Heads Up! in PowerPoint for library class sessions

Since my John Jay colleague Kathleen Collins wrote about using active learning strategies in library “one-shot” sessions, I’ve been experimenting with games and hands-on activities to keep students engaged in the material. Typically, I cover library research basics in the sessions I teach: breaking a research question down into keywords (this is hard for freshmen!) and finding books/articles.

I frequently refer to “Don’t Do Their Work: Active Learning and Database Instruction,” a fantastic article in LOEX by Jennifer Sterling, which covers different active-learning activities she uses in her classroom. One in particular has been a breakout success for my own teaching.

Heads Up! is an iOS/Android app from Ellen DeGeneres (et al.) based on the old game Password, wherein the player who’s “it” must guess a word they can’t see based on hints from their teammates. It’s a great way to get students thinking about synonyms and related words for keywords, and it absolutely starts the class session off with a high energy level.

Because this is happening in the library classroom, I have adapted Heads Up! for a PowerPoint presentation. It’s a little hokey — it’s just a list of words that appear on-click next to a one-minute timer gif. A volunteer from each side of the room stands in front of the projector screen so they can’t see the words, but their teammates can.

example from powerpoint slides

Download my PowerPoint slides for adapted Heads Up! (adapt further and reuse freely) »

Usually, students get between 2 and 7 words. Note that these are general words, not library-y words. Something easy and low-barrier to engage students from the get-go. So far, my favorite moment has been for the keyword “Chiptole,” for which half the classroom devolved into students shouting “Bowl! Bowl! BOWL! BOWL!” at their flustered classmate. (“Cereal? Spoon? Plate? Salad?? Soup??”) Probably the most laughter that’s ever occurred on my watch.

I swear by this activity! Students usually beg me to let them play another round, which wouldn’t hurt since it’s only 60 seconds. They absolutely get the connection between Heads Up! and the next part of my presentation, in which they pick keywords out of their actual research questions and find synonyms and related words, then trade worksheets with a classmate. This, too, is an activity inspired by that LOEX article.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 3.01.56 PM

Download “Keywords” Word Document (adapt and reuse freely) »

Let me know if you use these or other active-learning approaches in your library classes. I’m always looking for fun ways to engage undergrads in the library curriculum.

What did I do this year? 2014–15 edition

librarian word cloud

I jump-start my annual self-evaluation process with a low-level text analysis of my work log, essentially composed of “done” and “to do” bullet points. I normalized the text (e.g. emailed to email), removed personal names, and ran the all “done” items through Wordle.

2014–15 was my third year in my job and the third time I did this. (See 2012–13 and 2013–14). I do this because it can be difficult to remember what I was up to many months ago. It’s also a basic visualization of where my time is spent.

What did I do at my job this year?

Aside from the usual meetings, emails, and Reference Desk duties…

  • chat: I implemented a chat reference service with my colleagues (this had been tried before on this campus, but with subpar software and bad staffing experiences; this time, we have limited hours and are very happy with LibraryH3lp)
  • 50th: I worked on a physical and digital exhibit on the 50th anniversary of John Jay
  • mmc: We rolled out the Murder Mystery Challenge for the second year
  • l-etc: I co-chaired the LACUNY Emerging Tech Committee for the second year
  • dc: I worked more on our Digital Collections site, importing materials and refining the UX
  • mla: I went to MLA 2015 in Vancouver and gave a presentation
  • onesearch: We further implemented CUNY’s web-scale discovery service; I organized and ran a usability testing session with my colleagues
  • caug: I began to convene the CollectiveAccess User Group at METRO
  • socialmedia: I became more active on behalf of the library on the @johnjaylibrary Instagram account
  • newsletter: I designed two more biannual issues of Classified Information, our department newsletter
  • drupal, page, fixed, update, added, etc.: I continued to maintain the library’s Drupal-based website

What’s on tap for 2015–16? Lots of online education outreach and much more instruction than I’ve previously done! I’m also starting to flex my writing muscles, starting with a quarterly column in Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian.

CollectiveAccess work environment

I wrote earlier about our CollectiveAccess workflow for uploading objects one-by-one and in a batch. Now I’ll share our CollectiveAccess work environment. We use two Ubuntu servers, development (test) and production (live), both with CollectiveAccess installed on them. We also use a private GitHub repository.

This is only one example of a CollectiveAccess workflow! See the user-created documentation for more.

Any changes to code (usually tweaking the layout of front end, Pawtucket) are made first on the dev instance. Once we’re happy with the changes and have tested out the site in different browsers, we commit & push the code to our private GitHub repo. Then we pull it down to our production server, where the changes are now publicly viewable.

Any changes to objects (uploading or updating objects, collections, etc.) are made directly in the production instance. We never touch the database directly, only through the admin dashboard (Providence). These data changes aren’t done in the dev instance; we only have ~300 objects in the dev server, as more would take up too much room, and there’s no real reason why we should have all our objects on the dev instance. But if there’s a new filetype we’re uploading for the first time, or another reason an object might be funky, we add the object as a test object to the dev server.

Any changes to metadata display (adding a new field in the records) is done through the admin dashboard. I might first try the change on the dev instance, but not necessarily.


  • code changes aren’t live immediately and there is a structure for testing
  • all code changes can be reverted if they break the site
  • code change documentation is built into the workflow (git)
  • objects and metadata are immediately visible to the public, and faculty/staff working on the collections don’t need to know anything about git


  • increasing mismatch between the dev and production instances’ objects and metadata display (in the future, we might do a batch import/upload if we need to)
  • this workflow has no contact with the CollectiveAccess GitHub, so updates aren’t simply pulled, but rather manually downloaded; new files overwrite old files

Not pictured or mentioned above: our servers are backed up on a regular basis.

CollectiveAccess super user? Add your workflow to the Sample Workflows page! 

The faculty toolbox for online learning

When I code, I love simply copying and pasting from an example website or someone’s open source code. Most of my projects begin as a collage of different code samples that are gradually tuned to my goal. That copy/paste ethos informed my latest work in progress, the Faculty Toolbox.

What’s inside?

The Faculty Toolbox is a goody bag for John Jay faculty who teach online. Inside, there are special library modules they can drag & drop into a course shell; simple instructions for embedding streaming videos; a proxied link generator; and basic info about library liaisons and how I, the Emerging Technologies & Distance Services Librarian, can support online teaching.

It’s a little thing, but it’s a big thing. The Toolbox has been a conversation piece in multiple meetings I’ve been in, and whenever I unveil it, there’s definitely an ‘ooh!’ response to seeing a collection of useful resources prepackaged and offered on a single page. It’s not just a toolbox; it’s a gateway.

Goody bag + cave of wonders

The terminology I use is important. “Toolbox,” “goody bag,” “starter kit” — these are all phrases that call to mind a plethora of shiny items without being overbearing. There’s no “template” or even “guide” happening here; this is a partnership between the library and faculty, rather than a service or directive. And phrases like “generator” or “drag and drop” are derived from exciting action verbs that imply quickness and ease.

That intentional terminology is a response to one barrier to using library resources in online classes. It’s not that it’s difficult, per se, but it’s a bummer to have to scurry all over the library website(s) to gather teaching materials for students. By all means, that’s part of creating course curricula — but the simpler things, like linking to APA/MLA citation guides, should be easy as pie, and we make it so.

Lastly, the Toolbox can be a Cave of Wonders, too. So many faculty haven’t realized the richness of our streaming video collections. When I show it to them (or when they glance at the sample videos I linked to), a whole new world of engaging course content opens up.

Placement & promotion

The Faculty Toolbox is linked from our Faculty Resources list, where they can also find important information about citation metrics and purchase requests. It’s also linked from the John Jay Online faculty resources page, and it’s been emailed to all JJO instructors, too. And in the fall, I’ll be showing it off right and left at a number of workshops in different contexts — Faculty Development Day, Blackboard training workshops, and more.

Blackboard modules from the Library

Our Toolbox was inspired by the one at FIT, which was created by Helen Lane. She mentioned this at an ACRL/NY Distance Ed SIG last year, and it’s an excellent example. Take a look — she makes it so easy to embed many things.

What else would be appropriate to include in the Toolbox?

Updating the Murder Mystery Challenge library game

Previously: The Murder Mystery Challenge: a pilot project with an impressive turnout (2013)

murder mystery challenge

About the game

In the fall of 2013, my colleague Marta and I created and organized a Murder Mystery Challenge for first-year students, teaming up with the Peer Mentors in the Student Academic Success Programs here at John Jay. It was so successful that we did it again in fall 2014!

The Murder Mystery Challenge is designed to walk first-year students through basic research tasks. The Challenge follows a murder case narrative based on a real 1921 crime. Students work in teams to use historical resources in the library to solve the mystery.


Updating the game

Based on student feedback in fall 2013, we made these changes:

  • murder mystery challenge packetPaper is more fun: Rather than a totally online activity that students met up in-person to complete, we put together file folders with a colorful printed packet, along with some “hint” materials, like a map of the library and our ubiquitous how-to-find-a-book bookmarks.
    • Using a paper packet felt more like completing a scavenger hunt than filling out an online form. And after all, most of their college assignments and syllabi are distributed on paper.
    • Reflecting most library research, many clues did instruct the students to find information online—but encouraged the students to take turns at the computer.
    • I created the nice-looking clues packet in Word, reusing images I’d made featuring photos in our Special Collections.
  • Smaller teams: Teams had 4-5 students last year, but some students felt left out because there wasn’t enough for everyone to do. So this time around, students worked in teams of 2-3, which created a more intimate and intense setting for team learning.
  • Points rubric: Previously, the team that submitted accurate answers the fastest won. But doing solid research isn’t about speed! It’s about being careful! So this time around, we assigned points to each question, and scored packets to determine the winners. (E.g., teams with 120 points won the top tier prizes, VIP lunch, $15 Amazon gift cards, $10 movie passes; teams with 110-115 points won the second tier of prizes; etc.)
  • students in the murder mystery challenge 2014Social media: One of the bonus questions instructed students to post photos of themselves with Lil Jay (a bobblehead of our namesake) on 1–5 social media accounts with the hashtags #jjcliljay, #jjcsleuths, and #jjcsasp, and to email screenshots to me. The photos were really wonderful — it’s always so wonderful to see young students having a lot of fun in the Stacks!


Student feedback

Murder Mystery Challenge promotional posterWe collected feedback from a survey sent out afterward. Here are some verbatim student responses.

How fun was the Murder Mystery Challenge? Average: 3.75/4 (1 = no fun, 4 = very fun)

How difficult was it? 3.24 out of 4 (1 = very difficult, 4 = very easy)

What did you learn?

  • I learned how to enhance my detective skills.
  • I learned how to navigate the library
  • How to look for articles in the John Jay library data base.
  • I learned how competitive my friends and I are when competing in a challenge.
  • I learned how to use the MLA citation
  • I learned how to do an APA citation. One of the bonus questions was to cite an article or book, I went to the John Jay library website and clicked the link on how to do citation.
  • That the locations are named reference and stacks, etc. also that you have to look up the books by call number

What would you change about the activity?

  • I would make the activity a tad bit more difficult and also make it school wide, not just the library.
  • Nothing, It was so fun!
  • Where things are hidden and how much information is given in the clues.
  • Nothing, overall it was a fun and educational experience, although I think having the challenge in the library might have possibly distracted other students at the library by peaking their curiosity as to what we were up to.
  • nothing, it was great!
  • One thing I would change about the activity is the fact that you have to post pictures on social media. That should have just been considered 2 extra points for just posting one picture
  • It was too short. I would add onto it
  • Nothing

Are you seeing what I’m seeing? The students wanted more work for this Murder Mystery Challenge!! I did very little reading about games and gamification when designing this, but from the little I’ve read, there’s a “sweet spot” all addicting games hit, when the amount of effort you’re putting forth in a game results in just the right amount of reward. So the sweet spot here seems to be a good balance of time spent on the Challenge, number of clues tracked down, and doing new and different tasks.

What’s next

In Fall 2015, we plan to stage the Murder Mystery Challenge for the third year running. We’re pretty happy with how the Challenge was revised, but we might incorporate using our new discovery service, OneSearch (Primo).

We’re also developing the Murder Mystery Challenge as an online-only activity wrapped up in a Blackboard quiz for online students who need a fun but educational introduction to doing library research online. We’ll have to remove finding a book in the stacks, and add one or two other online activities to make up for it. For this, we’re teaming up with our online learning office and instructional designers, which has been very fruitful for both parties.

I must say, this has been one of the most fun things I’ve done as a librarian! It was enjoyable to create a little mystery game using library resources only John Jay has, and it’s so rewarding to partner with other departments at the College — and to see students having a great time learning in the library.

For a little more on the Murder Mystery Challenge 2014, see the article I wrote for our department newsletter »