Daily Archives: December 11, 2008

Long Lost Motivation

In the current-day liturgy of teaching, it seems that motivating students is key. Once you have students motivated, supposedly, they will easily absorb what may otherwise seem dry or mundane. So a teacher’s plan should not be to transmit the material, but to motivate the students to learn the material for themselves while acting as a guiding frame. For librarians who teach, then, the challenge is to motivate students to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information.

I know it’s possible to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information, because it happened to me. But that was in graduate school, after many years of appreciating libraries and learning. The question I keep returning to is, what’s the formula for librarians to motivate students in a meaningful way during a brief reference transaction, or at best a library instruction session? Particularly in context, where research is only one part of a broader assignment or class?
(And don’t mistake this as a call for credit-bearing IL courses — I agree with Steven Bell’s recent post)

One recent reference desk transaction that I consider particularly successful involved a patron writing an argumentative paper about how x causes y. She wanted to find research supporting her view. So we tracked down some research, looked at some studies, and found that x has not been conclusively shown to cause y, but there are correlations, and many sources have used these correlations to prescribe certain behaviors. This was a wonderful information literacy lesson because it demonstrated how information is generated and then interpreted, and it was directly relevant to the context of her need. It was also representative of most of the reference questions I handle, in that patrons really don’t care about the intricacies of the catalog or databases until they have a specific question. It’s only when learning search tools and finding aids is integrated into answering a question that the search for information becomes interesting. In a class, though, I find this level of customization is not always possible.

I also do want to promote student independence in information-seeking behaviors, but wouldn’t you hate it if you walked up to some computer guru, asked her to show you how to do something, & she said “I’m not going to show you how to do it, but I’ll show you how I figured it out. I read the tutorial and went to a bunch of training classes, and then I played with it a bunch.” Everyone looks for similar shortcuts all the time, but shortcuts are meaningless without context. So context is essential to library instruction — we have to make library tools relevant to a certain class, or assignments, for the lesson to work.

In conclusion (sort of), it is easier but insufficient to simply feed students the shortcuts (i.e. the finding aids) without a context. We have to come up with truly thrilling examples of how information works, but much of the time we are preoccupied with thinking about how the tools work. Obviously it will vary by discipline, but does anyone have any great examples they’d like to share here? Or perhaps there’s a forum for this type of idea-generation that I haven’t found yet?