Obstacles to Active Learning

Limited time

Most librarians have about an hour to try to squeeze in a lot of information. Consequently, many of our instruction sessions become a boring and torrential description of sources. Realistically, students will not remember most of what they've been shown. One solution would be to give your students a handout that includes all of the sources you would show them. Then use your session to actively focus on a few skills or sources that are the most important. They will often be able to apply these ideas to the other sources on your handout.

Increased preparation time

It takes time to design active learning exercises. No one will disagree. However, once you've designed some general activities, you can use them again for other sessions. In the end, creating a file of potential activities can actually save you class planning time.

Risk and unpredictability

The risk of not knowing what may happen is what keeps many of us from trying active learning in our sessions. Any activity has the potential to flop. Students may not participate, they may misunderstand the exercise, or it may simply be too easy or difficult. How do you recover? The key is in planning and being ready to think on your feet. Before the session, develop some potential solutions for these pitfalls, and then allow yourself and your students to modify the activity if need be. It is often in the middle of an exercise that you really become aware of problems, so don't be afraid to change course. Making those spontaneous changes may be the scariest part of active learning, but if you have reference desk experience, you probably already have this skill!

Less-than-ideal teaching spaces

We are often faced with the dilemma of trying to build active learning exercises into a classroom that doesn't exactly fit our needs, e.g. trying to teach students about electronic resources in a classroom without computers. Although you cannot have students complete actual searches in this situation, you can develop other activities that will help make them better searchers (brainstorming keywords, analyzing citations, etc.). When teaching online or in classrooms where collaboration is limited by seating arrangements, consider how tools like Google Drive or wikis can promote online collaboration without physical proximity. It is also important to remember that a good discussion can be an active learning experience. See In the Classroom for some tips about making this happen.


When planning your activities, make sure to consider the technology you will be using and any potential problems it can cause. Many databases have a limited number of users. Sometimes there are more students than there are computers. What if the projector fails? The scenarios are endless and the only real solution is to have a back-up plan. Make sure you have a potential replacement activity that does not rely on technology.