ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Amber Gray, Social Sciences and Humanities Librarian at the University of Maine.
There’s been some discussion lately, quite a bit of it spurred by a recent New York Times editorial, about the potential benefits or detriments of the lecture format as well as the potential benefits or detriments of interactivity and active learning in the classroom. I, like many people, believe that both lectures and active learning are useful tools and are useful in different contexts, but what I’d like to discuss here is the unique utility of the lecture format in the one-time-only library instruction session.
Before I continue, I want to be absolutely clear that I am in favor of finding new and interesting ways for students to learn in a classroom environment. If you are looking for a piece of writing that rails against flipped classrooms and active learning, you won’t find it here. I think all these different methods can be and are very useful in a classroom setting. The point that I want to make is that, while flipped classrooms and active learning are great, there are some elements of the lecture format that may be particularly well-suited for the type of one-time library instruction sessions that we as librarians may give in conjunction with college and university classes.
You’ll notice that I used the term “one-time” to describe library instruction sessions, and I think this particular phrase is crucial in distinguishing the work of a semester-long class from the type of instruction librarians often give. A professor, instructor, lecturer, or teaching assistant has a class for a certain period of time at least once a week for a certain number of weeks. A librarian often has a class once for a certain period of time, and whether or not she sees any of those students again is a matter generally left to the individual students. The amount of time a librarian has in which to present is also dependent on the professor; some professors are happy to schedule an entire class session with the librarian, while others prefer a brief twenty- or thirty-minute overview.
Regardless of the amount of time the librarian has, what the librarian presents tends to be defined by the requirements of the class—whether there are any research projects the students will have to conduct, for example, or whether they have to find scholarly articles about a particular topic. And, in what I think is an essential element of the library instruction session, the librarian often has specific resources, research strategies, and tools that the students need to know about by the time the instruction session is over.
This is where the usefulness of the lecture format comes in. In a lecture, the instructor (a librarian, in this case) stands before a class and gives them information they need to know. Especially for library instruction sessions that are twenty minutes or half an hour long, information needs to get to the students in the most efficient way possible, and I would argue that the lecture is one of the best ways in which to do this. A librarian doesn’t have the time the instructor has; there is no additional meeting in which the librarian can share material there wasn’t time to cover in the first meeting. This single meeting has to give the students the tools they need for the rest of the semester; some of the students may contact me for additional information, but I can’t assume they will, and almost certainly some of them won’t. The lecture is, to me, one of the best tools for getting information across in a direct and efficient way, particularly if I’ve got a limited time frame in which to accomplish this.
Now, I’m not suggesting that a lecture is the answer to everything, or that it should be used exclusively instead of any other teaching style. If a professor brings in a class for two hours, I’m not going to lecture to them for two hours. I’m going to talk with them for perhaps forty or forty-five minutes, and the rest of the time can be used for active learning, individual research, questions, or whatever else might be most helpful for this particular group. But even in a longer instruction session, I think that a lecture is a good method of giving students the tools they need to begin.
Lectures are useful, but they can also be difficult, and they tend to require periodic revision. Some of the most successful instructors I have known have used the lecture format, and they change and refine their lectures every year, with the continued inclusion of material that works and the excision of material that doesn’t. As with creating any other type of lesson plan, creating informative and interesting lectures is an iterative process. But when a lecture goes well, it is incredibly satisfying, and students leave the session energized, knowing more about what they need to be able to do their own academic work.
Library instruction is a constantly changing and innovating field, and I think that’s wonderful. I also think that one of the most important aspects of innovation in relation to instruction is, along with creating and working with tools and techniques that are new, being able to use them in conjunction with tools and techniques that aren’t, like the lecture. The teaching styles at our disposal can be as expansive and as varied as we want them to be.