Creating context for library instruction

For my instruction practicum last week I observed four classes: English 101, Foundations for Learning 100, and two intro to comm studies classes.  Since these were all freshman-level classes and it was only the fourth week of school, one of the big things I noticed was that the students often either hadn’t been assigned a research project yet, or had only just been told about their project maybe minutes before the library session and hadn’t had any time to think about it.  With these kinds of classes that are core requirements and are comprised mainly of beginning undergrads, it seems like sometimes fear and a looming deadline are the best motivators for students to really engage in the library session.  Library instruction with no context is difficult–but I was impressed by how the librarians I observed created context for classes that didn’t have projects in mind.

One of my favorite methods for creating context is the “Twilight to the Rescue” approach.  In several of the classes the librarians showed a clip from Twilight where Bella is doing research to figure out what Edward’s deal is.  The clip illustrates how the research process is cyclical (she starts with Google, finds a book, goes back to Google to narrow her search based on the info in the book, and finally finds a website that helps her) and how personal experience influences research (as she reads she thinks back to moments when Edward was super fast and strong, cold-skinned, etc).  It’s funny to watch the looks on the students’ faces when a “clip about the research process” turns out to be Twilight.  That certainly wakes them up, and then provides context to refer back to during the research session.

Another method I’ve observed that I like is basing the session on students’ own experience.  I talked a lot about this last time, but I think it’s really helpful to ask questions like “what kinds of research have you done in the past?” and “how do you start research?” so that students can think of a concrete project they have already accomplished and use their memory of that process as a departure point for the new skills they will learn in the library session.

Students can also be encouraged to engage in the session when the librarian asks them to contribute a list of possible research topics.  I’ve seen this approached a variety of ways: in one class last week where students had been assigned a project but hadn’t really started thinking about it, the librarian asked them to brainstorm and created a list on the board.  In another class where there was no research project assigned yet, the librarian asked them to create a list of topics that might be interesting to research.  This one is obviously more difficult because it is not as grounded in the students’ immediate needs.  With each of these approaches, students have the opportunity to engage in the session by contributing ideas.  Even if the sample topic is completely unrelated to anything any of them will eventually research, it is far more interactive than going through a canned search with a topic that the librarian has already picked out.

Even when a librarian is successful at creating context for the library session, the problem remains of how to get students to apply what they have just learned so that they at least remember a little bit from the session.  It doesn’t make much sense to turn students loose in a database to search topics that they won’t be pursuing, and most of them would probably end up on facebook in a matter of seconds.  For classes that didn’t have research project, one of the big “take home” points was how to get help from the library when they needed it.  Of course, many of them will remember pieces of how to use a database or evaluate a website, but they were also given the skills to find help on their class lib guide and encouraged to ask for help in the online chat and at the reference desk.  Overall I think that’s a good approach to getting students engaged with library resources when they have no specific assignment.  As I continue my practicum, I’d like to learn more about methods for giving library instruction a meaningful context.

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