Active Learning Exercises to Use in Your Next One Shot

I have a love-hate relationship with the one-shot session. This is a shame, because my college does not offer dedicated information literacy or research skills courses. While some instructors have invited me into class for two sessions, it’s rare. Almost every class I teach is a one-shot session.

And I teach a lot of them! In the three and a half years at my college, I’m proud of having significantly expanded our instruction program (another topic for another post!). Since August 2012, I personally have taught 197 one-shot sessions, so it’s not surprising that I reflect on the one-shot session a fair amount. And while I believe its limitations far outweigh its advantages, I do have some love for the one-shot.

I love to teach, and I love working with a wide variety of courses and assignments. Some one-shots go so well that they’re a huge ego boost. I swoop into a class, bestow the gift of a clear path forward on the heretofore dreaded research assignment, and swoop back out again an hour later, like a librarian Mary Poppins. Students are demonstrably appreciative, sometimes applauding without having been prompted their instructor. I’ve even received a couple of thank-you cards from the class a few days later:

But despite the warm fuzzies I get from an engaged, animated class, I’ve had one-shots go terribly wrong. Memorable sessions were punctuated by a student vomiting on the floor, or most recently, having a seizure. Classes have been unexpectedly cut short by fire alarms or inexplicable odors that cause us to have to evacuate the building.

The worst one-shots are the ones that seem to go on forever, where the energy is sucked out of the room. It’s the period of the day when everyone’s drowsy and hungry for lunch, or drowsy and full of lunch. Eyes glaze over. Students are unresponsive, and the instructor is playing on her phone in the back row. Your lecture seems flat and stilted; no one answers your questions, no one participates.

Whether or not your one-shot is a fairy tale or a horror story, another limitation of the one-shot is that there simply isn’t enough time to teach everything you’d like and you think students need to complete the assignment. We all know the instructor who schedules a one-shot by asking us to “just tell them how to do research” in one class period (if we’re lucky enough to get the entire period, that is).

Beyond content, though, I feel the one-shot format prevents me from incorporating active learning as much as I’d like. In my ideal one-shot session, I provide a little bit of background information, and then split students up to work on paired or small group activities, to report back to the group on their task.

But if it seems like there’s just too much information to convey, and not enough time to do it in, then I fall into the trap of believing it’s easier to spend most of the time lecturing, rather than facilitating activities and hands-on learning. While it may be easier for me, in the end, everyone loses: students aren’t engaged, they tune out, and the one-shot goes downhill.

With that in mind, here are four of my favorite active learning exercises to use in one-shots: they don’t take much time, they break up the lecture, and they get students talking. Give them a try the next time you want to break out of a one-shot rut.

Stand Up / Sit Down for Boolean Logic

I modified this activity from an excellent book, “Active Learning Techniques for Librarians: Practical Examples,” by Andrew Walsh and Padma Inala. It’s a fun, visual way to teach Boolean logic, and has the added benefit of getting students’ blood flowing when they’re forced to stand up and move.

Tell the class they should stand up if they fit the conditions you write on the board. I start with STUDENT. It will take a second for the class to realize everyone has to stand up. Then I say, “Let’s pretend you’re my search results. I’m overwhelmed with so many results. I need to narrow down these results to be more specific.”

I turn back to the board and add, AND JEANS (or AND SHORTS, if it’s summer). Some students sit down, some students stay standing. I ask the class to notice what happened to our search results, and they usually get that results were narrowed / reduced.

Next I’ll ask what they think will happen if I add another condition connected with AND – will we get more results, or fewer results? Sometimes two different students will give two different answers, which prompts further discussion. Then I’ll add AND GLASSES (or AND HAT, if I see more students in hats than glasses). We’ll usually only have a few students left standing at that point, providing a clear visual example that the more search terms you have connected with AND, the fewer results you’ll get.

I ask the JEANS AND GLASSES folks to stay standing for a moment, and then I erase AND and change it to OR. I’ll tell the class, “Now stand up if you fit either one of these conditions – if you’re wearing jeans or glasses.” Walk around the room and make sure everyone that should be is standing up. Ask the class what happened to the search results when you changed AND to OR, and discuss what each operator will do.

Confession: I do not do this activity to demonstrate NOT. I really want students to see the difference in results between terms connected with AND, versus terms connected with OR. I use a trusty Venn Diagram to teach NOT.

This is a popular exercise with both students and instructors. In fact, I just received this email from a faculty member in the most recent class I did this activity with: “I had never understood about using the words ‘and, not, or’.  I really loved how you used the students to demonstrate the differences.”

Think / Pair / Share for Evaluating Information

This is one that you can do relatively quickly, depending on whether or not you go around the whole room for each pair to report back. I display the following question and ask students to think about it for a moment: “how do you know when you can trust information?” I also display some follow-up questions to help get them thinking about the topic: What characteristics does the source have? Where do you find the source? How is the source different from other sources of information?

After a moment, I ask students to turn to the person next to them and discuss the question for a minute or two. Once they’ve talked for a bit, go around the room and ask each pair to tell the class just one thing they discussed together.

Most of the answers deal with the author and her credentials, documentation / footnoting, copyright date, website domain, etc. This becomes the perfect segue into introducing the CRAAP Test for evaluating sources according to currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose.

This exercise is not only a great way to get students’ talking about information, but also a handy way to assess their knowledge of evaluating sources.

Spot the Differences for Database Citations

This is a quick activity I do if I have the opportunity to talk about citation for any length of time (i.e., beyond showing how EBSCO databases will cite your sources for you). Display both a citation you took from a database, and its corrected citation. For an MLA citation, I usually have to clean up the line spacing, hanging indent, font type and size, and capitalization . Here’s the example I use for APA citations:

I like breaking the class into small groups, and the first group to correctly spot all three differences between the two citations wins a small prize.

Keyword Brainstorming

One of the biggest problems my students have is generating effective keywords for their topic, so I like to spend time in class working on this. I start with a very broad topic I’ve taken from actual assignments, such as “technology is destroying society,” or “TV is bad for kids.” I tell students we need to break the topic down by asking questions about it: What kinds of TV might be bad? Why is it bad? How specifically could it affect children? What age group of children might be most affected?

Students talk in pairs or small groups, and I’ll check in on groups to make sure they’re on the right track. Then I call the class back together and solicit their keywords, writing them on the board. If there’s not a lot of participation, you can ask for a keyword from each small group. This part is fun, especially with the TV example – students love talking about bad TV! I usually keep going until we have around 20 keywords on the board.

At the end, I tell students that they just took a small sentence and exploded it, and they should do this for any topic they’re researching. Not only does this help generate a large bank of specific keywords with which they can search for sources, it can also help them narrow down a topic: now instead of trying to write a paper about all technologies affecting all parts of society, they can just look at their brainstormed list and circle a few specific concepts to narrow down to topics like video game violence and children, or reality television and risky adolescent behaviors.

I can’t guarantee you’ll get a thank-you card after class if you use these active learning techniques, but with luck, you and your students might find yourselves on the “love” side of the one-shot.

9 thoughts on “Active Learning Exercises to Use in Your Next One Shot

  1. That’s a lot of one shots! And, it sounds like you’re pretty good at them, indeed. I’ve done the stand-up/sit-down for Boolean, but I look forward to trying some of your other techniques in my next one shot.


  2. It is definitely difficult to get students to interact. I am at a medical campus and our students are very busy and new students often don’t see the need for library instruction. I try my best to prove them wrong and show how useful the library is. I think they are wonderful exercises to incorporate into my teaching. I just hope I have enough time in my class to actually fit them in.


  3. Love your ideas! I also have a problem getting students to understand keywords, so this activity will be a perfect interactive component to incorporate into my one-shots.


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  5. Reblogged this on H.A.G. in the Library and commented:
    This is a great blog-post on active learning for One-Shots- The reality being, that given 50 minutes, you can either give them a bit more information, but they’ll be completely unengaged…or you can give one main piece of information and let them do it for themselves to be interested in the relevance to their task. Read on:


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