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?

Author: Maura Smale

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

11 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Sessions”

  1. I have had to become more comfortable with awkwardly standing around, too, but I’ve found some ways to cut down on that time.

    I usually break the class up into small groups of 3 or 4 students each and have each group work on a search together. I have them get started, and after a couple of minutes, one group will usually start giggling or begin to exchange panicked looks. That’s my opening to go over and say “You guys are laughing– is that a good sign or a bad sign?”

    From that point on, I wander from group to group somewhat randomly to check in on how they’re doing and to offer tips if needed. If a group is doing well or finishes early, we may chat about the topic– or they may not be chatty, in which case I move to the next group or maybe just sip my coffee for a while. After the searching time is up, we go around the room and a spokesperson from each group shares their experience with the class. This gives me an opportunity to address any problems when the whole class can hear the solution.

    I like the small group method because students typically sit beside their friends, so they’re comfortable with each other. Individuals may be reluctant to admit that they can’t figure something out, but if three or four of them have given it a shot, they know that it’s not just them. They’re more apt to ask me for advice than they would be one-on-one.

  2. I try to keep to a 10 minute blast of talking demo followed by 10 minutes of individual work. Often I only have time to do the databases, the catalog and primary sources. You are right that sometimes it seems that I could just as well go to the cafe during the work session, but it also occurs to me that those could be times to listen to some “customers.” Pick a student or two and ask about what they are doing or trying to do, about their progress, etc. in an open, neutral questioning kind of way. Then listen not so much for a teachable moment but more for insights into how students actually do information literacy, or into the actual overall information and research experiences of the students. It could be a chance for some informal observation of the user experience.

  3. I too find it really difficult to “do nothing” during a session. I get really fidgety and feel I’m wasting their time. My brain tells me this is the best way to run a session, but I’ve yet to be comfortable with it. I’ll try Jim’s suggestion next time, it might help to calm me down.

  4. In our library tutorials, I talk briefly — especially since the students have just gone through a walk-through tool — about computer access and how to use the catalog. Then the students find books and e-books using the catalog. They have to physically get up and retrieve the print books, and click through to view the e-books, so there are plenty of opportunities for questions.

    This usually takes about 20 minutes or so, and then I call them back, explain the electronic databases, and get them using those, generally the journal database. We do that for about another 30 minutes. That means a session takes about an hour and a half total, but it could be sped up if we needed to, for example by cutting the walk-through.

    I interject periodically with things like “remember you need to get up and physically find the book” or “remember, let me know if you are having trouble finding resources” but for the most part I let them explore on their own and just answer any questions they may have. I require the instructor to be present to help with keeping them on task and questions about their assignment.

    I think this works pretty well overall but I am concerned for students who aren’t really getting it, but don’t ask questions. There can be many students in a session, 30 or so, so some can end up falling through the cracks.

  5. If you ever do figure out how to shake that weird, conspicuous feeling while students search and you just stand there, please please PLEASE let me know. That drives me up the wall when it happens!

    Different classes DO have different collective attitudes, though, and I’ve noticed this on several other occasions when I’ve taught two sections for the same faculty member. Sometimes the faculty member even warns me ahead of time that one class is “quiet” or the other is “rowdy” or whatever. I haven’t figured out what to do with it, either, but somehow the fact that it’s the same course, the same faculty member, the same content, etc., makes me feel less like it’s all my fault when the quieter class is quieter.

  6. Kyri, that’s very interesting that your students actually go get the books — I fear for some classes we wouldn’t have time for that, but for others it might be a great fit. I wonder if for some of those quiet classes it might not get a bit more energy into the room?

    Thanks for reminding me to ask students what they’re working on occasionally, too, Jim. I should do a bit more of that even when I’m not trying to nudge the Facebookers back on task.

    Catherine, I had a couple more classes last week and wasn’t any more able to shake the weirdness, but if I do you’ll be the first to know!

  7. If you count in your head, you may find the awkward silences are less than you think. Of course they always feel like forever when you’re in front of a group, but one of the things I learned as a teacher — after I ask a question, count silently to 10 — it feels like minutes but it’s really quite brief, and invites participation from students who wouldn’t otherwise get involved.

    So, yes: is it really forever, or does it just feel that way?

  8. I sometimes start a session with some sort of statement like “during the hands-on portion, I will be circulating, hovering over you, and asking you about your research in a somewhat creepy way”. It makes me feel better to joke about it, and also I feel like I’m setting them up for the “hi there whaddya lookin’ at?” portion. I’m weirdly neurotic about being intrusive, so sometimes feel odd just asking.

    I also always bring a mug of tea, so I have something to sip during the down time.

  9. Our instruction librarian developed worksheets for our EH 101 and EH 102 composition courses. Students answer questions on the worksheet throughout the session, and we review them at the end. The questions and answers together include information that will help students with searching outside the classroom, and we can talk about questions they have during the session. Having this “assignment” to complete during the session keeps students on track. Also, students have commented that they like having something they have worked on in class and can take away.

  10. More great suggestions, thanks! We do use a worksheet in our intro Comp classes but since filling it out is optional (and they don’t hand it in) it’s sometimes difficult to convince students to write things down. A review at the end could help, as could working on ways for us to encourage them to fill it out.

    Great reminder about counting to 10, too, I always forget about that option.

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