Active Learning for Archives and Special Collections

DePaul’s Special Collections and Archives has a long-standing commitment to faculty collaboration and student instruction, yet our own mission starts with verbs describing materials– “collects, preserves, and shares rich primary source materials”—rather than teaching.  This focus on materials is understandable, since we are the stewards of rare, often unique and fragile, materials of various formats that require specialized boxes, shelving, storage environment, and security measures.  This responsibility to protect and preserve extends from the oldest materials in the collection, cuneiform tablets, to paper-based books and archives that are the bulk of the collection, to contemporary digital files in our care.

We invest in these materials “in support of engaged teaching, active student learning, and scholarly and community research.”  But what does it really mean to be student-centered in a discipline that’s fundamentally materials-centric?

Special Collections and Archives supports the library’s and university’s commitment to teaching and learning.  We, too, live in the active learning, high impact, student engagement, learning outcomes focused academic environment, as well as participating in our profession’s conversations on primary source literacy.  We’re committed to designing purposeful interactions in our instruction sessions that make students responsible for examining the materials, conversing with their peers, and constructing meaning for themselves.  Rather than maintaining parallel tracks (“materials are central” and “students are central”), we’re creating intentional intersections that utilize the power and potential of both.

“If I had to identify one especially useful aspect of Special Collections visits, it would be the active engagement and excellent questions that it prompts.”

– Dr. Valentina Tikoff, Associate Professor, Department of History

Special Collections Instruction Librarian Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts was one of just 12 librarians and archivists selected in a competitive process to attend Dartmouth’s Librarians Active Learning Institute-Archives and Special Collections (LALI-ASC) this past July.  This intensive workshop emphasized evidence-based teaching practices applied to primary sources, and modeled and critiqued specific active learning instruction activities.  LALI-ASC participants learned how to assess students’ readiness and engagement, how to effectively incorporate backward design principles, and how neuroscience research supports the principles of active learning.  Chris Jernstedt, Professor of PsychologMorgen MacIntosh Hodgetts explores narrative building at Dartmouth’s Librarians Active Learning Institute-Archives and Special Collectionsical and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, described what happens in the brain when learning takes place.  Many of the LALI-ASC participants were particularly inspired by the idea that the brain learns through stories.  One of the most powerful collaborative learning techniques introduced by the faculty during the workshop is called ‘narrative building.’  During this activity, students read and analyze a primary source document using three prompt questions: what is it, what did it tell you, and what questions did it lead you to ask.  As the students report on their documents to the rest of the class, a story starts to emerge and by the end the students have collaboratively constructed the full story.


“All of the documents interrelated with each other and helped to create a narrative.  This narrative explored all aspects of the situation from many points of view and the variety of documents helped inform and visualize the issue.”

– Student in ANT 202, Dr. Jane Baxter’s class, examining urban renewal in Lincoln Park.

The first week in September, Morgen taught a sample session to Special Collections and Archives staff incorporating some of her intentional design and active learning lessons from LALI-ASC, including ‘narrative building.’  We wmmhteachingspca2ere put in the roles of students and came to the session with varying degrees of familiarity with the materials.  With prompts and structured exercises, each of us engaged with archival materials on our own, and then as group, creating a chronology and narrative for urban renewal in Lincoln Park that pulled from a variety of collections and formats. By participating as “students” we were able to understand how our “real” students would experience and benefit from this type of exercise.

Faculty who have planned an instruction session with Special Collections and Archives staff in the past few years are familiar with our conversations about where this instruction fits within the course and the major, what the faculty member would like the students to get out of the session, and what materials and activities will best suit those purposes.  Morgen’s experience with LALI-ASC means we have a few more “tricks” up our sleeves in terms of activities that will encourage student engagement during the session. We are also structuring our lesson plans with articulated faculty, Special Collections and Archives, and Library learning outcomes, as well as activities that will allow us to meet the students at the level most conducive to their learning, engage them in activities that encourage independent and peer learning, and provide opportunities for them to reflect upon and extend their learning.  The library supports the university’s initiatives for student success, and our instruction work aligns with learning outcomes at various levels, and is designed to be a complement to course instruction and critical thinking skills.

Special Collections and Archives partners in an average of 65 instruction sessions per year, and has taught over 6,000 DePaul students and hosted 3,000 student researcher visits to our reading room in the past five years.  I invite you to learn more about our collections and our research and instruction services. We are always happy to answer questions, discuss ideas, and plan an instruction session that will best support student learning and faculty teaching. For more information on our instruction program, please contact Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts, or submit a request for instruction.

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