Focus on Assessment: Knowledge Commons

By Victoria Raish, graduate assistant, Knowledge Commons
(Raish is a Ph.D. candidate in Learning, Design, and Technology, Learning and Performance Systems)

As many of you are probably aware the Penn State Pattee Paterno Libraries renovated and opened the Knowledge Commons in the fall of 2012. Since this time the space has proved to be a very popular destination among students and if you walk in on a typical academic day the space is likely to be full. What you might not be aware of is that since the Fall of 2014 the library made the decision to add a graduate assistant under the tutelage of Joe Fennewald, head of the Knowledge Commons, to develop a research agenda around this space.

As part of this research we have created a comprehensive ethnographic study of informal learning spaces on campus. One of the challenges of studying informal learning spaces is how to assess them. There have been calls to assess how these spaces impact student learning. However, because the spaces are informal and authentic, it proves to be a challenge to control confounding variables enough to attribute student use of the space to improved learning outcomes for them. However, one way that we can assess informal learning spaces is to observe student behavior across many spaces on campus.

Our research agenda focused on student behavior in the Knowledge Commons, in the Paterno Reading Room, and in the Pollock Computer Lab. The driving force behind this decision was that many studies have looked at student behavior within a ‘typical’ knowledge commons space but have limited their study to that space. By looking across spaces we are better able to assess if the behavior exhibited in students in the Knowledge Commons is similar or different than the behavior of students in other informal learning spaces. Our methodological toolkit involves:

1. Seating sweeps of the space where we keep a checklist of student possessions and activities

2. Focused field observations of the spaces

3. A survey of typical behavior

4. A Google Analytic analysis run by Alex Brown, another graduate assistant of the libraries, looking at Penn State Library websites visited while in the Knowledge Commons or Pollock Computer Lab

5. Interviews with students who choose to study in these three spaces.

As a result of this research we hope to add knowledge on how students are using specific informal learning spaces and why they choose to use these spaces. We are happy to say that the assistantship has been extended into the 2015/2016 school year and are moving in the direction of studying collaborative activity in the group study rooms within the Knowledge Commons.