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?

9 thoughts on “Long Lost Motivation”

  1. Motivation comes with deadlines, I find! This is why I prefer, whenever possible, to schedule my teaching a week or two before the first task is due (with the hope that the instructor has broken down the assignment into a series of tasks; if not, well, we just get to it!). I then set up my teaching so that the students pick their own examples, based on their interests/topics as much as possible. (but you probably know all this!)

    In my experience, there are three types of researchers (and the same person may embody all three in any given day): the “I have to do this — I have no interest in it — show me the fastest way through” researcher; the “I’m interested in this, but it’s not my first priority, so show me the ways to get into it, and I’ll do only what’s needed” researcher; and the “this is my thesis/life’s work/abiding passion — show me everything!” researcher. I don’t have to tell you how the motivation tracks on each of these, right? 🙂

  2. I’m happy that you raised this essential topic and I’m searching for thrilling information tasks, too, for I’m occupied with the optimization of the Online Tutorial LOTSE. I browsed several Online Tutorials but until now I didn’t find the ideal one. Do you know good ones (or even the best)?
    – I’m after the problem how to keep an instruction interesting and appealing. There should be interactive elements and multimedia, okay -but how to use them in particular?

  3. It is important to make a distinction between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. A speaker I heard recently made the point that a public library patron who has a question is likely to be more intrinsically motivated because he or she has some real problem for which they need an answer or solution – it could change their life. A student at our collleges or universities is more likely to be extrinsically motivated when doing research. They come to the library for help (if they even do that) because they have to – a professor gave them an assignment and now they have to get it done. So when students are taken the path of least resistance to do that it’s going to be a challenge to get them motivated for reasons beyond – such as “if you learn how to do this now you’ll have an easier time with future assignments” or “if you take the time to really understand this database and how it relates to information retrieval you’ll be able to use just about any database”. A hard sell no doubt.

    I would point to a blog that no longer exists that was called “Creating Passionate Users”. The whole point was to find ways to take people who used products but didn’t really think much or care about them and to try to turn them into people with the intrinsic motivation to really care about the product – in which case they’d use the features, tell others, become a loyal user, etc. I may have written a post about CPU in the past at ACRLog. What I often got from that blog was that what you get people past their initial resistance and fear of complexity, they often could then move beyond that and start to develop an appreciation for the value of the product or service. You may some good points about how we might do this, but can we move it into classrooms and create passionate researchers (and those are often the folks who become graduate students and future faculty) outside the 1-on-1 consultation? Shouldn’t faculty play some role in motivating the students as well?

  4. Of course the faculty should play a role in motivation. It’s completely unrealistic to expect students to walk into a library classroom, meet a librarian for the first time (who has no extrinsic motivators such as grades at hand) and get super-excited about using the library or about how information works.

    I’m more focused on simply keeping their attention and making sure they leave with something useful than actual motivation, which is – let’s be realistic – not something we can generate in an instruction session.

    Right now the most exciting thing going on at our library is a semester-long lab tied to a methods course in political science. This was the brainstorm of Julie Gilbert, who met with the class once a week and gave them not just “how to” information, but readings and assignments that made students think about things like the state of the news media and whether Google really is making us stupid. I’d love to do this for every major where using information is important. This really is team-teaching and experiential, but doesn’t begin and end with “here are the tools; good luck.”

  5. Lots of thoughtful comments here!
    1) The first 2 types of researchers are the ones I’m trying to reach, and I’m still naive enough to think that they might be converted into fully information literate thinkers if we impress them.
    2) Unfortunately I can’t get a thorough understanding of LOTSE due to my non-existent German skills, and I haven’t found ideal tutorials, either.
    3) Definitely will start reading Creating Passionate Users — seems like a multi-day task — and yes it is the responsibility of faculty to motivate students, and the best faculty do, but it’s also ours as librarians, because we’re in the classroom too.
    4) I disagree — When working 1-1 at the reference desk I can tell I’ve inspired motivation & opened people’s eyes about how information works. We can not expect every faculty in every discipline to do that for us.

  6. I think we need shock treatment – to really awaken the excitement and opportunity of today’s information environment. I’ve been reading about viewpoints on information seeking and today’s cohort of young learners (college). The conclusion I come to is the need to address the mechanics of the arbitrary assignment at hand, yes, but to really stimulate discovery as well. Here are some ideas. Hope others will post theirs too.
    Guess-the-Google http://grant.robinson.name/projects/guess-the-google/ — a great exercise that gets to the issue of search terms.
    Fake Websites http://www.philb.com/fakesites.htm — give them an assignment to jointly research a fake topic so they can experience the risk of web-only for themselves.
    Give analogies for how seeking answers (doing research) works. Such as: 1) Going out on a Saturday night date – how do you find out what to do and who to invite along with you? 2) You are preparing a large feast for your large family that is visiting from Poland; how do you plan the menu, buy the food, and make the meal? 3) You will be going to Florida on vacation. How can you pick a city, find what to do and make the travel arrangements?
    How to reposition the task at hand: 4) Your research paper will be simultaneously published in the local paper and you will be giving a talk in front of the whole school. What headliner will ensure people read it or come to it? This gets them to narrow their topic.
    Pick an interesting topic, especially when everyone does the same search: 5) Your favorite song – research the composer, artist, group, album and words. 6) Pornography – What have we as a society concluded about its impact, need to control and potential harm?

    Anyone else thinking along these lines?

  7. Emerson said that a teacher isn’t teaching a subject so much as she is teaching herself. That is, when you are up in front of a class, you are teaching the students your habits, your motivations, your enthusiasms. I think this is what students come away with from a helpful one-on-one reference interaction: “Wow, the librarian was interested in this topic, dogged about finding information,and creative about thinking up alternative paths–I can be that way, too.”

  8. LOVE the google game & the idea of shock treatment. Should have named the post “Inspiring Motivation / Shock Treatment.” Also like the thoughts about teaching yourself, although it can be tricky to have students think ‘oh, I can do that’ instead of ‘she can do that because she’s a librarian, and I’m not a librarian.’

  9. Mark, I have to admit in answer to your questions – I’d go to Google! These are the kinds of questions that have gotten so much easier to answer than they were 15 years ago.

    I agree that there are plenty of ways to make research engaging and interesting. I just think it’s a complex process and we need to partner with the faculty in it because our students spend a lot more time developing questions and learning how to interpret sources in courses than they do in most library instruction sessions. I think we often neglect the faculty, thinking information literacy is our job. It’s theirs, too, and most of them take it very seriously, even if they don’t call it “information literacy.”

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