Applying a Critical Lens to Library Classroom Assessment

On November 8, 2019, Instructor College and The Feminist Pedagogy Reading Group jointly led a discussion for Library staff on Maria Accardi’s book chapter “Teaching Against the Grain: Critical Assessment in the Library Classroom” published in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. Our conversation revolved primarily around the difficulty in assessing within the context and limitations of a one-shot library instruction session. How can we truly assess or gauge the retention or impact of our teaching when we only see a class for one 50-minute or one hour-and-a-half session? In her chapter, Accardi argues that librarians are uniquely situated to experiment with critical instruction and strategies for assessment. She describes critical assessment as a tool to disrupt power dynamics and reframe the ways in which we define and measure learning. 

In her engagement with a two-semester honor’s seminar, Accardi began incorporating student input into her assessment of student information literacy skills, as well as providing opportunities for these students to self-assess their own skills. She held focus groups where she allowed students to review assessment materials, critique the learning outcomes, and contribute assessment criteria of their own. This process provided the students an opportunity to learn about the ways they are assessed, as well as ways in which those creating the methods of assessment might be biased towards “creat[ing] and perpetuat[ing] the dominant culture.” It also empowered students to see their voices as important to library instruction. 

In our local discussion we agreed that the efforts described by Accardi were useful critical practices but also acknowledged that they were not feasible for most of us as they necessitate multiple points of contact with the same students. Many library instructors may only see a student only once in a 50-minute session. We also talked about having the capacity and resources to conduct focus groups with undergraduate students as additional potential barriers. 

Another interesting point in Accardi’s chapter was her discussion of maintaining a critical lens toward the critical assessment itself, and recognizing what shortcomings might exist in specific critical assessment practices. One tension described is wanting to make the assessment more equitable - i.e. providing different ways for students to demonstrate what they learned and how they applied that learning, while also imparting critique of the system itself and the power structures existing within a university. Again, ideally this idea would be wonderful but we run into the limitations of a one-shot session in our environment. 

Allowing time for students to be able to demonstrate some of the skills covered is a frequent exercise in our instruction here. For example, when going over databases we invite a couple of students come to the instructor station to demonstrate a search for their topic, while explaining how they went about formulating key words, and what, if any, tools within the database they used or found helpful. This technique allows students to utilize any previous database knowledge and search expertise in addition to sharing their learning. The technique is also helpful for us as instructors as we are not only able to observe the students’ skill with the database, but we are also able to understand or to identify any gaps in their learning.

An additional resource we were able to share during this discussion was “53 ways to check for understanding.” In a critical pedagogy course I took through Library Juice press, Accardi recommended using this helpful worksheet. I like that it includes a myriad of ways to check for understanding that could be applicable to various circumstances and accessible for student needs. One strategy I have been curious to use is the “5 words” where participants/students are asked to describe/summarize/reflect using 5 words and then explain their choices. It would be interesting to see how students felt about one of my instruction sessions in this way. 

As my colleagues and I are developing lesson plans that more directly speak to the ACRL Framework Frame of Scholarship as Conversation, we are hoping to incorporate critical assessment strategies. Since we are teaching students to see themselves as creators in these spaces, I feel imparting critical modes of assessment, particularly self-assessment, would be extremely beneficial within this context. 

Ultimately, applying a critical lens to assessment in instruction is an ongoing journey that we will hopefully continue to build upon. I am grateful that we are continuing to have these conversations within our spaces and within the field more broadly. 



Accardi, M. (2010). Teaching against the grain: Critical assessment in the library classroom. In Accardi, M., Drabinski, E., & Kumbier, A., Eds. Critical library instruction : Theories and methods. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.