Thinking About the Future

As the end of the semester rolls around I’ve been sorting through the evaluations that we ask our English Composition I students to fill out at the end of their required library session. I was scrolling through the spreadsheet of student responses the other day and one in particular jumped out at me: “How will this help us in the future?”

It’s often said that there are no bad questions (and I agree), but there are also some really good questions and that’s one of them. Why DO our students need what we teach them in a library session? How will they apply what they’ve learned in our classes to their lives in the future?

I spend the first part of my classes trying to emphasize that information literacy and the research skills they’ll begin to learn in college are transferable knowledge. I give them concrete examples of the relevance of information literacy to their careers (preparing for job interviews, staying current in their fields, etc.) and their lives beyond college (finding health information, moving or traveling to a new place, etc.). I’m at a college of technical and professional studies, and planning for their future jobs is always on students’ minds.

I also point out that becoming a proficient searcher is relevant to their work here at college, when they’ll need to search for library materials, and for searching the internet (again, both in college and in their everyday lives). I stress that different questions require different information to answer, and the importance of evaluating information, especially on the internet but also “traditionally” published information.

Our time in the library sessions always seems too short, but I feel like I do a reasonably good job of explaining the relevance of research skills and information literacy to the lives of our students both in college and in the future. So, what happened in that class? Did the student come to the session late, or sleep (or web surf) through the beginning, when I usually cover these topics?

Or are the reasons I give to students not compelling enough? Maybe they’ve heard it all before, that every subject they’re required to study is relevant, and since they haven’t actually gotten to their post-college careers and lives it’s not real for them yet.

Whatever the student’s reason for asking the question, it’s still a good question. I’ve written it on a post-it and stuck it above my computer monitor so I can keep it in mind when thinking about the future of our information literacy and instruction program, too.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

10 thoughts on “Thinking About the Future”

  1. Maura, thanks for raising this issue. It’s SUCH a good question.

    I think perhaps with first year students, so focused on what they have to accomplish in the near term, and so baffled by the unfamiliar academic requirements being heaped on them, will not see the point of learning how to find academic resources for a peculiar kind of academic writing they think they are unlikely to engage in on the job. It may be the students was really asking “how will writing papers help me in the future?” And that is not at all evident in first year composition no matter how many times they are told it will.

    I’ve observed that only students who feel pretty comfortable and confident about their being-in-college skills are open to bigger social questions about research. Why is so little of this information going to be available to me after I graduate? What are the privacy implications of Google’s accretion of personal data? What are the long term consequences of the collapse of the news media and the rise of social media? Are there opportunities for me to use the kind of critical thinking and argumentation skills I’ve developed in ways that make a difference in the world? It takes a while to get there.

    I think we should consider spending more time with students closer to graduation, and we should partner with service learning and civic engagement initiatives on our campuses to help students think beyond college and discover how their research skills can be used to accomplish whatever their passion is.

  2. One way to answer this question would be to ask alumni how their college experience – especially the research and learning how to use the library resources parts – has helped them in their careers or personal lives. We routinely hear from our alums who want to use our databases because they are working on projects, doing a job search, etc. and know the library databases will make their work easier and more complete. So then if a student asks “how will this help me in the future” the response could be “well you might not think it will just now, but let me tell you what we’re hearing from our alumni – and you’ll be in their position not long from now”. Then you are equipped with a story or two to tell.

    But not only is it a good question, it fits with the question I can asking myself – “Why is the business we are we and why are we doing it?”. In part, to help them have a better future.

  3. Michael, that’s a good suggestion. Right now we use a short evaluation and (among other things) ask “what library or research question do you have that wasn’t answered today?” That’s the question that elicited this student’s response. One of our summer goals is to revamp our assessment, and converting this response into a question could be a useful addition.

    That’s a great point, Barbara, that research/critical thinking competencies develop in our students over the entire course of their college career. We’re expanding our faculty outreach which will hopefully result in more opportunities to work with advanced and capstone courses in addition to the intro courses.

    I’d never considered speaking with alumni before — thanks for this idea, Steven. Especially in our very career-focused programs I think alumni could give us some valuable insight into what they actually need and use on the job.

    Thanks for these comments, they’re great food for thought!

  4. The process of finding information, which librarians are so interested in, is peripheral to many people. I think we need to strike a balance between being of assistance & letting students decide how much energy they want to invest in it.

  5. I think the answer to your question, “What happened in that class?” is not so much a matter of what went differently or wrong, but a factor that is a consistent problem in our short library instruction sessions. And the answer is in our own defenses of what we do: “I point out,” “I do a good job of explaining,” “I stress, I emphasize, I give good reasons.” What we too often fail to do though is allow the students to DISCOVER these things, to REALIZE, to have that light bulb moment when they go, “oh yeah! I was trying to do this the other day, and if I had known how to search this way, it would have been a lot easier!” I know we are all very smart and interesting and sometimes even entertaining people to listen to, but the bottom line is – do you believe everything people TELL you? Or do you want to see it for yourself? Why do we expect our students should listen and believe us if we’re not willing to risk letting them figure it out themselves? You told them all the right stuff, but it might be a while before they realize it first hand.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Olivia and Megan. I agree that students don’t feel that finding appropriate information is as important as librarians do, and it’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes and remember waaaaay back when I was a first-year student. And that’s a good point, Megan, that learning by doing is likely to have more impact for students than listening to a teacher’s description of doing (even a good teacher). It’s certainly true for me, even now — I internalize new knowledge much more easily when I’ve had a chance to work through it myself.

    We’re extremely constrained by time in those library sessions — it’s hard to fit in everything we need to present as well as give students a chance to work through it authentically. But I’m definitely on the lookout for ways to inject a bit more active learning in there.

  7. Maura, when you speak about injecting more active learning in a library instruction session, are your instruction sessions held in a computer lab, where students can do their own hands-on searching, after you’ve modeled the process a little for them?

    If library instruction is not held in a computer lab, and students are passively listening to the librarian, what sort of active learning can happen? I’d like to know, because occasionally I have to teach outside of a computer lab, and I don’t want the session to be just me yammering on, even if I am able to demonstrate some stuff with a laptop and projector.

    This is a good thread–helpful comments all around!

  8. Thanks for your comment, rmm. Yes, we are usually in our computer classroom, though I still feel enough time constraints that students typically only follow along with me on their computers rather than searching on their own. In advanced classes I devote at least half of the time to students’ actually searching for sources on their research topics, and they are usually more involved/attentive. No surprises there, of course, though there’s a limit to what we can do in the one-shot which is our only shot in the intro Comp classes.

    That’s a great question about teaching outside of a computer classroom. As demand for instruction (a good thing!) rises in my library I think we’ll be doing much more of this in the future. And I too am stumped as to how to make those sessions more active for students. I’ve toyed with asking a student to come up and demonstrate searching for sources, but I don’t want to put them on the spot or make them feel that they have to come up with the “right” answer. Any other ideas and suggestions are welcome!

  9. I worked in a library a few years ago that did not have a computer classroom. I would sometimes use one of the labs outside the library, but I hated to miss the opportunity to have students come into the library. To make the sessions in the library more interactive, I would use a wireless keyboard and ask for a volunteer to do the typing for me. Instead of using my own topic, I would ask students what they wanted to use as a topic for the session (I had a few topics prepared, if they didn’t provide me with one). Depending on the class (size, personality, experience), I would sometimes try to work as a group to come up with keywords and perform searches. Instead of saying “Now, click X button,” I might say “What would you do next?” It works well with students who have previously attended library sessions, but not with those without any experience.

    We also had a SMART board, which always caught the students’ attention. Other than having them try it at the end of the session, I didn’t come up with a good way to use it where the students could be interactive. I was always able to get a volunteer to do the typing, though!

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