Category Archives: Teaching

How Did You Learn to Teach?

If there’s one regret I have about graduate school, it’s that I never learned to teach. No courses on education are required as part of the curriculum, and the one class I remember being available was offered during an already overloaded semester for me. None of the internships I had involved information literacy instruction. So, I arrived a fully-fledged librarian without having taught (or been taught how to teach) an information literacy session. Meredith Farkas’ blog post on this topic made me realize I’m not alone. Her informal twitter poll shows that more than half of the librarians she surveyed didn’t receive information literacy training prior to starting to teach, and I’m sure there are many more out there.

By the time I was interviewing for jobs, I knew this was an area I would need to actively develop, partly because it was essential for the types of jobs I was interested in and partly because I thought I would really like it. When I started at UVa and needed to set my goals for the following year, learning to teach was at top of the list. Am I all the way there yet? Definitely not (it’s not exactly a finite goal). But I have made some strides towards getting more comfortable planning and teaching classes. Now that I’m wrapping up my instruction obligations for the semester, I thought I’d take a look at how I got here.

Digging into the literature

I knew I didn’t know enough about information literacy to teach it, so the first thing I did was dig into the literature to get up to speed.  Following along with Zoe Fisher’s 100 information literacy articles in 100 days project was a great primer, and I highly recommend her blog posts summarizing her findings. I also started following instruction-focused blogs like the excellent Rule Number One and following their reading recommendations. When I started to feel unsure about how to turn the abstraction of the framework into practice, I sought out lesson plans and activities written by other librarians. Browsing through Project CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments) and the Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook Volume 2 have been particularly helpful. This reading helped me lay the intellectual and theoretical groundwork for teaching, but I wasn’t yet sure what it looked like in the classroom.

Observing classes and co-teaching

Next, I shamelessly asked as many colleagues as I could to shadow their classes. I sat in on classes ranging from general library orientation sessions for first-years to discipline-specific research methods classes for upperclassmen. Watching experienced teachers in the classroom is probably the most helpful thing I could have done, since it gave me something to model my own teaching after. Co-teaching was another useful step in my learning process. Partnering on workshops and classes helped me gain confidence in lesson-planning and in the classroom. It feels a little bit like teaching with training wheels. If things go awry, or an idea you have is wildly off-base, there’s someone there to help gently correct you.

Just going for it

After reading so many blogs and articles and Twitter feeds and watching experienced colleagues, I started to feel paralyzed. No activity I thought of seemed creative enough. I was scared someone would ask me a question I couldn’t answer, or that I wouldn’t know how to facilitate an engaging discussion. On the morning of my first solo class of the semester, I took a moment to think about what I was really nervous about, and realized that I had started to fear that I would be responsible for the instruction session that turned a faculty member off the library for a decade. I had made the stakes feel way too high for myself.

I tried to reframe the things, and just think about myself going into a room full of people to learn and to help other people learn.  There was no article I could read or lesson plan I could write or class I could observe that would replace the experience of just trying it. And you know what? That class went really well. Since then, I’ve had a few more classes – some have been energizing and I left feeling like I had really hit the mark; a few have felt awkward or were received unenthusiastically, and the world didn’t end.

What makes these experiences feel so high-stakes is what Veronica mentioned (and problematized)  in her last post: you often have to work hard to get into the classroom in the first place. As someone whose departments do not have a strong history of library instruction, the few opportunities I had this semester to teach one-shot or multiple sessions in a course felt like critical breaks, instead of opportunities to learn. Taking some of the pressure off of myself – and remembering that I’m still learning – helped me approach them more openly.

For those of you who were launched into positions with teaching responsibilities without any training, how did you learn to teach? And for the experienced teachers out there, how would you recommend continuing to grow?

Trust Me

Reading Annie Downey’s Critical Information Literacy  was like looking into a mirror that only shows your most awkward professional reflection. Her interviews with “critical” librarians (those who adopt a critical approach to information literacy and practice critical pedagogy) are some of the most honest, true-to-life experiences I’ve read from those of us who consider ourselves teaching librarians. Her descriptions of “turf issues” hit particularly close to home:

“it’s a long process to build relationships where the faculty members have some trust in the librarian and respect the librarian’s knowledge, and the librarian has to do it in a graceful way.” –quote from “Linda” (Downey, 2016,  p.133).

Librarians described years of making “gradual changes” to classes and workshops, “tread[ing] lightly when it came to introducing new ideas or using [new] methods” in the classroom, and working hard to “gain the trust of [a] department’s faculty so that she could exercise more freedom in the classroom” (Downey, 2016, p. 132-133). To which I replied in the margins of the text in my special angry orange pen:

REALLY?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Why Must We “Gain” Trust?

It’s most disturbing to me that academic librarians are not automatically seen as experts in our disciplines of information literacy (critical or otherwise) and information organization. When an Intro to Women and Gender Studies instructor at my institution wants to introduce students to the concept of feminist economics, she calls on a colleague in the economics department to guest lecture. When a literature professor wants to offer students a deeper context for a novel set in France, she might ask a friend in the International Languages & Culture department to sit in and offer commentary during a class discussion. But as an academic librarian we are not necessarily seen as possessing valuable expertise until we prove ourselves worthy, which is virtually impossible to do if we aren’t invited into a class to teach.

Efforts at librarian-faculty collaboration privilege departmental faculty, even when librarians are members of the faculty at their institutions. Librarians work hard to seek out teaching opportunities within the curriculum, then must go the extra step of convincing faculty that they have something to contribute to students’ educational experiences. I have had so many conversations with faculty before, during, and after classes where they demonstrate pleasant surprise that I’ve planned out a lesson, given thought to my teaching, and even created assignments. As I stand there stunned, smiling, I can’t help but think, “What else did you expect? How little did you expect of me? What do you think it is I do?”

No, Really, Why?

The auto-librarian response to faculty who desire us to prove our worth is to work hard to do so. There is this belief within the profession that we are or have been somehow deficient, and now we must work to prove our worth to our colleagues in academia because we either a) didn’t do it before; b) tried, but were really bad at it; or c) are trying to make up for bad professional practice. We look inward and blame ourselves. We blame our graduate school training, internships, professional values, and practices. We blame our library administrators, librarian colleagues, predecessors, and librarians-in-training.

But we never blame academia.

 

We never blame the institutions that force us to beg for seats at the academic table and prove that we belong to be there. I sometimes wonder how my friends in the psychology department would respond if someone asked them, “Why are you on the curriculum committee? What do you possibly teach?” I can’t imagine my colleagues in the history department would respond well to a last minute request to “Come on in and do your history schtick tomorrow in my class, will you?” We can blame ourselves all we want. We can continue to create and attend conference presentations on collaborating with faculty. We can continue to read about ways to demonstrate our worth and our importance to our faculty through outreach. Or we could stop trying to prove ourselves and just assume that chair at the table–the one right in the middle– is our due the same as it is for every other faculty member at our institution.

I recognize that not all librarians are faculty at every institution (although I think we should be), but we are still a profession, despite decades of various work sociologists trying to say otherwise. Yes, relationships, including working and teaching relationships, are built on trust, but there is an implicit understanding that as a fellow faculty member or educator that you are, well, an educator. That understanding should extend to librarians as well. I realize that this sentiment may border on petulant: We are important! You need to think so! But that’s not really my intent with this post. I want us to internalize and embody the expertise we all possess. It is so easy (and so overdone) to denigrate our profession and blame ourselves for our current subclass position in academia. But that’s the power of, well, POWER. We think we’re in this spot–where we have to beg for classroom time and hope that we do well in that one class so that one professor will trust us with their class again–and it dictates our entire professional identity. This belief has created subsets of academic librarianship–liaisons, outreach librarians–that exist because we believe that we need to accept the current educational situation and work within it rather than upend it.

Yes, it’s easy to say, “Down with the hierarchy of academia!” but what would happen if we started to act like it didn’t really exist? What would our education programs look like? How would our jobs change? I think they are questions worth exploring as we perpetually engage in the “library of the future” dialogue and the never-ending back-and-forth of whether or not libraries even have a future. I think we do, and I think the library itself is the educational disruption.

Tales of the Undead… Learning Theories: Learning Styles

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Information Literacy and Outreach, and Alyssa Archer, Instruction Librarian at Radford University.

“I need to drop this class because I’m a visual learner and my professor doesn’t use PowerPoint.” – A student, overheard by one of the co-authors

What do we mean when we say learning styles?

Learning style theories propose that there are certain methods that will enable students to improve their learning. Individual students have innate learning styles that can be discovered and categorized, and when these styles are properly matched with specific pedagogical techniques, academic achievement will increase. For example, a visual learner will benefit most when images are used in class, while an audio learner will achieve more if the same content is provided aurally.

Unlike the Learning Pyramid myth that we addressed in a previous post, where all variations in the theory of the pyramid can be traced back to one common point, there are many learning style theories that have developed independently of each other. You are probably familiar with at least a few. One of the most popular learning styles theories is the VARK: Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic, put forward by Neil Fleming (Fleming & Mills, 1992), adapted from Stirling’s VAK. Others include Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory; Dunn, Dunn & Price’s Learning Style Inventory Honey & Mumford’s LS theory with the categories of Activists, Pragmatists, Theorists, and Reflectors.

While learning style theories do not have one central root like the Pyramid theory, they do have similarities. Hyman and Rosoff (1984), identified four common traits in learning style theories: 1) they try to find out what an individual’s learning style is, 2) categorize it using broad categories 3) match it with a teacher versed in that category, and 4) educate teachers to conduct steps 1-3, thereby repeating the cycle and ensuring the theory’s longevity. In Coffield et al.’s systematic review (2004), they categorized over fifty learning style theories by their key concepts, as shown below.

Fig. 1 Learning style theory categories (Coffield et al., 2004 p. 19)

While there are many different theories behind learning styles, we will use the general phrase “learning styles,” meaning students benefit most when the teaching mode aligns with their particular style.

Higher education literature is full of articles and books about learning styles, and how instructors should tailor their classes to suit different styles in order to support student learning. A quick search in the Library, Informations Science, and Technology Abstracts database showed over 100 articles about learning styles published in just the last 5 years. Many educational articles and websites suggest librarians incorporate different modes of teaching into their learning in order to appeal to the different learning styles.

Another sign that learning styles have gained wide acceptance is its inclusion in Google Snippets, which provides excerpts at the top of a Google search results page. While Google has had issues with offering incorrect information for many different searches, it is feasible that a casual searcher would see this image and assume it to be factual.

Fig. 2 Screenshot of a Google search results page for learning styles

Why are learning styles theories false?

Quite bluntly, despite many studies, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that meshing the learning style with teaching mode improves student learning. The absence of positive evidence has left the door open for supporters of various theories argue that their favored theory works for them, falling into the trap of confirmation bias. In an excellent article from 2015 discussing why these theories persist, Willingham, Hughes, and Dobolyi explain that learning style theories will not die, because “it is impossible to prove something does not exist.” The authors go on to critique two core components of any of these theories. One, the assumption that despite different environments, an attributed individual learning style is consistent. Two, that regardless of that environment or what is being taught, if the individual’s learning style is matched, their learning will improve.  There have been systematic reviews, some including meta-analysis, with rigorous methodologies that have come up empty-handed.

There is a dearth of foundational, scholarly, peer-reviewed literature underpinning learning style theories. Stahl (1999) provides an excellent critique of the lack of peer-reviewed foundational references in Carbo’s Reading Styles Inventory theory, Fleming’s 1992 article on VARK references an article published in a current affairs magazine the New Zealand Listener, and the list goes on. In the (very interesting!) book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, ” authors note that decades of research has failed to provide reliable ways to assess people’s styles, evidence as to whether you can train teachers to adapt their teaching to such styles, or even what constitutes a learning style (pp. 95-96).

Several years ago, Willingham increased his longstanding reward for a researcher proving a learning style theory produces meaningful learning benefits from $1,000 to $5,000. There has as yet been no winner, with a design proving such theories are sound, but not for lack of trying. But why should this be a surprise? Learning style theories ultimately fall apart due to their own processes. By creating categories through cherry picking key attributes, then trying to fit individuals to these labels to elicit positive learning outcomes, they ignore the many other factors that influence learning.

The lure of learning styles

Despite many publications and presentations debunking learning styles, the myth continues to endure.  Pashler et al. argue that we are instinctively drawn to tests that group people into different categories, like the Myers-Briggs test, despite little proof that such tests are valid. We like to group others, and we like to take quizzes about ourselves. A quick Google search brings up many free versions of the Learning Styles Inventory. We can see the pop culture version of this fascination in Buzzfeed quizzes like “Which Harry Potter character are you?” or “What kind of natural disaster are you?

Librarians may be drawn to learning styles as a way to connect to students we only see once or twice. We don’t have the opportunity to get to know students in our library sessions very well, limiting our ability to tailor the workshop to those students’ particular strengths and interests. But if we design our classes to appeal to all different learning styles, then we could say we are being responsive to different students’ needs.

The commercialization of learning styles has also kept them alive. Some publishers include learning style surveys as activities within textbooks, especially texts aimed at “first year experience”-type classes. In these works, identifying one’s learning style is presented as a strategy to become a better student. This situation is a bit of a chicken-or-egg one: do textbooks include learning styles because instructors demand them, or do instructors teach learning styles because the textbooks include them? Either way, their inclusion understandably leads to the students’ and instructors’ assumption that learning styles are accepted and uncontroversial.

What’s the harm?

Because learning styles are not supported by research, you run the risk of diminishing your credibility by including them in conversations with other teaching faculty or other knowledgeable colleagues. Candice recently attended a pedagogy conference; in one session, the presenter mentioned “learning styles” in passing and the whole crowd groaned. (Conversely, because people can become very invested in learning myths, we recommend you respond tactfully if an administrator or professor speaks positively about learning styles.)

The learning styles myth can also be harmful to people’s perceptions of their own or others’ abilities. Carol Dweck’s research on mindset found that many people believe that personality, intelligence, and talent are things people are either born with–or not. As Dweck puts it, “They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that.” Teachers and students who have a fixed mindset will view learning styles as natural limitations. You simply can’t expect someone–or yourself–to learn something if it’s not in the correct learning style. As Professor Frank Coffield said in an interview, “We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.” We see this self-limiting viewpoint expressed in the opening quote, and believe it is an unhelpful concept.

Grains of truth

Can we salvage anything from the idea of learning styles? Although we hope our debunking has successfully removed “learning style” from your pedagogical teaching statement, we leave you with this advice:

  1. Accept that learners do have preferences and strengths. Some people read quickly; some love mechanical tasks. (Interestingly, at least one study showed a very weak correlation between learning styles and learning preferences.) It is important to understand that no one teaching method will work for everyone. As Pashler et al. state, “it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way versus another. One suspects that educators’ attraction to the idea of learning styles partly reflects their (correctly) noticing how often one student may achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless for another student” (p. 116).
  2. Flip learning styles to teaching modes. The different modes (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) need to change as your subject matter does. If you are teaching someone how to drive a car, we really, really hope you are giving your student a kinesthetic experience and not simply verbally explaining how to drive. On a more library-specific topic: when we teach about incorporating sources into your paper, we use the analogy of music sampling. This is most effective when we play the songs we discuss. Consider which mode might be most effective to what you’re teaching (while also considering student accommodations, of course).
  3. Think multimodal. There is evidence that learners benefit when instructors mix the modes up: a little lecture followed by a pair-and-share, a visual demonstration and then some hands-on practice. Changing up the modes will appeal to different students’ strengths and preferences, and will increase attention in the class.

Final words

Hopefully, you now consider yourself armed with the tools to help put an end to the myth of learning style theories. And what about the next time you hear a student or colleague voicing an opinion about learning styles, similar to the one we quoted in the beginning of our post? You will have solid, research-based arguments to counter their beliefs, and well-founded pedagogical teaching methods with which to replace their misguided learning style theory.

I Can’t Think of Anything to Ask

My family and I have been deep in the health care system these past few weeks, in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices, on the phone scheduling appointments, and in line at pharmacies. Everyone is home, everyone is as fine as can be expected, and long-term plans are being made for maintenance and healing strategies for my family member.

During every interaction with a medical professional, inevitably someone in a coat or scrubs would ask, “Do you have any questions?” or “Is there anything I can answer for you?” or “Do you need anything from me, right now?” In response I always felt like I should have had a list of questions. Occasionally I’d have one or two to tack on to a question a family member already asked, but more often than not I was struck by the feeling of not knowing what to ask. 

Information is my field. I teach students how to ask questions and engage in inquiry in subjects that are new to them. I know that when someone asks me if I have any questions, they genuinely want to give me information, because when I ask my students if they have any questions, I want to answer them. That doesn’t change the fact that

  1. Questions are hard to ask; and
  2. Anxiety, fear, sadness, and exhaustion turn brains to mush; and
  3. It’s hard to ask questions with mush for brains.

Every time I unsuccessfully came up with questions to ask about the future health and well-being of my family member I felt like a failure. It felt like such a high-pressure critical moment, as though I could have drastically changed things by simply asking a question that would get to the *right* piece of information that would unlock this whole health puzzle. I know it’s an illogical thought, but again, Mush. Brains. Brain Mush.

I don’t want to equate families seeking health care information with all library patrons seeking information. I know that most people would argue that we are not necessarily in the same headspace or seeking information of equal importance, but really, how do we know? We don’t know what’s going on with our students, faculty, staff, and community members. Assumptions are poor substitutes for empathy, openness, and understanding.

One thing I wish were possible with health care professionals is the opportunity to email them or text them a question after an appointment or hospital visit. I am so frustrated by having to wait until our next meeting to rattle off my list of questions, the ones I could never come up with on the spot, without adequate time to research and reflect. We, as librarians, have that opportunity of continued interaction with our community. It’s what makes us special. We don’t need someone to have all the questions at one critical moment. We’re open to questions whenever they arise. I feel as though I could do a better job of making sure my own community knows that there isn’t just one right time to ask me a question. Questions are always welcome, and compassion is a needed response.

Finalizing the “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education”

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sara Harrington, Head of Arts and Archives at Ohio University Libraries.

The Task Force is pleased to announce the release of the Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education document. The Task Force revising the “Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators” now called “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education” announced a call for feedback via ACRLog and the ILI-L listerv. Feedback was submitted via the gmail address set up for this purpose as well as came in-person at the ALA annual poster session presentation in 2015.

The stakeholder community offered robust feedback on the “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education.”  This input ranged from overarching comments to specific suggestions, and included:

  • Awareness of the fact that hiring institutions will be looking to this document for guidance as position descriptions for teaching librarians are developed
  • Word changes to improve readability and clarity
  • Background information on the quantitative analysis of job posting done before the Task Force’s writing process began
  • Questions and suggestions about the nature and formulation of references to the Framework
  • Questions about how the Task Force engaged in its work
  • Questions and suggestions about the organization and order of the roles
  • Suggestions about the relationships of the roles to each other
  • Suggestions about the revision or expansion of specific strengths statements
  • Suggestions about the relationship of specific strengths to roles and suggestions for additional strengths under particular roles
  • Recommendations to include particular concepts, including innovation, curricula, and hospitality
  • Questions and concerns about the significance of the terminology used in the document, most notably the shift from “instruction librarian” to “teaching librarian” and “skills” to “strengths”

The Task Force made a number of grammatical corrections and clarifications based on feedback, as well as made a range of more substantive changes intended to clarify and strengthen the descriptions of the roles and attendant strengths. The Task Force did retain the terminology “teaching librarian” as well as “roles” and “strengths.”

A Google doc containing feedback can be found here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1V4XKtoOf-GQ05YwQaDN9Rwnk0LrDXfzuOlC2LjM-pgs/edit?usp=sharing

After the revision process the document was sent to the Instruction Section Executive Committee and Standards Committee for approval.

The “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians” is now available at: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/teachinglibrarians

This document will be formally shared via a variety channels in the coming months, including ili-l, the Instruction Section Newsletter, College and Research Libraries News, and other ACRL digital promotion channels of communication.

The Task Force plans to propose an online session for Fall 2017/Winter 2018 on practical applications for implementation of the Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians document including, for example:

  • how a librarian writing position descriptions for teaching librarians might use the language
  • how a coordinator of instruction might plan a professional development session around the document
  • how a librarian might apply the document’s language in collaborative work with a faculty member
  • how several teaching librarians might use the document in their own practice.

The Task Force will be sending out a call for volunteers to participate in the session. Please share your comments for us here, as well.