From clicks toward concepts in the information literacy classroom

I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter the other day when a tweet caught my eye. I wish I could find it again to do it justice, but it was essentially a critique of the author’s missteps in the classroom early in their career by way of a funny apology to students. It immediately transported me back to some of the most disappointing and embarrassing teaching experiences in my own early career days. My whole body still cringes when I remember those moments: the one-shots where, for example, I droned on about database navigation and put students, and myself, to sleep; the ones where I stuffed every minute of class, often with insignificant minutiae, thereby camouflaging what really mattered. I didn’t know how to prioritize or pace instruction, much less how to engage students. 

I’m grateful to say that almost everything about my teaching has changed since then, and for the better. Now, more than a decade later, my teaching is much more grounded in constructivist pedagogy and organized around cultivating students’ awareness and understanding of their research processes. My approach then could perhaps be described as tool-driven and largely based in demonstration. It was common for me to develop some kind of resource guide for the course–essentially a long list of links to recommended databases, books, websites, etc.–and then to spend our time in class focused on modeling and practicing effective use of those tools. Of course, there are still plenty of occasions when it makes sense to orient students to effectively using library databases. But now uncovering, conceptualizing, and shaping the process of research–the methods, stages, and purpose–is my organizational blueprint. Today–guided by constructivist and metacognitive principles, active learning pedagogy, and formative assessment techniques–my teaching is much less about tools and much more about strategies, much less about clicks and much more about concepts. 

While the impact of this long transformation has reaped many rewards in student engagement and learning, as well as my personal interest and satisfaction, I know there are many ways I could further improve what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it. I hope to keep iterating and advancing. Specifically, I’m thinking about a technique that I’ve long recognized as a weak spot in my teaching and that could support this road from clicks to concepts: storytelling. 

I’m using the word storytelling quite broadly for my purposes. Perhaps examples is more accurate (and less lofty and self-aggrandizing)? Yet examples feels just a bit narrow. I’m not referring only to developing instructive sample searches to demonstrate how to keep keywords simple yet precise or selecting the ideal sample article to model how to effectively organize a literature review. Of course, those are important kinds of examples and, when done well, very impactful ones. But when I say I want to use storytelling or examples, I’m thinking more about allegories, anecdotes, and analogies, case studies and real-world problems to wrap around the research strategies and concepts at the core of each class. I’m imagining that such storytelling techniques could extend or enhance information literacy teaching and learning by making abstract or technical concepts more accessible and concrete, facilitating recall, demonstrating relevance and impact, prompting reflection and meaning-making, not to mention simply providing inspiration or general interest. I’ve so far been thinking of these as discrete stories to insert at key moments in class to illustrate a point, hook a students’ interest, or propel us all toward moments of understanding.

The small amount of reading on this topic that I’ve done thus far seems to affirm the effectiveness of storytelling and precise, compelling examples in teaching (not to mention other domains like management and leadership). And the tips I’ve stumbled on so far suggest that, like many things in teaching, it’s best to start small by focusing on a single area or concept that students regularly struggle with in order to integrate storytelling where it’s most needed. Otherwise, I’m still a bit at sea here on how to do this best. It’s one thing to be able to identify where a story would be most helpful; it’s another to compose a compelling story that helps students reach a meaningful takeaway and recognize why that takeaway matters. I certainly need to do more research and thinking, but I’m curious about your experience. Have you incorporated storytelling and examples in your teaching? What kinds of stories? And to what effect? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

4 thoughts on “From clicks toward concepts in the information literacy classroom”

  1. Story telling is such an essential teaching tool, even in one-shots! I’m so glad you brought it up. THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL is a good read. Berg & Seeber talk a bit about using narrative in your teaching in chapter 2 of THE SLOW PROFESSOR.

    I “borrowed” a simile from a former boss when talking about database searching: if you play video games, you know you don’t ‘win’ the first time you play. It takes practice and reboots. Database searching is the same; the back button is your best friend.

    I also share little “stories” about past research encounters to give examples. Let me tell you about some unresearchable questions, or regale you with the dire tale of The Student Who Saved Database Links Instead of Permalinks (spoiler alert: The Student was me!). Students’ attention always perks up when I move from clicking to storytelling.

  2. I try to collect stories from experience, either with my own research or with helping students and faculty, and think about how they can serve as mini-lessons.

    One story I use is about the time a student came to me looking for help with a paper on fracking. All she was finding were pro and con arguments, but she wanted information on water pressures and stuff like that because she was an engineering student. One, I suggested she use technical terms to find technical information, and two, I pointed her to our collection of engineering databases. And that was all she needed – to think about the best keywords and to use the proper tools.

  3. Storytelling in or as instruction is one of my top interests in the field, and I agree that it makes such an impact in the classroom! Sometimes I use spontaneous stories during a one-shot, but one that I use often is about a research consultation I had with a student. They had a research question–something along the lines of “What impact does Kayne West’s lyrics have on young listeners?”–but was having trouble finding sources. That’s because, of course, they were looking for articles that addressed this specific question, and I use the story of walking that student through how to answer their research question to demonstrate to students in a one-shot the value of researching something you’re interested in, as well as adding to the scholarly conversation. It’s a more natural way to demonstrate to students that a good research question has an answer they don’t know yet, rather than starting with a thesis statement and looking for quotes to back that position up. Hearing another student’s success story gives a bit of validity to the claim I’m trying to make (it’s actually good if no one else is saying the exact thing you’re trying to prove).

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