Daily Archives: March 31, 2007

Your Brain On ACRL

If you like learning to learn about how people learn – and how they learn about learning – you would have learned quite a bit at the talk given by Luz Mangurian, Professor Emerita at Towson University. She talked about how people learn, but took us for a tour of how the brain works and what happens in the brain when learning is happening. The point was not to turn us into neurologists, but to give us ideas on what to do and what not to do when we are teaching.

For example, she showed us a chart that tracks students’ brain waves during a lecture. The brain activity slowly declines as the lecture progresses and the students enter a more trancelike state. So don’t lecture too long or avoid it altogether. Alternately, when students engaged in a discussion the brain activity was much higher. She cited studies that showed how note taking diminishes after the first 10 minutes of a lecture.

She told us that the neurons in the brain are where learning take place, and that our neurons are constantly “talking to each other” and acquiring information. An instructor’s goal should be to get the information into longer-term memory, or else students just forget what they heard in a short while. With learning, said Mangurian, “strong connections are made between the neurons.”

So the more you know about how the brain works the more you understand how learning happens and what you, as an instructor, can do to help students learn more effectively. In short, don’t just lecture to them. Get them activated and get their neurons firing (I’m not sure how one checks on that). Oh, and tell them to go home and get some sleep right after your instruction session. Whether or not something gets into long-term memory can depend on how well we sleep, as that’s when it happens.

Is It Cold In Here Or Is That Just You

I had heard that Jerry Campbell liked to use country and western song titles in his articles and talks, but I didn’t get a taste of that until today. The title of this post was just one of the song titles he made use of, and given that this was a panel discussion on “Where is Reference Going” is seemed quite appropriate. Think about it. When it comes to reference services, as academic librarians we might be feeling just a bit lonely and cold at the reference desk these days. But it may just be that when it comes to getting excited about using reference services, our patrons are the ones feeling frigid.

Bill Miller gave a good perspective on where we were with reference when he described how we used to have status, power and prestige as reference librarians. We had the monopoly on information, and the patrons needed us to help them find resources and figure out how to use them. Now the librarian is no longer “the locus of control.” But we do a poor job of explaining what it is we do for our users. For example he overheard someone explaining how she didn’t need the library anymore because “now we have EBSCO.” He also described the “leveling effect” meaning that from the users’ perspective all information is the same. They don’t distinguish between a scholarly resource or a wikipedia entry. Miller said we need to reconstitute an understanding of scholarship. He finished by saying that “reference will continue to limp along despite valiant efforts to innovate but I suspect it will be like the Avis counter at the airport at 3 am. In other words, if you need a car this badly at this time you better call someone else”. He says we’re better off to put our efforts in working with faculty to get students to improve the quality of their research, and leave the navigation of the library and its resources to the students – which they are mostly doing without us anyway. But when asked how many thought there would be a reference desk in 10 years nearly every hand shot up (wishful thinking from my perspective).

Jerry Campbell focused on how we need to change and get out of our comfort zones. You do that by looking ahead and preparing for what’s coming next. He also focused on the economics of one-on-one reference, and while acknowledging it’s a powerful way to help people that it just doesn’t make fiscal sense for academic libraries. I guess the high point of Campbell’s presence came during the Q&A session. Right after a librarian gave a heartfelt speech on why we still needed to have personal face-to-face contact with students, including an anecdote about a student who loved the librarians, Campbell said “that’s very passionate…and completely wrong”. Then Brian Mathews of Georgia Tech came up and spoke about the kind of changes to which Campbell alluded. Mathews gave a more visual presentation on how librarians could connect with their users in social networks and virtual spaces. I would sum up what Mathews had to say as a disussion about “pre-emptive reference”. That is, not waiting for the patrons to come up to a reference desk, but connecting with them in their social networks – when you identify a need for information. He showed how he connected with a student after having read something in that student’s online journal about problems finding information for an assignment. If you read Mathews’ blog, The Ubiquitous Librarian, you would be more familiar with the approach he likes to take. Based on the questions he got, and the number of people who waited to talk to him after the session, I’d say that not enough academic librarians are reading his stuff.