Daily Archives: April 29, 2011

A Tale of Two Sessions

Not long ago I taught two library sessions for two introductory composition classes with the same professor and the same assignment on the same day. I love it when the schedule serendipitously works out to make that happen, in part because it gives me the chance to informally evaluate my teaching: both what I tend to cover and how I structure those sessions.

Like many librarians, I’ve struggled over the past few years to move away from me standing at the front of the class talking talking talking, so I can increase the amount of time for students to work on their own research during the library session. Students are supposed to come to the session having already selected a topic for their research assignment (though not all of them do, of course). I try to spend no more than 10-15 minutes each discussing and demonstrating internet research, the library catalog, and article databases, interspersed with 10-15 minute chunks of time for students to search on their own while I circulate to answer questions and offer suggestions.

Our class sessions are 75 minutes long — this is a lot to do in 75 minutes. I’ve tried to work around those constraints by seriously abbreviating my demo and looking for ways to interject more information while students search on their own. For example, I won’t mention that spelling counts or talk about the difference between keywords and subject headings in a catalog search, but when a student asks me how to revise a search when she hasn’t retrieved any results, I’ll answer her question so the whole class can hear.

Sometimes, though, the class is quiet and the students don’t ask many questions. In these cases I always feel somewhat strange: I walk around the room a bit, but I don’t want to pace back and forth like an old-fashioned school marm monitoring an exam. I check in with the students who look like they’re lost (or Facebooking), but that can be hard to do with students who don’t seem interested in my help, and some of them are genuinely, quietly doing their work. Sometimes I stand in front of the class fiddling with the computer or looking at my notes. This is what happened in the second class I taught last week, and it feels awkward.

But sometimes the less talk more search strategy works really well, which also happened last week. In the first class students were talkative and interested, volunteering answers to my questions during the demos and spending time on their own searches in between. However, there was a wide range of student preparation for the assignment in this class, with some students still working to narrow down a topic and others ready to go. Additionally, several students came to the session with obvious prior experience searching for sources for academic work. In this case I was able to give each student a small amount of personalized attention, which let me suggest topic narrowing strategies to some and advanced search strategies to others.

I chatted with the course professor after both classes who mentioned that in her experience the afternoon class is just a quieter group of students overall (I’d originally suspected post-lunch digestive sleepiness). But it’s still a challenge — what’s the right balance of talking and search time? Will I ever be able to shake that weird, conspicuous feeling while students search and I just stand there? What are some other ways that I can encourage students to open up and ask the questions that I suspect they have?