5 Ways a School Librarian Can Improve Your Project Based Learning

5 Ways a School Librarian Can Improve Your Project Based Learning - Project-Based Learning provides a superior learning environment for students. School Librarians can download the PDF "How a School Librarian can help with PBL" to encourage collaboration with teachers who have been reluctant to try PBL or had a bad experience with it. #NoSweatLibraryEducators have known for years that student projects are great assessment strategies, but the current trend in project based learning shows us that projects also provide a superior learning environment. Students are more engaged in critical thinking, their learning is contextual instead of disparate, and they make more authentic connections to the ‘real world’.

Many teachers struggle with Project Based Learning or have had a disappointing experience, and that doesn’t need to happen. I’m revealing the very best way to make Project Based Learning more successful: collaborate with the School Librarian!


An Edutopia article Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL, by Buck Institute for Education (BIE) Editor-in-Chief John Larner, states that “The term ‘project learning’ derives from the work of John Dewey and dates back to William Kilpatrick, who first used the term in 1918,” and “The use of case studies and simulations as ‘problems’ dates back to medical schools in the 1960s.” Thus there is a rich background for the success of PBL as a learning system.

According to Larner and BIE, project-based learning has an array of new monikers that take various forms, but it is primarily an “extended learning experience” that may include one or more of the following:

  • “investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question”
  • “solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)”
  • “designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event.”

According to Larner, PBL et al. falls under the general category of inquiry-based learning—which also includes research papers, scientific investigations, Socratic Seminars or other text-based discussions, etc.” (Nice to know those research papers we’ve been assigning all these years are still relevant!)


School Librarians Are Perfect PBL Partners - Teachers collaborating with the School Librarian can make Project Based Learning more successful for students and generate higher achievement. #NoSweatLibraryIf you’ve been reluctant to try PBL or had a bad experience with it, here are 5 ways your School Librarian can be an invaluable PBL partner:

  1. We can show students the best research process model to guide them through the project/problem/design/challenge they’ve chosen. I’ve created a chart of the best research process models out there and it’s a FREE PDF download. All PSMs have 4 basic phases: plan, aggregate materials, create a product, and analyze outcome. Some have more steps, some fewer, and all develop in students a problem-solving mindset. NoSweat Research Process Models Comparison Chart- imageSince each model has its benefits and flaws, a School Librarian, experienced in teaching these models, can determine the most suitable process for the project a teacher has in mind, can present it in a manner that supports student inquiry, and will scaffold the learning so students master each step.
  2. We can show students the best ways to develop meaningful questions.My 6-Question Topic PlannerStudents rarely have an opportunity to plan a research assignment, so they may not be adept at creating meaningful questions for PBL. School Librarians have brainstorming tools to help students formulate questions as they begin their projects. We can also show students how good questions help them sift through resources for specific information—saving them time—and how to analyze the value of that information to create a quality product or outcome.
  3. We can show each student the best information resources for their needs.
    My school library had 10,000 non-fiction books, along with more than 50 different online services. Imagine the confusion for students trying to determine what to use for their information need. A school librarian knows all the resources available to students, and more importantly, knows how to match the most useful print, audio, video, digital, or web-based resources with the needs of each student’s project. We are the ultimate curators of information resources!
  4. We can show students all the best search strategies for those sources.
    Before the Internet came along School Librarians taught students how to generate keywords to search an Index or Table of Contents in print materials. Our purpose has not changed; teaching students to generate keywords is essential for searching online, whether for text, graphic, audio or video materials. "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers; a Librarian can bring you back the right one." Neil GaimanWe’ve also mastered ways to fine-tune a search in online subscription services and search engines, such as Google. We can help each student customize their search for whatever their own project requires.
  5. We can show students the best way to gather information ethically and proficiently.
    NoSweat Library Academic Honesty SloganA prior blog post talked about Academic Honesty and teaching students note-taking methods for the ethical use of information. School Librarians also know a range of digital and online apps to assist students in gathering and organizing their information, some of which are excellent for presenting the final project/product.

Teachers can gain confidence for doing Project/Problem Based Learning by collaborating with their School Librarians. If you are a Teacher, now is a perfect time to visit with your School Librarian about planning PBL lessons for the coming school year.

image of 5 ways SL helps with PBLIf you are a School Librarian,  here is a downloadable PDF document to share with your teachers about this article’s 5 Ways to collaborate with them for some exciting Project Based Learning experiences for students!

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Teaching Academic Honesty in the School Library

Teaching Academic Honesty in the School Library - School Librarians need to provide the conceptual understanding of intellectual property, copyright, fair use, and public domain and give students a positive focus toward Academic Honesty. By commending what's "right" as they learn bibliographic citation and note-taking skills, we can nurture a natural desire to avoid plagiarism. #NoSweatLibraryAmong posts on librarian listservs are those asking about copyright, plagiarism, note-taking, and other research-related topics which I include under Academic Honesty. College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards refer to plagiarism, and Common Core State Standards refer to plagiarism, bibliographic information, and citation. Those standards are concerned with the documentation, so that is what teachers teach.

However, to fully appreciate how important it is for School Librarians to teach Academic Honesty, note what the new AASL National School Library Standards states regarding School Libraries:

  • VI.A. The school library serves as a context in which the school librarian ensures that the school community is aware of the guidelines for safe, ethical, and legal use of information by:
    • 1. Educating the school community on the ethical use of information and the intellectual property of others.
    • 3. Embedding legal, ethical, and social responsibility concepts into the inquiry and information seeking processes.

From this (and the NSLS portion for School Librarians) it’s clear that the the School Librarian provides the conceptual understanding of Academic Honesty so we must make it an integral part of our Library Lessons.


With this in mind, I approach Academic Honesty with a more positive conceptual focus than most folks. I begin with Intellectual Property and citation of sources for the bibliography. Why do I begin with these?

  • Intellectual property is the overriding concept from which copyright, public domain, fair use, and plagiarism stem.
  • Bibliographic citation needs to be the first thing students do with a source, because too often they forget to record the source and then can’t remember where they found information, either to return to it or to create their bibliography.

Academic Honesty is the Right Thing to Do.The positive focus is that giving someone credit for their intellectual property by citing them is the right thing to do. And I let students know that their products are their own intellectual property!

Next I transition into the concept of copyright, focusing on the legal rights conveyed to owners of intellectual property. I want students to understand this in order to know the difference between the 3 methods of note-taking from textual material: by quoting, by paraphrasing, and by summarizing.


I firmly believe if we take more time teaching and modeling note-taking with students, so they really learn and understand the 3 types, then we wouldn’t need to spend so much time talking at them about what not to do. Quoting is usually well understood by older students, but I model an example to review it and explain how to include an in-line citation.

ParaphrasingWhen I taught high school science, I was surprised how many students didn’t understand paraphrasing nor how to do it. Evidently this is a critical Information Literacy skill that we need to address earlier in their schooling as students begin gathering textual information. So, I spend time with students modeling how to paraphrase a short selection of text, and then helping them see that paraphrasing is still using someone else’s copyrighted intellectual property, so they need to cite the source in-line when they include the paraphrased material in their end product.

summarizingSummarizing is often the lowest score on our State Reading Test, so when 6th grade ELA studies expository text, I teach a summarizing lesson using a graphic organizer and short, 2-page articles from our library’s student magazines. Teachers appreciate this valuable lesson and it sets the stage for whenever these students come to the library for research.

During my Academic Honesty lesson on Copyright & Fair Use, I use a 3-minute Common Sense Media video because I want students to understand why they can legally use other people’s copyrighted intellectual property for their school assignment. I revisit paraphrasing & summarizing, and students have a practice activity using excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and 3 famous Presidential speeches.

Once students understand how note-taking relates to intellectual property and copyright, I have an Academic Honesty lesson on Public Domain & Creative Commons where the practice activity focuses on how to use images and other non-text media from the Public Domain and Creative Commons without infringing on copyright. I re-emphasize Academic Honesty and that they continue to use in-document and bibliographic citation for information or media that isn’t theirs—it’s still someone else’s original intellectual creation.

You can find my Academic Honesty Lessons in my No Sweat Library 
store on Teachers Pay Teachers.
product cover for No Sweat Library Academic Honesty-Intellectual Property & Bibliographic Citation product cover for No Sweat Library Academic Honesty Lesson-Copyright & Fair Use Academic Honesty: Public Domain & Creative Commons Lesson


Only after showing students the “honest” practices, do I explain that presenting someone else’s ideas, expressions, or creative work as your own is unethical. It’s an academically DIS-honest practice called plagiarism—and we all know it’s poor form to “dis” someone!

I find that discussing consequences of plagiarism is unproductive. Most students are eager to do what’s right, but a few would waste time on minutiae just to see what I’ll say. So when someone asks “What happens if I plagiarize?” I ask these questions back:

  • Why do it wrong and then have to do it over?
  • Why risk a teacher’s ill will and a bad grade when it’s so easy to do it right?
  • Why not learn the right way now, when doing it wrong later on can endanger your entire future in college or a career?

NoSweat Academic Honesty & Plagiarism LessonI tell them, the only question I’ll answer is one about true learning, as in, “How do I properly express my knowledge?

Lest you think my Academic Honesty unit sounds like a long drawn-out process, I use fewer than a dozen slides and can cover it in a single class period. Throughout the year I use the short lessons on Academic Honesty to embed pertinent concepts into a particular lesson. I’m not sure if my positive spin produces better student products, but I do know that students come away with a much more optimistic outlook about doing their research projects.


Academic Honesty: Teaching What's Right Instead of What's Wrong - Give students a more positive and comprehensive view of writing for a research project by teaching Academic Honesty, instead of plagiarism. #NoSweatLibraryMy big concern about plagiarism is that we educators may be the problem. How can we discourage kids from plagiarizing when we offer them no opportunity for their own original expressions? When a teacher comes to us about resources for a student research project and we see that it’s low-level Bloom, just begging to be copied from an encyclopedia or a 3rd grader’s website, we, as the School Librarian, can diplomatically suggest ways to rework the topic so it requires more in-depth research, more higher-level thinking skills, and a genuine expression of a student’s own ideas and conclusions.

Here’s an example. A 7th grade research project asks students to choose one Greek or Roman god or goddess, research their attributes from a couple books and websites, then create a written paper or a PowerPoint of the information. Ho Hum…I’m yawning and so will they. My suggestion: compare a Greek/Roman god/goddess with a current popular star from TV/film/music/sports, explain the key attributes they share, and give an opinion on why these two were/are idolized. Every kid has a favorite star, someone they seek to emulate, and this assignment helps them examine the qualities they admire in this person and whether they really do want to be like them. They need to examine several Greek or Roman deities to decide who to compare, a more demanding analysis than the original assignment, and the compare/contrast with past and present can open their eyes to the human need to look outside ourselves for help in coping with life. Now how could anyone plagiarize that?

Another example of a weak research project asks students to create a PowerPoint about the history of immigration into our State (or the U.S.). We can suggest that students interview their own family members to discover when the family first emigrated here and create a scrapbook or online journal about their family. We don’t need a family tree going back to Columbus, but every kid can at least learn about the life of their parents and grandparents. Now that’s a meaningful project! Imagine if Alex Haley had never heard his family history? Roots would never have been written, turned into a TV phenomenon, and a generation of Americans would’ve never had their eyes opened to the real history of our country.

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