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!

line of books laying down

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3 Assessment Tools for the School Librarian

3 Assessment Tools for the School Librarian - You may be surprised that School Librarians do have ways to measure and show student learning from our Library Lessons. I regularly use these 3 assessment tools with my instruction: graphic organizers, rubric criteria, and library circulation statistics. #NoSweatLibraryIt’s rare, indeed, to find a School Librarian who records grades for students. In fact, it’s unusual to find a school or district with a formal school library curriculum to teach, much less assess. It seems no one expects any kind of assessment, whether formative, summative, or standardized test, from a School Librarian’s instruction, yet we do have a variety of ways that we can measure and show student learning from our lessons. During my years as a Middle School Librarian I regularly used 3 assessment tools for my Library Lessons:

  • graphic organizers
  • rubric criteria
  • library statistics.

It’s important to have a relevant lesson for every scheduled class visit to the School Library, and it must be in a formal written form so that teachers and principals take us seriously as teaching professionals. For that reason I developed my Library Lesson Planner. As my form evolved and became more comprehensive, my lessons—and consequently—student learning improved.

NoSweat Library Lesson Planner Template Section 1: Desired Results (Standards, Understandings, Key Questions, Objectives, Vocabulary)

click to enlarge

Section 1 of my Planner uses subject and library standards to create long-term understandings, key questions, and objectives.

Once that is filled in, I use Section 2 of my Library Lesson Planner to develop Assessment Evidence, the proof that through my lesson students meet the objectives. Here’s how Section 2 looks before I begin entering information for the lesson:

NoSweat Library Lesson Planner Section 2

That very first line determines which assessment tool I use.

  • If the final product is the subject teacher’s classroom activity or project, then my lesson is a portion of the process, and I use a graphic organizer or rubric criteria to show that students learned my part of the process.
  • If the final product is a library-only lesson, then I use a graphic organizer and library statistics to show learning.


I’m a Form Fanatic, and I like graphic organizers because students develop an understanding of conceptual knowledge themselves. Graphic organizers can be very simple or very complex, depending on where in the scaffolding process the lesson fits, and I often have students work together in groups of 2 or 4 with the more complex ones. Graphic organizers can be a final assessment tool by having students create an infographic of what they know and can do—sometimes the infographic being a sheet of paper that covers the whole library table!

Teachers appreciate having a student-generated graphic organizer for a Library Lesson—it keeps students on task and teachers can use it as evidence for a daily grade. If teachers will collect the document I evaluate student mastery by walking about and seeing what they’ve filled in on their organizer; at other times I collect the document to provide assessment to students and then give the stack to teacher(s) so they can record the grade or extend the learning.

Zoom In-Zoom Out Content Literacy graphic organizerThinking Maps proprietary graphic organizersHere are examples of graphic organizers I like to use: Thinking Maps are proprietary forms and Zoom In-Zoom Out is a common content literacy form.


For a classroom product where the teacher has an assessment rubric, I generate library rubric criteria to add to the teacher’s assessment rubric. The secret to success with this assessment tool is that we clearly define for both students and teachers what comprises exemplary, proficient, or acceptable. Neither students nor teachers are knowledgeable about library curriculum and teachers may not give us the opportunity to perform the grading for the “library criteria” (although those who have accepted my offer are very grateful that I help with assessment).

For a library-only lesson we can fill out rubrics and return them to students, but I find that giving students the opportunity to self- or peer-assess increases the value of the learning experience…not to mention saving me a lot of time yet still producing accountability for my teaching. In fact, I design many of my Library Lessons to incorporate a rubric assessment right on the activity worksheet. Here are examples of a teacher rubric and a peer rubric that I’ve used:

NoSweat Library Research Helper: PACE Assessment Rubric

Project rubric

Library Lesson - Peer Evaluation Rubric for a Video Booktalk

Peer-eval rubric


Yes, We Have Assessment in the School Library - Yes, School Librarians do have ways to measure and show student learning from our lessons. Here are 3 effective tools. #NoSweatLibraryFor evaluating how my Library-only Lessons are effective with students, an analysis of library statistics can be very revealing; however, using library statistics for assessment is the most difficult tool to configure and analyze. The purpose of the lesson determines the information-gathering method that will generate data on what students have learned. For example:

  • If the purpose is to introduce a special collection of books that support a content area, then circulation numbers for that collection—generated as a report through the library automation system—indicate whether students grasped the value of those support materials.
  • If the purpose is to teach an aspect of the research process, then counts of incidental, independent library use by those students for several days after the lesson indicate the success of the lesson; if they can work independently to pursue research for the project, then they know and can do what we have taught.

clip of keyword search form

Here’s an example of a “statistic” I use for assessment. I have a customized form to teach a student lesson on how to generate search criteria, and the depletion of additional forms over the next few days tells me whether students “got it” (few forms used because student search terms produced viable results) or they did not understand (more searches performed because students had difficulty generating the right search terms). I know this seems like a stretch, but School Librarians must sometimes use such contrivances to determine the success of our lessons and whether we produced our desired results.

Get these FREE downloads to help with Assessment in the School Library - I offer 2 assessment tools I use in my school library: my Library Lesson Planner with a section to develop assessment, and my Keyword Search Form to help students formulate a fruitful search strategy. Read the blog post and download the freebies! #NoSweatLibraryWhen we teachers become School Librarians we don’t give up the tools we used in the classroom, but rather we refine and modify them. Assessment is a good example of the refining and modification we must do to provide students with the best possible education.

My Library Lesson Planner and the Keyword Search Form are available for download on my Free Librarian Resources page.

line of books laying down


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