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Case Study: Online Learning and Critical Reading – Eleanor Barker & Veronica Phillips

Veronica Phillips Headshot
Veronica Phillips
Eleanor Barker Headshot
Eleanor Barker

Eleanor Barker and Veronica Phillips work for the Medical Library at the University of Cambridge. In this case study they share their experience of translating their face-to-face critical appraisal teaching to an online learning environment.



Where are you both based and what are your roles?

We both work for the Medical Library at the University of Cambridge. Our library serves both the staff and students at the University of Cambridge, and NHS staff working in the East of England region, so our library is both a health and an academic library.

We are Assistant Librarians with responsibility for research support, teaching and learning. Our job mainly involves delivering group or one-to-one academic and research skills training, or providing research support (such as literature searches) for systematic reviews.


What sort of sessions do you run, and what topics do you cover? Describe the session very briefly in terms of any tools you used and activities you planned. 

We run sessions on the following topics:

  • Literature searching
  • Reference management (how to use referencing software such as Endnote, Mendeley and Zotero)
  • Research data management
  • Critical appraisal of medical research articles
  • Systematic reviews, and how to write systematic review protocols
  • How to create a conference poster
  • Writing for publication

We are focusing here on the critical appraisal session to illustrate how we translated it from face-to-face to online training, but the process and tools has been similar for all subjects.

Our critical appraisal sessions involve sending attendees an article (selected by us) in advance to read. The face-to-face classes consist of one of us (the trainers) facilitating a discussion of the article, using Edward de Bono’s ‘six thinking hats’ theory as a framework. The idea is that the trainer speaks very little, just provides prompts and lets the students do the bulk of the talking.

Due to the pandemic, we had to move all our teaching online, and critical appraisal — with its heavy emphasis on discussion — was more difficult than some of our other classes. We use Zoom as the software, and send out the link to access the meeting at the same time as we send the article, along with instructions on how to use Zoom. We found after trial and error that asking students to respond to the prompts verbally didn’t work well — it affected the sound quality, some students were uncomfortable, and it was harder to manage the flow of conversation — so we now use Padlet as a way to facilitate discussion. Padlet is software which enables us to create a virtual pinboard. We ‘pin’ a series of questions, and during the training session, we send the link to the board, and direct the students to post their responses to each question. They use the chat function in Zoom to ask any questions outside of the prompts on the Padlet board.

These critical appraisal sessions normally last about an hour and a half, whether taught in person or online. They are open to any of our library users.


What’s gone well in the shift to online teaching? 

Veronica: our library sits on the hospital site, and is far away from central Cambridge, where the majority of students and staff are based. Teaching online means that students don’t need to worry about travelling across town to come to our classes — and in fact our class sizes have doubled since we moved online. Many of the students have come from other departments, rather than just medical and healthcare students. So teaching online has opened up our training to a wider range of students.

Eleanor: we have been able to adapt quickly and make changes to our teaching to cope with the new way of teaching. We have been fortunate to receive some good feedback from attendees and also the opportunity to reflect on our training as a team. This is still a work in progress.


What’s your biggest challenge?  

Veronica: translating our very discussion-heavy courses such as critical appraisal to an online context was probably the biggest challenge, but once we realised we could use additional tools such as Padlet to facilitate discussion that challenge evaporated.

Eleanor: learning how to use different tools to teach online. We have been using Zoom mainly, but also Google Meet. We have had to learn how to screen share and how to manage what is presented to ensure its clear to attendees.


Can you share 3 top tips for others planning to teach information literacy sessions online? 

  1. Make sure you have tested the software and provided clear instructions on how to join and use it to your students.
  2. Be honest and upfront that this is a new way of teaching and learning for you and your students.
  3. Face-to-face teaching needs some tweaking and adaptation when moved to an online setting — be prepared to change things that don’t work, and adapt in the face of student feedback and personal reflection on what has gone well or badly in previous sessions.


This case study was produced in response to a survey being carried out by the CILIP Information Literacy Group Chair, Jane Secker, and one of the CILIP Information Literacy Group’s School Library reps, Sarah Pavey, who are carrying out some research into the shift to online teaching that has taken place in UK education in relation to information literacy teaching.

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  1. Pingback: 2020: a year in review | thelibrarianerrant

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