Category: Fun

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. Two volunteers from each side of the room stand in front of the projector screen so they can’t see the words, but their teammates can.

heads up in the library

Download my PowerPoint slides for adapted Heads Up! (adapt further and reuse freely) »
(This version includes different timer gifs on each page. I did this because sometimes Powerpoint glitches out when “restarting” the same gif on a different page.)

I ask for 2 volunteers from each side of the room. Both volunteers can guess when it’s their team’s turn (so that they don’t feel so alone at the front of the room, especially when they’re not doing well). Both teams get 2 rounds, meaning the game lasts around 4 minutes total (plus some banter in between). 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 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. (Warn them about trading ahead of time, if you’re going to ask them to do this.) This keyword-gathering activity, too, is 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.

Update (added August 12, 2016): I updated the slides. Also, there aren’t many 1-minute countdown gifs out there, so I made some in black and white, below. They’re set to run through the animation only once, so don’t worry if they’re all “00,” just download the gif.

one minute countdown timer gifone minute countdown timer gif

one minute countdown timer gifone minute timer countdown gif

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 »

What did I do this year? 2013–14 edition

Voyant word cloud of 2013-14 activities

It’s self-evaluation time again! It’s the second year I’ve had to do this for my current job. Last year, I found it enormously helpful to quantify and visualize the activities I’d done in the given time period. I use the daily “Done today” entries I write in Evernote, a Python script I wrote last year, the BeautifulSoup Python library, and Voyant Tools to get a holistic look at what I did this year.

Voyant Tools allow different views of the data. One is Cirrus word clouds. (When used in combo with other data tools, word clouds are useful.) The image at the top of this entry is the word cloud that ignores common stop words, my colleagues’ names, and the words ref, desk, email/s/ed, met, meeting, talked, hr (hour), and sent.

Here’s the word cloud that only ignores common stop words:

Read more

The Murder Mystery Challenge: a pilot project with an impressive turnout

Mystery Challenge

This article was originally published in Lloyd Sealy Library’s biannual newsletter, Classified Information, Fall 2013 (PDF).

Update: In Fall 2014, we updated this game in response to student feedback »

See also: poster presented at CUNY Games Festival in January 2014 »

Each fall, the Library offers multiple venues for first-year students to acquaint themselves with basic college research skills. Librarians visit classes, students attend drop-in workshops, and—this year for the first time—students also participated in the Murder Mystery Challenge.

For two weeks in October (plus a two-day extension due to popular demand), the Library was the site of a puzzle competition. Students looked through historical resources to “solve” a 1921 murder case based on a trial transcript in the Library’s Special Collections that concerned a man shot in midtown. The trial brought forth the testimony of several witnesses and acquaintances of the murderer. From these testimonies, and with input from Prof. Marta Bladek, I put together a five-part puzzle that guided students through using typical Library resources. (You can read through all of the clues + answers in this Murder Mystery Clues Printout PDF [8 MB].) Most of the clues require online research, and one clue requires students to venture into the stacks to find a particular book by its call number. Answers were recorded and timestamped for librarians to assess.

Mystery ChallengeOur desired learning outcomes were basic research skills (finding books and articles) as well as team-based learning and gaining familiarity with the study spaces and friendly staff in the Library.

Teams of four or five first-years were led by trained Peer Mentors from their First-Year Seminar courses. For an hour each day, the Library saw teams arrive in happy groups and scurry to decipher the clues in the narrative we created.

Mystery ChallengeWith the invaluable help of Student Academic Success Programs (SASP), we arranged coveted prizes for the top three teams who answered accurately and most quickly: catered lunches in the Faculty Dining Room, $20 Amazon gift cards, $10 Barnes & Noble gift cards, and New York Times tote bags and travel mugs.

Over 75 first-year students grouped in 19 teams participated in the Challenge. The teams averaged 33 minutes to complete the Challenge, ranging from 11 to 46 minutes.

In a survey sent out after the teams completed the Challenge, students gave us feedback. Each of the 23 students who responded told us two things they learned. All 23 said they learned how to find a book in the library, and 17 also mentioned learning about finding articles or using databases. On a scale of 1 (no fun) to 5 (very fun), students rated the activity at a 3.5.

Mystery ChallengeSelected representative student comments on their experience and suggestions for improving the activity:

  • It’s actually a great way to interact, get competitive and have fun with your peers.
  • Make it more like a murder mystery challenge and less like a way to learn how to use the library.
  • I think it would if been more fun if it wasn’t mostly done online. Also if it was more of a scavenger hunt.
  • Make it more challenging.

Overall, it was a successful pilot project. We’ll tweak and refine the activity, taking into account student input. We hope to stage this event again next fall!


You can read through all of the clues + answers in this Murder Mystery Clues Printout PDF (8 MB).

What did I do this year?

180+ notes
180+ notes

I’ve mentioned before that I keep a professional journal as a quick way to keep tabs on the projects I’m doing and what I should be focusing on. It takes the form of a 3-part note in Evernote: Done, To Do, and Backburner.

My annual evaluation is coming up, for which I have to write a self-evaluation summarizing all the things I did this year. It’s hard to slow down and think big-picture, and it’s hard to remember what exactly my priorities were last fall when I’m so caught up in what I’m doing now.

Output as HTML
Output as HTML

To get a jump-start, I wrote a tiny Python script to iterate through my notes (exported to HTML). Using BeautifulSoup to climb the trees of my messy and non-standardized notes, it lists out all the things I marked “Done” since September.

I fed the plain text into Voyant Tools, “a web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts.” It’s probably more interesting and helpful if you use a larger text, but my 8,900-word text had analyses of interest too.

Word cloud using Cirrus in Voyant Tools
Word cloud using Cirrus in Voyant Tools. Stopwords: Taporware & names of colleagues

Some of these aren’t so surprising. Oh, really, I went to lots of meetings and sent lots of emails? But it’s also easy to see that my priorities for most of the year centered on building the new library website (usability, git, drupal, database) with some side projects thrown in (signs, guides, newsletter, IA).

Here are the word frequency data from Voyant for words occurring more than 25 times (stop words included):

Words in the Entire Corpus. Corpus Term Frequencies provides an ordered list for all the terms’ frequencies appearing in a corpus. As well additional columns can be toggled to show other statistical information, including a small line graph for term frequency across the corpus.

Voyant Tools, Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell (©2013) Privacy v. 3.0 beta (4583)

word count z-score mean
to 286 23.51 321.1
and 241 19.77 270.6
with 205 16.77 230.2
for 178 14.52 199.9
about 155 12.60 174.0
on 131 10.60 147.1
the 96 7.69 107.8
in 92 7.36 103.3
up 81 6.44 90.9
of 79 6.27 88.7
bonnie 72 5.69 80.8
meeting 59 4.61 66.2
sent 59 4.61 66.2
a 54 4.19 60.6
page 53 4.11 59.5
new 47 3.61 52.8
talked 47 3.61 52.8
email 43 3.27 48.3
emailed 43 3.27 48.3
mandy 43 3.27 48.3
ref 41 3.11 46.0
desk 40 3.02 44.9
all 38 2.86 42.7
blog 36 2.69 40.4
out 36 2.69 40.4
at 35 2.61 39.3
will 35 2.61 39.3
made 34 2.53 38.2
site 34 2.53 38.2
library 32 2.36 35.9
from 31 2.28 34.8
met 31 2.28 34.8
it 30 2.19 33.7
usability 30 2.19 33.7
be 29 2.11 32.6
signs 29 2.11 32.6
1 28 2.03 31.4
is 28 2.03 31.4
marta 28 2.03 31.4
post 28 2.03 31.4
database 27 1.94 30.3
faculty 27 1.94 30.3
more 27 1.94 30.3
not 27 1.94 30.3
test 27 1.94 30.3
2 26 1.86 29.2
added 25 1.78 28.1
asked 25 1.78 28.1
drupal 25 1.78 28.1
fixed 25 1.78 28.1


Word counts aren’t the whole story, obvs, but it’s a good place to start for my self-evaluation!