Tag: instruction

Library instruction and reflection: feed your brain

I still consider myself a “newbie” at library instruction, so I make a point to set aside time following every class to reflect on what just happened. Through this, I’ve learned quite a bit about myself and my teaching. Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights:

1) Specific goals produce specific results.

For each instruction session, I create three expected learning outcomes (ELOs). I’ve found that the more specific these statement are, the easier they are to assess. I don’t always accomplish what I set out to do, but because I’ve drafted my ELOs in a “smart“ way, I know exactly where and how I missed the mark. For example, instead of saying “Help students define their research paper topic,” I say “Students will have a narrow view of their proposed topic and be able to state it clearly and concisely [before the end of class].” How do I know I achieved this? By having students brainstorm ideas (mind-mapping) in class and then using those ideas to write out a thesis statement a la Wayne Booth’s The Craft of Research.

2) You learn as much after the class as you do in it.

I’ve been reading Char Booth’s Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning recently and I’ve adopted her recommended practice of asking myself three questions after every session: What went well? What didn’t go well? and How can I make it better next time? For each session that I teach, I type up the responses from the surveys I give each student at the end of class (Top 3 things you learned; 2 questions or things unclear; one thing you will definitely use) and compare these to my ELOs. The entire process only takes 15-20 minutes but the benefits multiply exponentially. For example, I originally thought that having a rigidly structured class would produce the best results, i.e. student surveys would match up with ELOs. But in fact, after reviewing the last few courses I’ve taught, the classes that were more organic (more collaborative time, more Q&A, more impromptu) produced better outcomes, especially regarding student satisfaction with the course.

3) You can’t force students to ask questions.

I wanted so terribly to incorporate Poll Everywhere into my instruction. I thought it would be a way to encourage more open inquiry but in fact it did the exact opposite. It shut down the students’ desire to ask questions or give feedback. I may use PE for other purposes, but as an attempt to generate questions, it was doing more harm than good. Instead, I’ve been working to generate conversation, which inevitably seems to lead to questions. If I get the students talking, I know I’m in good shape.

4) Always have a backup plan.

I walked into a classroom yesterday only to discover that it didn’t have any whiteboard space. So my plan to have students create mind-maps on the board was crushed. Instead, I opened up Google Docs and Voila! Instant whiteboard.

5) I love Q&A time!

Even with all the planning I do for each class (2-3 hours), I still respond more articulately to unexpected questions. Yesterday, a student asked whether or not he could print off books from Google Books. This gave me the opportunity to talk about copyright and e-books. The student was crestfallen that he couldn’t print off everything he need from gBooks, but now he also knew where to go to find e-books in the library collection.

In all likelihood, it will be years before I even begin to consider myself “a good teacher,” In the meantime, I can be confident that I have a realistic (and data-supported) understanding of my abilities.

A mistake worth making

This morning, I thought I would try something different in my “Using Library Resources” class. In the past, students seemed reluctant to ask questions. I had been told by my more experienced colleagues to expect this, but I’m just not convinced this is business-as-usual. Perhaps it’s me; perhaps it’s the fact that I only teach 9 am classes. Whatever the cause, I wanted to generate more inquiry.

So I decided to give PollEverywhere a try. I set up a poll that I kept live throughout the entire session where students could submit free-form questions. I gave the students the URL and told them to ask questions at any time. I planned to go over all of them at the end…

Except there were no questions.

So I moved on to my closing statements. At the end of class, after the students filled out the evaluation sheets (What did you learn? What are you still unsure about?), there were two very good questions. Why didn’t these students ask me about this before they left?

In retrospect, introducing the poll at the beginning of class was not the best approach. It gave the impression early on that we didn’t have time for questions (there was a lot to go over) and probably precluded the students’ impulse to ask me anything.  But through the evaluation, I learned that there were questions and aspects of library research that I didn’t explain clearly for at least two students.

Instead, I should have set aside 5 minutes at the end of class and then prompted the students to submit questions via the poll site. I could then quickly assess the most important topics and address them as time permitted. It would also have allowed me to clear up any misunderstanding before the students filled out the evaluation forms, rather than after.

So next time, I’ll try that instead. It was a mistake, but one worth making.

Creating an alternative to the traditional textbook

It wasn’t so long ago that I was a college student, so when I read about ways that colleges are trying to overcome the woes of unwieldy (and often drab) textbooks, the student in me perks up. According to the Chronicle, Temple University is about to begin a second round of pilot testing digital alternatives to the traditional textbook:

The pilot project gave 11 faculty members $1,000 each to create a digital alternative to a traditional textbook. To enliven their students’ reading, the instructors pulled together primary-source documents and material culled from library archives. […] The Temple program mirrors a similar effort announced at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in December.

I don’t remember the details of a single textbook that I used as an undergrad, but I do remember the hand-curated course packets that a small handful of my profs put together. Not only do these leverage library resources (and with digitization, special collections), but they add a personal touch to instruction, as if to say, “What we read and discuss in this class is important to me so I’ve taken the time to pull this material together for you.”

You can find more info on the project at Temple’s website.

David Brooks on preparing our college graduates

David Brooks wrote an op-ed for today’s New York Times where he talks about how we as an American society have failed the generation of college students about to enter the work force. Read the article at your leisure, but I’m planning to digress a bit from the topic. Brooks makes one comment that struck me as applicable to academic library work:

No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness. But this is exactly what has emerged in modern America. College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.

Academic librarians talk a lot about developing skills, most notably in the context of information literacy. We spend many waking hours and significant resources teaching students how to effectively research information for their coursework, how to analyze it, use it, and (if we’re lucky) how to develop lifelong learning habits that they can use beyond the classroom. But in the opinion of Brooks, we (as part of the system that builds up young learners) are letting our students down.

Granted, Brooks is speaking in terms of the entire educational system, both institutional and cultural. He isn’t focusing his comments directly at universities but also at K-12 schools, parents, and communities. Yet, I think his conclusion is a helpful reminder of why librarians do what they do: one that provides a broader context.

Yes, we ought to teach students how to choose appropriate databases and developing effective search strings, but, all the while, keeping in mind that this is a skill that may only be applicable to the students’ time at university. What is important is the application of learned skill to other life experiences.

To that end, I would advocate for academic librarians to engage more with students by helping them develop better “ground level” skills: learning to manage personal information, to research job opportunities, to stay politically or socially involved with their communities, to build up communities… activities they will continue to struggle with far beyond graduation. We should talk to our students; find out what they think their needs are (or will be), then develop programming around those needs.

What are your thoughts? Should academic libraries be concerned with non-research-related (but information-related) skills development? Have you been a part of a similar program at your institution? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!

Walking a new reference beat

People conducting research in libraries are less mobile than they once were. Not only do they have their papers, library items, and a coffee carefully positioned, they also often have a laptop, a phone, and a music device on display as well.” Aaron Schmidt, Revaming Reference – The User Experience.

When I read that sentence, I was struck dumb. Holy mother of Xenu! You’re right! When I’m at the reference desk or when I look around the reading room, I see nothing but students on laptops. It’s so normal that I never give it a second thought. So why should I think that these students are going to get up from their seat to spend 5-10 minutes with a librarian while their precious hardware is sitting unattended? NYTimes recently warned of the perils of leaving your tech unattended in public spaces and academic libraries are not immune to theft (as the campus police reports constantly remind me).

Ok. So I’ve finally realized something that is completely obvious. Schmidt goes on to talk about the social awareness needed to understand when a patron can be approached in the spirit of “proactive reference,” how reference desks can be reshaped and roaming models rethought. At one point, he quotes Martha Flotten, a Multnomah County librarian who claims to have “mind-blowing reference transactions weekly.”

Again, I was struck. I want this.

So let’s work this out. Embedded reference. Blended reference. Roaming reference. We’ve all heard these terms before. But what are the strategies that make these concepts work? Here are a few ideas:

  1. The Latte Librarian approach. Do you know where the engineering graduate students go for coffee between labs? Why not set up office hours there? Get in touch with the graduate coordinator for the department and make sure they pass the word along. See also Some Librarian.
  2. The Tablet Librarian approach. Get a tablet and roam the reading rooms,  study halls, and collaborative work spaces where students get things done. If you have to, wear a shirt that says “Free Librarian” (or wear a bow tie). Use your social insight to find students who need a helping hand. Great waiters/waitresses know when you need their help and when to leave you alone. Channel your inner waitress.
  3. The Celebrity Librarian approach. Build a brand around 1 or 2 of your most charismatic reference librarians. Set them up with Foursquare and location-based social programs and get the word out about their movements. Let students follow them. Make it game (I have a Waldo costume on stand-by). Patrons may be more inclined to seek out a librarian if they know one is nearby.
  4. The Student Librarian approach. Work with indiviudal students to create [paid] library ambassadors that extend reference services into particular dorms, schools, buildings, or other campus locales. Build in them strong research skills and train them how to teach these skills to others. MPOW will begin a similar program in the fall.
  5. The Librarian-For-Hire approach. Reach out to student government groups, Greek societies, and professional societies within the university system and offer your services. Go to their meetings and talk with the leaders of those organizations. I’m sure that the local political societies would love to have a seminar on finding resources for their various campaigns. It may require teaching some classes outside the normal hours, but it’s a connection to students who are really passionate about a subject.

The central theme of all these approaches is location. Meet the students where they are and stop expecting them to come to you. You can do this by making small changes. Instead of having office hours in your office, have them in a public space. Instead of standing behind the reference desk, stand/lean/walk-around in front of it. Visibly express your availability and eagerness. Stop being afraid of intruding.

These are just a few ideas for revamping your reference service and getting you out from behind the desk. Maybe they will work for. Maybe not. Maybe they will just be excuses for you to procure special project funding and find an excuse to drink more coffee (or buy an iPad). But the need for human mediation in the information search/evaluation/use process will never disappear, no matter what the deathers claim. We just need to be more proactive in finding gentler ways of making that first contact.

How has your library tried to revamp reference and reach out to students where they are? What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked?

Information literacy, instruction, and the social web

Yesterday, I took a few moments to sit down and read Greg Bobish’s recent article in The Journal of Academic Librarianship, “Participation and pedagogy: Connecting the social web to ACRL learning outcomes.” In it, he claims that a constructivist approach to learning underlies the ACRL standards for Information Literacy and, as such, Web 2.0 tools can provide a rich landscape for building instruction activities rooted in pedagogical theory and practice (as opposed to being used simply for their “shiny” qualities).

He cites five requirements of the ideal constructivist environment and links these to qualities inherent in many Web 2.0 tools/platforms:

  1. Complex and challenging learning environments
  2. Social negotiation and shared responsibility
  3. Multiple representations of content
  4. The understanding that knowledge is constructed
  5. Student-centered instruction

The first half of the article lays out his justification for integrating Web 2.0 into the academic library classroom using these five elements. But what I found especially valuable was the latter half of the article which provided an example of a learning activity for each of the 87 performance indicators and outcomes in ACRL’s standards. These are brief but they offer some unique ideas for instruction.

For example, Standard 4.3.c states that information literate students can “incorporates principles of design and communication” as part of the act of “using information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose” and “communicating the performance and product” of that act. Bobish offers the following activity for this learning outcome:

Students are asked to present the information they have gathered to a Facebook group created by the instructor. A follow-up discussion is held (either in-class or online) about how the platform influenced the way they presented their findings and how they might have done it differently if it had been an in-class presentation or a PowerPoint slideshow. (p. 61)

I love this idea! It takes a step beyond simply using Web 2.0 for its entertainment value (or just because we can) and asks students to question the platforms they use daily to communicate information, both personal and professional. Granted, some of Bobish’s examples fall into the former category (“shiny”), but most promise to provide simple ways to engage students in familiar, digital environments and reconsider the assumptions inherent in them. I recommend keeping this article on hand for when you are looking for ways to update your instructional cookbooks.

Using Flickr to build critical thinking skills

I’m currently taking a course on Library Instruction as part of my MLIS work. The following is an exercise I developed for one of my assignments: using tagging to help students think critically about information organization and retrieval. The idea is based on a similar lesson developed by Maggio, Bresnahan, Flynn & Harzbecker (2009) in which they use the concept of tagging to illustrate MeSH. As a premise, both lessons attempt to capitalize on knowledge that students may already possess before the session begins. What do you think? Have you used similar lessons in your instruction sessions? How do you teach students about subject headings?


Grassian & Kaplowitz (2009) suggest that librarians should teach two types of critical thinking: (1) critical thinking about information researching tools and (2) critical thinking about materials received. The following exercise attempts to address the first of these by asking students to reflect upon how information is organized in both formal and informal systems using the popular photo sharing website Flickr and academic databases such as Proquest and Academic OneFile. Maggio, Bresnahan, Flynn & Harzbecker, in their 2009 study, used the concept of social tagging to illustrate the benefits of controlled vocabulary in the MEDLINE database. Based on pre-class and post-class evaluations, the students’ ability to recognize and select MeSH related to a specified article increased from 9.2% to 78.2%. The exercise below is adapted from this case study and utilizes social tagging to improve students’ ability to think critically about database searching and subject classification.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the instruction session, students should understand how subject headings affect the organization and retrieval of information. Specifically, the following two ACRL Information Literacy Standards apply:

3.2.d: Recognizes the cultural, physical, or other context within which the information was created and understands the impact of context on interpreting the information

2.2.c: Selects controlled vocabulary specific to the discipline or information retrieval source
Students will demonstrate learning through their ability to discuss the social, political, and/or contextual implications of tagging and controlled vocabulary. They will also be able to locate and evaluate subject thesauri in specific databases and compare subject headings between various databases.

Instruction and Activities

Pre-class Prep: Select a number of photos from Flickr that could generate interesting discussions about classification (images from current events, popular landmarks, famous individuals, etc.). Print two copies of each of these images so that there are enough for the expected number of students. Images could also be saved to PC desktops or flash-drives if that is more convenient. Assign two databases to each image that students will use for searching later in the session. Include either a link or a step-by-step guide to navigating to the database homepage.

Social Tagging in Flickr (20 min): Begin the session by briefly discussing the concept of tagging (in case anyone is unfamiliar with the practice) and showing the benefits of searching by assigned tags rather than searching by keyword. Hand out the images printed before class to the students and ask them to assign 3-5 tags to the photo. Have the students find the other person who has their same image and ask them to discuss the tags they chose. Did they choose the same tags? Different ones? Ask 1-2 of the groups to present their findings and, as a class, discuss any biases or assumptions made when assigning certain tags (e.g. perspective, focus, gender, cognitive domain, synonymy).

Locating Database Thesauri (20 min): While still in pairs, have the students find subject headings similar to the tags they assigned using the two databases indicated on their handouts. Ask the students to compare how similar concepts are described in the two different databases (e.g. “Exxon Valdez disaster” vs. “Exxon Valdez oil spill”) and present their findings to the class. Use this time to discuss the biases and assumptions made in assigning subject headings.

Conclusion (10 min): Using Flickr’s website, locate the images that you used for their assignments and show them the actual tags assigned to each image. Discuss any lingering questions about the benefits and drawbacks of using controlled vocabulary to search for articles.


ALA. ACRL. (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved June 18, 2010, from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency.cfm

Grassian, E.S. & Kaplowitz, J.R. (2009). Information literacy instruction: theory and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Maggio, L.A., Besnahan, M., Flynn, D.B., & Harzbecker, J. (2009). A case study: using social tagging to engage students in learning Medical Subject Headings. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 97(2), 77-83.

Innovative info-lit instruction

For one of my MLIS courses, I’ve been researching information literacy instruction methods. I’ve come across a number of activities that I found to be unique, inspiring, or innovative (even thrilling!). Here is a summary of the practical approaches to IL that caught my eye. If you have any “tricks of the trade” that you think are unique or worthy of note, please share in the comments!

Social Tagging as Metaphor for Subject Headings

Both Luo (2010) and Maggio (2010) discuss using social tagging practices to illustrate the concept of subject headings in library catalogs and databases. By illustrating how tagging structures work and how using them can be beneficial to research, instructors can show students how to use subject headings in the library catalog. Even though the formation of a controlled vocabulary for a database differs from the way folksonomies are created, instructors can use this difference to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each system.

Luo, L. (2010). Web 2.0 integration in information literacy instruction : an overview. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(1), 32-40.

Maggio, L. A., Bresnahan, M., Flynn, D. B., & Harzbecker, J. (2009). A case study: using social tagging to engage students in learning Medical Subject Headings. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 97(2), 77-83.

Collaboration and Reflection

Jacobs & Jacobs (2009) discuss a concept that is not new but deeply effective and deserves mentioning. As part of a collaboration between an information literacy librarian and a professor of composition and rhetoric, the Composition Program at University of Windsor developed a writing project that built the research and reflection aspects of writing a paper into the requirements of the assignment. As a result, more emphasis was shifted toward the process of research as opposed to the results. Constant feedback from the writing instructor and the librarian enriched the process.

Jacobs, H., & Jacobs, D. (2009). Transforming  the one-shot library session into pedagogical collaboration: information literacy and the English composition class. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(1), 72-82.

Related: Christopher C. & Cmor, D. (2009). Blogging toward information literacy: engaging students and facilitating peer learning. Reference Services Review, 37(4), 395-407.


The University of Michigan developed a game, The Defense of Hidgeon, that tested the information retrieval skills of student players. The game is set in the 14th century and players had to use their knowledge of library resources and searching skills to navigate through a plague-ridden landscape. The object of the game is to become the “Lord Researcher” for Duke Jerome. The overarching storyline kept students engaged and the repetitive nature of some of the tasks reinforced good info seeking habits.

Markey, K., Swanson, F., Jenkins, A., Jennings, B., St. Jean, B., Rosenberg, V., Yao, X., et al. (2008). Engaging undergraduates in research through storytelling and gaming strategy : final report to the Delmas Foundation. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, School of Information. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/58630

Related: Clyde, J. & Thomas, C. (2008). Building an information literacy first-person shooter. Reference Services Review, 36(4), 366-380.

Research Project Survival

Librarians at the University of Purdue worked with Resident Assistants to bring instruction classes into the dormitories in an informal, nonthreatening way. RAs helped to promote the sessions and food was provided. The 45 minutes sessions centered around “5 tips for better research.” The weekend sessions (held when the dining halls were closed) were some the most popular sessions. RAs turned out to be a great resource for marketing the sessions.

Riehle, C. F. (2009). Librarians in the hall: instructional outreach in campus residences. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 16(2/3), 107-21.

One-Off Games

The following ideas come from a book that I was lucky to come across while searching for something else. The Library Instruction Cookbook is published by ACRL and provides a rich source of IL activities. (Be warned, the book is hokey… nonetheless, it’s a resource I wouldn’t want to be without if I’m ever at a loss for ideas.)

Boolean Simon Says

The concept is simple: use participants to physically illustrate concepts of Boolean operators. For example, ask all the students with brown hair to stand. Then ask all students with brown hair AND brown eyes to stand. So and and so forth with OR and NOT. It’s a simple and easy way to “wake people up” early in the morning. (Note: as an instructor, be aware of any students with physical disabilities and adapt accordingly)

Search Engines in a Can

Gather a set of cans of varying sizes and label them with the names of difference databases or search engines according to relative size. For example, the largest one could be Google and the smaller ones could be Proquest, Factiva, etc. Put items in the cans representative of the types of documents/artifacts that you would find by searching those databases. Have fun with the Google can by including a LOT of various items (“porn” is a popular artifact). The idea is to illustrate the concepts of recall and precision in information retrieval.


Just like the board game of the same name, illustrate the technique of keyword mapping by having students locate articles on a particular topic but restrict them from using the words used to describe the topic. For example, if a student is assigned “rates of obesity among adolescents”, they have to use search terms other than those in the description. This can help students understand that the search process is just as organic and iterative as the writing process itself.

Sittler, R. L., & Cook, D. (Eds.). (2009). The Library Instruction Cookbook. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

So what are your ideas?

(UPDATE: I just came across the latest post from In the Library with the Lead Pipe which discusses integrating critical thinking into the instruction process. I recommend reading that post as well.)