January 2005

http://www.trentu.ca/webct/ (user name: primo password: primo)

Author: Jean Luyben
Institution: Trent University
Terrence Bennett
Library Skills Program

Author’s description: “I use webpages, WebCT, and small-group instruction to teach basic library skills. When a course instructor agrees to participate, I create a WebCT course with links to instructional pages on our website and a customized online test. Students are expected to read the webpages, attend optional small-group classes if they like, and complete the test. They can try the test as many times as they like; the presence of rotating questions means that no two attempts will be identical, and only the highest score counts. The Professor sets the due date, after which I collect the grades and send them to the Professor. The grade counts toward the course final in some way—I leave that up to the Professor.”

Additional description is available here: http://www.trentu.ca/library/help/skills/intro.shtml

Interview with tutorial author:

Q. What was the motivation for creating the “Library Skills Program"?

A. There was a need. It’s the same need we all have: students don’t know how to use the library, they don’t know that they don’t know, and they don’t know how to fix it. I tried different approaches, but when I stumbled upon this one, it just made sense. There’s very little effort required from Faculty, but their involvement makes it important and relevant to the students, and they’re forced to participate.

Q. How many students do you reach with this program?

A. We’re a small university, with under 7,000 FTE. Last term (Fall 2004) 2,800 students completed the program. These might not be 2,800 unique individuals, however, because many of them need to complete it for more than one course. There were 20 courses participating last term. The winter term is slower, but I currently have 10 courses using the program.

I also have a summer program which was created for new incoming students. When they register for their first year courses, they’re directed to the library program and told that they’re required to complete it before they start their classes. Last summer, 681 students participated in this session.

Q. How long did the development process take? Who else was involved in the program’s creation and design?

A. I started the program in 1996, but it was paper-based at that time. It was extremely time-consuming to mark and keep track of all the papers we received, and costly to print them. In 1999 I moved the tutorials onto the web and students were expected to read the tutorials online and then do the paper test. The first WebCT test was added in 2001, but it was problematic. We learned a lot that year on how to phrase the questions.

In 2002 I started customizing tests for courses; up until then everyone wrote the same test. Once they were customized for each course, students had to do a unique test for each course that required it. Each year I improve on it a little more, by adding new questions and increasing the feedback comments they receive when they view their results. I think this is the most teachable moment of the program.

This summer the tutorials will get an overhaul, with more videos and some form of interaction added. We're constantly working on this program.

Many other people have been involved in the program. Over the years there have been several Information Services Librarians and support staff working with me. I still do most of the design, but I need others to proof-read questions and look for good examples for me to use. Everyone who works on the Information Desk has to know the program well, so that they can help students who ask questions. We also have a WebCT manager at our institution who helps me out with technical issues.

Q. What were some of the challenges (technological or other) that you encountered?

A. It wasn’t with Faculty. It was very easy to get Faculty on board. They know that their students need this and they’re quite willing to give it credit in their courses.

WebCT is a wonderful product to work with, once you get used to it. The main problems I have with it are getting the questions entered without errors. It’s quite happy to accept a question that has no correct answer, for instance. Also, I can’t easily share questions between courses; I need to copy them over from one course to another.

The biggest challenge is working with live databases that change. A question that works very well one week may be complicated the next week. This term, CSA changed its interface and we got access to a whole new group of e-journals, two things which required re-writing many questions. The library isn’t static, so it’s difficult to write questions that will always have the same answer. It’s also challenging to think of topics for all the different courses.

Q. What do you believe is the program’s strongest feature?

A. For the library, it’s the fact that students need to go through the process. They need to use the library catalogue, login to databases and search them, find out whether a journal is online or in print, and think about keywords. They get practice and experience.

For Faculty, it’s that none of their class time is used. We run the program completely from the library and their role is only to forward any questions that come to them, include the program in the syllabus, and do something meaningful with the grades I send them.

For students, it’s that it’s online, available from anywhere anytime. That’s how students like to work now. And if you want to come to the library, you can do that, too. And if you want to take a class instead of reading the tutorials, that’s an option. It may not be an option next year, however, because not enough students come to these classes.

Q. How has the program contributed to or influenced your library's other instructional services?

A. For one thing, it confuses Faculty. They don’t always know WebCT and how it fits into our other programs. It was meant to be for first year classes, and upper year classes were supposed to continue coming into the library for classes. But they use it for all levels now. When I get those calls from Faculty asking for a library “tour,” I need to ask a lot of questions before I can figure out what they want. Last term a Prof emailed me that we could “cancel the WebCT in favour of providing a class.” When she came to the class, she made reference to the “test” that we had created for her class. She didn’t realize that she had cancelled the test when she cancelled the WebCT. So there are communication problems around the technology, but we’re dealing with that every day anyway.

There are fewer requests for classes now. There are also fewer questions at the Reference Desk. That wasn’t our goal, and I’m not sure it’s a direct result of the program. It could just be that students don’t come into the library as much, and they learn more on our website.

When students do come to the Reference Desk with a question, we can ask if they’ve done this program and remind them about something they already know. It helps us to move onto the next level if they remember having done this before. That was one of the goals, and it’s been working.

Q. What sort of feedback about the program have you received from students and faculty?

A. Faculty really appreciate it. They don’t always know what’s in the program, but they’re relieved to know that the library has “handled” this part of the course.

Students generally appreciate it too. I include an evaluation with each course and it’s overwhelmingly supported by students. Naturally, they have complaints, too. The most common complaints are:

  • doing it for more than one course, (no 2 courses have the same test, but they don’t seem to realize that they’re searching different topics in different databases);
  • that it takes too long (the overwhelming majority claim to complete it in under 3 hours); and
  • that they can’t access the databases from off-campus to complete all the questions (although there are numerous links to information on our proxy server within the course).

Recently a Prof told me that one of her students did a “scathing” evaluation of the program and now regrets it because he later decided that it was very helpful.

Q. You mentioned that some students complain about the length. Were classes designed to be completed within a certain number of hours? Are students told how much time they should expect to spend completing a course?

A. I expect the students to spend about 3 hours on average completing the program. This includes reading the tutorials. Most students take less than the 3 hours. The test can be done in about 20 minutes if you really know what you're doing.

Any time I'm asked by a class or an instructor how long it should take, I say 3 hours. An estimated time isn’t indicated anywhere in the program description – that would be a good addition.

Q. Did you learn any lessons from creating this program? If you had the opportunity to do this project over again, would you do anything differently?

A. I certainly realize how many students work late at night and early in the morning. I can view each attempt at a test and see when it was done. It’s not unusual for tests to be done at 2 a.m.

It’s also not unusual for a student to do the test 20 times, at less than 2 minutes per try. Because it’s multiple choice, they’re just testing their luck. Often, by the time they get a good grade, they could have read the tutorials and learned to do it properly in less time.

I can also see how much students like to work online. The Discussion area is usually very active, and they respond to one another’s questions. They prefer to email me with problems that involve several messages back and forth, rather than just coming into the building and having me show them once.

I DO recreate the program over again each term, and each year it gets a little better, I think. Right now I’m working on making the questions in each course LOOK different, so that students can tell they’re doing a different test.

Q. Would you like to offer any advice for other professionals looking to create a similar project at their own educational institution or library?

A. I recommend WebCT. It’s a very powerful teaching tool and it allows you to evaluate students without taking up a lot of your time. Also, start small and make sure you know what you’re doing before you start pushing it. A lot of Faculty might jump on board very quickly, and you might get more business than you can handle.

To contact the author of the Trent University Library Skills Program, please write or call:
Jean Luyben, Information Services Librarian
Trent University Library, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
email: jluyben@trentu.ca
Phone: 705-748-1011 x1528