

June 22, 2021

Are you looking for ways to enhance interaction and engagement in your library instruction sessions?

It is often said that we teach the way we were taught. For many of us, that means lectures. While lectures are not all bad—in fact they can be very useful—there are other methods of instruction that can engage learners. One pedagogical strategy many now discuss is active learning. Bonwell and Eison (1991) first defined active learning as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (p. 2). Because active learning is associated with higher levels of engagement and success in courses (Freeman et al., 2014), special librarians can foster learner engagement in their instruction sessions by using active learning strategies.

But what does active learning look like IRL? 

Active learning teaching methods include:

  • Think/pair/share: In this teaching strategy,  instructors ask learners to think about their response to a question or prompt, then pair up with a peer and disclose what they were thinking, then lastly the instructor asks learners to share their thoughts with the entire group
  • Jigsaw: In this teaching strategy, learners work in small groups. Each member of the group is given a section of a larger project that they research and then share with the group. The group then works together to understand how each part relates. 
  • Gallery walk: In this teaching strategy, learners walk around the room and view posters their peers have worked on, or content the instructor has placed around the room. Learners answer questions about the displayed content.
  • Muddiest point: In this teaching strategy, the instructor asks learners to identify what was least clear to them from the class session. Learners then hand in their muddiest point as they leave class.
  • Fishbowl: The purpose of this teaching strategy is to organize group discussions. In this teaching strategy, learners are placed in two circles–an inner and outer circle. Learners in the inner circle engage in a discussion. Learners in the outer circle listen and take notes. 

This is not an exhaustive list of active learning strategies, and I encourage you to explore others. I have included a few recommended resources below that give additional suggestions for active learning. 

*I particularly like the idea of retrieval practice in the resource by Brame. 

Recommended Resources

Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning. (2021). Active learning strategies.

Brame, C. J. (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Center for Teaching Innovation. (2021). Getting started with active learning techniques. Cornell University.


Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE–ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111, 8410-8415.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent speaker on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her professional interests include information literacy, educational technology, library and information science education, teacher identity, and academic development. Please read Lauren’s other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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