Think Aloud as an Instructional Strategy

You may already be familiar with the Think Aloud technique as an evaluation method for usability testing of web sites, tutorials, and library catalogs, among other things. But, Think Aloud is also pretty effective as an instructional strategy. Consider the following scenarios:


Student comes to the reference desk and says, “I am writing a paper on climate change and I need some articles.” Librarian says, “I have the perfect database for you! Follow me.” Librarian leads student to computer, clicks through a few links and pulls up Opposing Viewpoints. Librarian shows student how to navigate through the database, and gets student started on research. Student thanks librarian….Later in the semester, student has another paper to write, and remembers Opposing Viewpoints, but can’t remember how to find it. After exploring the library web site for a bit, student finds the database. However, student is disappointed that Opposing Viewpoints is not a good source for literary criticism. Student gets frustrated, so resorts to the old standby – Google.


Student comes to the reference desk and says, “I am writing a paper on climate change and I need some articles.” Librarian says, “We have a lot of databases, so it’s important to be able to find one that works for your topic. Let’s go figure out which one will work best for you.” Librarian walks student through the process of selecting a database and searching, discussing useful strategies along the way…Later in the semester, student has another paper to write, and remembers the process of selecting a database. Student is successful in locating a database that is appropriate for literary criticism.

As you can probably tell, Scenario 2 is an example of the Think Aloud technique in practice. In Scenario 2, the librarian verbalizes strategies for locating a database that matches the student’s needs. On the other hand, in Scenario 1, the librarian simply locates the proper database for the student. By thinking aloud, the librarian is modeling metacognitive strategies that the student can apply to future research assignments as well.

Think Aloud has been used very successfully with teaching metacognitive processes across multiple disciplines (reading comprehension is probably where it’s used most though). And it’s a particularly useful technique for library skills because it can be used both one-on-one with students in the library, or with a whole classroom of students.

In the classroom, Think Aloud is often used as part of a reciprocal teaching method, where the instructor starts by modeling metacognitive processes, then turns it over to the students. For example, a librarian could walk students through the research process while discussing her strategies and thought processes. Then, she could present students with a research problem, and ask “what should I do now?” Reciprocal teaching can be done with an entire class, or with smaller groups.

I see clicker systems as being particularly useful for Think Aloud and reciprocal teaching in a larger classroom. By prompting students with the questions that you would ask yourself in the research process, you are helping them to build the metacognitive strategies they need to become information literate.

Think Aloud is deceptively simple though. If you are not a natural at thinking out loud, you should prepare ahead of time. And there is a phenomenon called the expert blind spot that can lead to assumptions that conflict with what students actually know. So, write down your thoughts, brainstorm with your colleagues, and try out your strategies in the library before you use them in the classroom.

This might also be a technique you are already using, but didn’t know it!


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