Valuing Student Experience

Discussions surrounding student experiences and how to incorporate those experiences during library instruction have been a hot topic in library land and is something I’ve thought about as well. How can I best value student experiences and ensure that what I’m teaching is relevant to them? What do I need to do to make my teaching student-centered?  When I think about student experiences, I think about the unique backgrounds, perspectives, ideas, beliefs, identities, and skills that students bring into the classroom. I think about what I bring to the classroom as well and what all of this might mean for library instruction.

Student experience is at the forefront of my mind – now more than ever – because I work for a Jesuit university. Though Jesuit pedagogy is built on religious foundations, you don’t have to be religious to understand and adopt the pieces that work for your own teaching practice. Jesuit education is based on the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP). I’m not an expert on IPP since I was only introduced to the concept a few months ago, but there are a few things I’ve been able to take away from this approach to teaching. I’ve found it a useful framework when thinking about how to bring student experience into the library classroom, especially in a one-shot setting.

In IPP, experience is labelled as context. On page 10, section 35 of the IPP document, context is explained as this:

Since human experience, always the starting point in an Ignatian pedagogy, never occurs in a vacuum, we must know as much as we can about the actual context within which teaching and learning take place. As teachers, therefore, we need to understand the world of the student, including the ways in which family, friends, peers, youth culture and mores as well as social pressures, school life, politics, economics, religion, media, art, music, and other realities impact that world and affect the student for better or worse. Indeed, from time to time we should work seriously with students to reflect on the contextual realities of both our worlds. (IPP, p. 10)

Essentially, we need to understand the world surrounding students and how that world works for or against them. I don’t think there’s an easy, one-size fits all approach to doing this. If critically reflecting on and incorporating student experiences into library instruction were easy, everyone would do it right now; however, there are many ways we can value students. For me, the first step to valuing a student’s context is to not make assumptions about their world. I can’t assume that every student has the same educational background, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, experience with technology, or beliefs about a subject. If I do make those assumptions, I’m already de-valuing the experiences a student brings into my classroom; I’m forcing my own experiences and understandings of the world onto them. I have to actively practice this because I have my own implicit biases that affect my worldview and how I interact with students. Reshaping the way we think about students, what they bring to the classroom, and what we think they know is an active and ongoing process.

Since many librarians teach one-shots, or sessions that are shorter than the typical for-credit class, it can be difficult to really get to know the students in our classrooms. With these constraints, I really struggle with the question of how to build context with such little time because I want to build continuing relationships and strong connections, which are not possible in one, 75 minute class. I think context can be built in smaller ways. Conversations with faculty before library instruction help build context. We can understand the class students are in, the topics that they are studying, and the assignment that they are working on. We can also be aware of campus, state, country, and worldwide issues that affect student lives.

Within library instruction, there are ways that we can continue to value student experiences. One way to do this is with short questions at the beginning of class such as asking students if they’ve been to the library before, what their major is, or who they go to for research help. Any information about what students know and where they are coming from is useful. Using varied and inclusive examples can also ensure that multiple backgrounds are valued. I also try to make references students can connect to, and I’ll check in with students to make sure they are still relevant (Do you all use Twitter? Is SparkNotes still a thing?). I think it’s also important to connect new concepts or tools to things that students already know because that acknowledges their life outside the classroom. If students use Google, let’s talk about Google and how that relates to library research.

Thinking back to the context section of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm, one thing I find helpful are the questions posed at the end of the paragraph such as, “How do world experiences affect the very way in which students learn, helping to mold their habitual patterns of thinking and acting?” Class discussions are a place where students can both share their own experiences and also critically reflect on how their own lives influence their understanding of information. This is, again, difficult in a one-shot setting because we have to take the time to build familiarity with students so they feel comfortable talking to and with us. Luckily, I had several opportunities to work with a class multiple times throughout the semester, which allowed for more open conversations surrounding power, belief systems, and how that relates to information. I hope multiple instruction sessions become more of a norm for libraries in the future.

The last idea surrounding student experiences that I’ve been thinking about is how context-building goes beyond a library instruction session. I struggled with how to check-in with students after instruction, and one of my colleagues mentioned that she offers a follow-up email later in the semester to any student who wants one. It’s a simple idea, and it works. At the end of instruction, I pass a sheet around for any student who wants to write down their email for a check-in. A week later, I’ll send them an email asking how they are doing and let them know that they can contact me at any time if they need help. Most students don’t reply, but I’m surprised by the amount that do (especially once assignments are due!). It allows an opportunity to continue working outside of the classroom, learn more about students, and engage one-on-one. Beyond email follow-ups, attending student presentations and speeches, events, and celebrations on campus show students that we care about their lives and experiences.

Students are at the center of our work in academic libraries, and we should value the different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences that they bring into the classroom. There’s no singular way to build or establish context, which can feel daunting, but we can start with smaller ideas, both inside and outside the library.

How do you recognize student experiences in library instruction?

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