Context Matters

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Catherine Pellegrino, Reference Librarian and Instruction Coordinator at Saint Mary’s College. She blogs at Spurious Tuples.

Ever since I went to ACRL’s Institute for Information Literacy Immersion program in the summer of 2009, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the library instruction session with no demonstrations of databases. “What?” you say, “how could that possibly work?” Well, there are lots of variations on this teaching model, but the basic idea is that students learn better by doing than by being lectured at, and many of our traditional-aged college students are very good at figuring out user interfaces. So you set them up in small groups, have them figure out the database(s) on their own, and then the small groups report back to the class as a whole.

I’ve heard anecdotal reports from other librarians that this method works very well for them, but when I tried it with the students at my small liberal arts college, it kind of flopped. In fact, our students almost seem to want to be told about things, rather than figure them out on their own. One of the comments that I get fairly regularly on post-session assessments is “I wish you had gone into more detail about [database].” So for now, I’m not doing no-demonstration classes, although I’d like to find a way to make it work for our students, on our campus. And thinking about how to make it work for our students got me thinking about larger issues of campus cultural contexts.

When Maura contacted me about writing this guest post, I had just returned from a visit to my friend Iris Jastram, who is a reference and instruction librarian at Carleton College in Minnesota. While there, I had noted some differences between Carleton’s students and the students at my own college. Those observations spawned a conversation between Iris and me, and got me thinking about those same issues of campus cultural contexts, and how they affect information literacy instruction. So that’s what I thought I’d write about here.

Iris writes, on her own blog and elsewhere, about some of the things she can do with her information literacy instruction: she can explain to students how scholars index their own literature, and how to use that internal indexing to the students’ advantage in searching efficiently and effectively. She also works with students to help them find ways to uncover the specialized vocabulary that researchers in their disciplines use — both so that they can use that vocabulary effectively when searching for scholarly literature, and also so that they can use it when entering into that scholarly conversation themselves.

In short, Iris is able to tap into a campus culture and mindset where Carleton students, regardless of their ultimate career plans, are able to conceptualize themselves as apprentice scholars, and she’s able to use that to do things in her classroom that don’t work in mine.

I work at Saint Mary’s College, a Catholic women’s liberal arts college in Notre Dame, Indiana (just outside of South Bend). On the surface, we’re very similar to Carleton: about 1400-1500 students, small liberal arts college in the Midwest. But under the surface, there are some key differences: our professional programs (education, business, social work, and nursing) account for a large number of our students, while Carleton has no professional programs. Nearly all of Saint Mary’s science majors enter with the intention of going on in health professions (about half of them keep that intention through graduation) while only a small fraction of them go on to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the sciences.

More importantly, though — and this is what I observed on my visit to the Gould Library — Carleton College has a campus culture of intense engagement, of students who dive into their studies with gusto, of students for whom whatever is in front of them right now is the most important thing they’re working on. It’s not necessarily that they’re smarter — and my friend Marianne Reddin Aldrich’s observations about the students at her own liberal arts college helped me frame this issue — it’s just a campus culture of being really into things, whether they’re academic or otherwise.

That’s something that Saint Mary’s doesn’t precisely have, or if our students have it, it’s not visible in the classroom. (Our students are very committed to a lot of things, including a lot of service and volunteer work, and their religion and personal faith development, so perhaps those areas are where it’s visible, but those aren’t areas that I see in the library or in the classroom.) So when Iris said that when she “geeks out” over some really cool, powerful, or obscure database tool, it establishes a bond between her and her students, I had to reply that when I geek out over a similar tool, it actually distances me from my students.

And that brings me to the point that all these conversations and observations led me to: a question about how to engage these students, on this campus. What motivates them? What gets them as 100% engaged as the students at Carleton and Colorado College? What pedagogical strategies enable them to learn independently in the classroom? And I realized that I really don’t know. I know a lot about what “they” (whoever “they” are) say about “millennials,” but I’m realizing that local campus and classroom cultures also have powerful effects on students and their learning. So I’m trying to figure out how I can learn more about what drives our students: one thing I’m planning to do is engage in a semi-structured program of observing master teachers on our campus by auditing classes. But I need to find more ideas and strategies.

What engages your students? And how did you find that out?

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

5 thoughts on “Context Matters

  1. This is great, and so true – campus cultures are so different. I do very little database demo, but not because our students are so engaged. They just tune out so easily when they are watching something that won’t be on the test. When I realized they would ask me how to do something I had explained five minutes ago, I decided to turn them loose right away and share insights as we go along.

    But I have a couple of colleagues who do a better job than I of keeping them engaged while listening and sandwiching the exploration between bits of demo. So some of it comes down to our personalities, too.

  2. I’m an Immersion 2010 alum who also tried abandoning database demos this past academic year, using the dive-in-then-debrief approach. I went down this path after having a “lightbulb” moment during the Kolb Learning Styles exercise at Immersion. My institution promotes hands-on learning and likely draws students who prefer to learn by doing, rather than by lectures and reading. I switched the usual order of things to accommodate this style.

    This was successful in my semester-long class, less so in the one-shot sessions. I think a one-shot needs to be more structured, given the shorter time frame. Next semester, I plan to keep dive-in-then-debrief in one-shots, but give students a more focused task to accomplish.

    Maybe you could look at your campus culture through the lens of the Kolb Inventory… if you determine a likely predominance of one type of learning style, you could pick that style’s favorite activity to start with. The order of activities seems to matter.

  3. Great post and comments! As I emailed to Catherine, I struggle actively with this in my instruction sessions. My experience is akin to Barbara’s — tuning out (or tuning in to Facebook or You Tube) often seems so much more attractive to students than library databases, even when they have an assignment or task. Sometimes when I convince myself to shrink my demo time I find that the information I would have added comes out naturally as questions while students are searching. But it’s hard to fight the fear that students *won’t* ask questions. It’s great to read about everyone else’s demo struggles, too.

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