Tag Archives: students

Asking questions to create opportunities for conversation and learning

I was chatting with one of my colleagues the other day about challenges he’s been experiencing recently in some of his one-shot information literacy classes. He regularly makes time in class for students to work on their own research and to consult with them individually. Yet he described difficulty engaging students in one-on-one conversation about their progress. He described how he typically circulates the room, asking students “How’s it going?” hoping they might share their progress or pose a problem which would provide him a point of entry into conversation or an opportunity to advise the student. Instead, he said, students typically reply “I’m doing fine” or “I’m good.” Hopefully, such responses mean students really are progressing in their research, successfully applying the concepts from the session to their own work. Yet their polite reply to my colleague’s opening line shuts him out of even the possibility of conversation.

I knew exactly what my colleague meant. I’ve felt frustrated by the same scenario, too. I have often asked the same question and often gotten the same reply, essentially “no thanks.” My colleague wondered how he might create space for conversation without uncomfortably forcing the issue. While some students might indeed really be doing fine and not need assistance with research, plenty do. And even if their research is progressing well, that doesn’t mean a conversation about their work couldn’t be useful. I shared with my colleague some of the ways I’ve tried to open conversation with students during this kind of working time. Essentially, I’ve stopped asking “How are you doing?” and instead ask “What are you working on?,” “What topic or question are you researching?,” or “What have you been trying so far?” This slight variation has helped me open the door to conversation with even reticent students.

I’ve seen a variety of both cognitive and affective advantages via this small, but significant, shift. This type of question gives students fewer outs. It doesn’t require students to make a judgment of their progress (or lack thereof), either. Instead, it’s a low-stakes, low-judgment question that just asks them to account for what they’re doing so far. And once they’ve articulated what they’re doing, I can ask follow-up questions that help them probe their own steps and thinking and even identify problems or opportunities on their own. The conversation serves as a kind of formative assessment, too, helping me check in with students about their level of understanding and application of the concepts, practices, and tools we’ve been focusing on in class. I can then meet them where they are, clarifying or redirecting where needed or helping them advance further when appropriate.

This exchange with my colleague prompted me to reflect on my questioning practices in other ways and settings. I recognized this same shift across my pedagogy, in fact. Where I used to tell, I see that I now ask. Instead of first telling students how to construct a search or pick a source, for example, I instead start by asking how they would approach a search or select a source: “What steps would you take?,” “What choices would you make?,” and most importantly “Why?” When I meet with students in individual research consultations, I don’t just ask “What are you working on?,” but also “What are you hoping to accomplish in our meeting today?” These questions again help me meet students where they are and then scaffold instruction to help them develop progressively. Significantly, they also help give students a chance to construct their own learning, puzzle over their intentions and rationales, and make meaning for themselves. These questions help us (students and myself alike) recognize students’ agency in their research.

Much like I’m trying to help students develop an attitude of inquiry for their own research and learning, these questions help me cultivate my own attitude of inquiry for teaching. I don’t want to ask only the kind of questions that require students to parrot rote, meaningless responses at me. I want to foster meaningful and impactful learning moments where students construct their understanding and develop frameworks for their future use. These questions help me learn from and listen to my students.

listeningGood question” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Keeping Our Batteries Charged

Now that I’m in my second year as Chief Librarian, the questions about what I miss about my prior role as Instruction Coordinator come much less often. My answer is the same, though: I still miss teaching and reference, and the opportunities they offer to work with our students. I’d guess that’s common among folks with an instruction background who move to directorships — we’re no longer front of the house, actively working with patrons, to use a restaurant example (though we’re not really back of the house either, and some days it feels like we’re all over the house). We work for the students all the time, but that work can be behind the scenes and often doesn’t allow us to interact with students in the same way we did before.

It’s mid-semester, the library’s crowded, and my colleagues and I are busy, all working hard to make sure our students have what they need for their academic work. So of course that’s the best time to start on a new research project, right? In my quieter and ambitious moments at the beginning of last summer I thought “yes!” So here I am, hopping on the overcommitment train and speeding through the fall. (I’m not quite sure where this new, train-based metaphor is going — clearly I’ve exited the dining car — but it’s been a busy week so let’s keep it.)

My research continues work that I’ve done in the past to learn more about our students’ lived experiences: how, where, and when they do their academic work, and what tools they use, especially digital technologies. Which means that, among other things, I get to schedule interviews with 20 students on my campus to talk with them about what they do on a typical school day. It’s been tricky to schedule the interviews — we’re a commuter college so often our students only come to campus a few days each week, and my own schedule is typically on the meeting-heavy side.

But it’s worth the persistence (and many, many, many emails) to plan the interviews, even during one of the busiest parts of the semester (so many emails). Because it’s incredibly energizing to talk to our students. In the past week I’ve heard students praise the library’s carrels for distraction-free studying, explain how they take the (free!) Ikea shuttle bus to play basketball with their cousin after classes, show me a book from our library about electronic surveillance that they’re reading for fun, and tell me that they prefer to use a desktop computer for “real research” rather than their tablet. Our students and the work they do here at City Tech are inspiring and amazing, and just having the chance to listen to their experiences has been a surprising — and needed — source of energy for me this semester.

Keeping ourselves focused and recharged during the semester can be tough, and while there are lots of outside-of-work examples of self-care that are important, I’ve found it helpful to think on those every(work)day energizing opportunities too. What helps you recharge your batteries during the mid-semester rush? Drop us a line in the comments.

Wondering About Workshops

Like many academic librarians, my colleagues and I teach several drop-in workshops each semester for faculty and staff at the college on topics like citation managers, Google Scholar and other specialized research tools, and instructional web design, among others. I’ve written a couple of times here about these workshops: we consider them to be opportunities for outreach as much as for instruction, though our attendance levels have waxed and waned over the years, leading us to add a workshops by request option for departments or other groups of interested faculty and staff. The latter has been intermittently successful — some semesters we’ve gotten several requests for workshops while others have seen none — though since these workshops can typically be prepped fairly quickly we’ve decided to keep offering them for now.

The past year or so has brought a new twist to our faculty/staff workshops: students! For several of the workshops we’ve offered — most recently one focusing on using ILL and other libraries in New York City to make the most of research beyond our college library — we’ve had one or two students attending as well as faculty and staff. We advertise the workshops on a faculty and staff email list that doesn’t include students, but we also hang posters around campus, which is probably the way students have learned about the workshops (or via our blog or Twitter). We’ve always had plenty of room in the workshops for the students who’ve dropped in and, as far as I know, there haven’t been any problems with the occasional student sitting in on a workshop with faculty and staff.

If there aren’t any problems, what’s to say about it? I keep coming back to thinking about students in the faculty/staff workshops for a couple of reasons. We used to offer drop-in workshops for students, too, but stopped doing so a few years ago because we very rarely had anyone show up. Perhaps it’s time to bring drop-in student workshops (not course-related) back into our instructional mix? One thing to note is that in the past the drop-in student workshops typically covered one resource like Academic Search Complete or LexisNexis, or were much more general workshops on research strategies for students. Maybe the more specific and advanced topics covered in the faculty/staff workshops are more appealing to our students, especially those who’ve already taken English Comp I, which requires a library instruction session?

On the other hand, every workshop requires at least a little bit of prep time, not to mention the time to promote it via email, posters, blogging, and Twitter. Our workshop committee is fairly busy already, so to add workshops that may not be well-attended could be tough.

All of which makes me wonder: if our faculty/staff workshops are not currently overcrowded, and our student workshops were not historically overcrowded, might we consider offering workshops that are open to any member of the college community, faculty, staff, and students alike?

To my knowledge we’ve never done that before. What are the possible ramifications of workshops open to all? Research has shown that interaction between students and faculty outside of the classroom has a positive impact on student engagement (Kuh et al., 2007, Piecing Together the Student Success Puzzle). Could open workshops provide those opportunities? Would faculty be uncomfortable learning something new alongside students, or vice versa? We would probably want to avoid workshop topics focused on developing plagiarism-resistant research assignments or the like, right? Or would there be a benefit to opening up an information literacy workshop pitched at faculty to students, as well?

If you’re offering workshops or other instructional opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to attend together, I’d love to hear about it!

Working With Undergraduate Student Employees: An Appreciation

At my library we are celebrating “student appreciation week” this week, and it’s got me thinking about the wonderful students I work with, and all of the ways that my own position has evolved and adapted to meet the challenges of supervising them.

I am the junior member of a two-woman librarian staff in my library unit.  My job description includes hiring, training and supervising the 5-6 person undergraduate staff that works for us.  So I assumed that when I was hired, I would act as a kind of “bad-cop” or “vice-principal”; that is, that my job would involve a lot of nagging people to do their job, and taking corrective action if/when they did not.  I know it sounds strange, but I didn’t really think about the upsides!

I’m happy to report that supervising students is quite different than I expected.  Our crew is a self-selected bunch of high achievers, who applied for jobs with us because they are constantly studying in the Research Commons anyway.  In addition to taking great pride in their work for the library, they are also a deeply hilarious, bright, and inquisitive group of people.  I really enjoy conducting interviews, managing trainings, and writing recommendations, and I find that these activities offer unexpected rewards in the form of opportunities to reflect on my work, notice issues in the workflow, or discover new ways to articulate our mission.

As is common in many libraries today, the Research Commons Help Desk is staffed by student employees the majority of the time. We rely on our students completely to be our public face.  This makes sense in an area like the Research Commons, where we do not have a print collection, and reference interactions are limited. Help Desk interactions typically consist of equipment checkout and directional questions. However, the Research Commons is very busy, particularly now, as winter quarter draws to a close. The traffic doesn’t slow down on weekends and evenings, when most of the librarians go home. It is therefore essential that our student staff be prepared to exercise sound judgement in a variety of situations.

As their supervisor, I find that modeling, encouraging, and rewarding the behavior that is expected of our students is a big job. For example, a student that I supervise was recently called upon to assist emergency personnel in a crisis situation that occurred in our facility during our evening hours.  It was a tremendous relief to realize that the student was prepared to act appropriately in that situation. Coping with the trauma of that event and supporting that student and the rest of the team thought the uncertainty that it caused has been difficult, but it has also provided an opportunity for our staff to come together as a group.

Ultimately, I am very grateful for the contributions of our student staff.  Incredibly, a couple of them have even expressed an interest in librarianship as a profession.  Does that make me a role-model?!  It’s an identity that feels weird to me, but I’m starting to get used to it.

The Trouble With Books

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with faculty in the library and in other academic departments about undergraduate research assignments. We discussed some of the stumbling blocks that our students seem to face, especially as they search for sources for their papers. It’s hard for us to put ourselves back into the novice mindset that our students have, particularly in their first and second year at college, in which they’re not (yet) familiar with the disciplines. We don’t want them to use Wikipedia or other encyclopedias (which may become increasingly scarce?) as research sources, though for background information they’re great. But many students are just not ready to tackle the scholarly research articles that they’ll find when they search JSTOR or even Academic Search Complete.

More and more often I’m convinced that our beginning undergraduates need to use books for their research assignments. Books can bridge that gap between very general and very scholarly that is difficult to find in a journal article. They often cover a broad subject in smaller chunks (i.e., chapters), and can provide a good model for narrowing a topic into one that’s manageable for a short research assignments. Books can also help students exercise the muscles that they need for better internet and database searching as they mine chapter titles and the index for keywords. I’ve begun to push books much more vocally in my instruction sessions for these very reasons.

However, books come with stumbling blocks, too. Ideally students could search our library catalog and find the books they need for their assignments right on our shelves. We have a collection that serves our students’ needs well, I think, especially in the degree programs. But we are a physically small library, and it’s difficult for us to build a book collection to serve the general needs students have in English Composition I courses, for example. While some of those sections focus on New York City or Brooklyn in their reading and research, in other sections students can choose their own topic, or the faculty member picks a topic of interest which may change from semester to semester. It’s difficult to keep up with these changing topics and, though all of those classes come to the library for an instruction session, we often don’t know which topics students select unless they stop by the Reference Desk to ask for help with their research.

My college is part of a university in which all of the libraries circulate books in common, as do many academic and public library systems. Students (and faculty/staff) can have books delivered between the colleges in just a few days, and we encourage students to take advantage of this service when they’re hunting for sources on their research topics. But sometimes students aren’t doing their research far enough in advance to accommodate the time required to have a book delivered, and, while they can also visit the other colleges’ libraries in libraries in person, they may not have the time for that, either.

What about ebooks? Ebooks can help bridge the just-in-time gap, though they are not without their own issues: subscriptions to ebook packages that may shift the titles available over time, confusing requirements for reading or downloading on mobile devices, variable rules about what can or cannot be printed, etc. And while all of the ebooks we offer in our library can be read on a desktop computer, of course we can’t always accommodate all students who want to use a computer in the library.

So I’m left wondering: how can we get more (and more relevant) books into the hands of our beginning students? And, barring that, are there other resources that cover that middle ground between the general knowledge of encyclopedic sources and the specific, often too advanced, scholarly research of journal articles?