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May 19, 2014 / Charlie McNabb

How to Overwhelm Students

Just kidding! This post is actually about how NOT to overwhelm students. I’ve been observing library instruction sessions lately, both to absorb strategies for effective instruction and to get an idea of what kinds of content are taught. It’s been really helpful seeing how established academic librarians organize content and interact with students, and I’m taking away some great tips that I’ll share here.

  • Reasonable goals for the session. There is never enough time to explain everything, and students are lucky if they get even one library instruction session. The temptation to cram a bunch of content into a session is great, but learners can’t process an overabundance of information. Librarians that I observed had around three major objectives for their sessions, which allowed time for active learning and processing the information into long-term memory.
  • Demonstrating things on screen. In sessions where the librarian was demonstrating something on a computer that was projected onto a screen, I noticed that they used vigorous mousing to draw attention to an area, as well as actually standing up and physically pointing. Sometimes just saying “the button on the top right” is not enough, and using visual cues is really helpful.
  • Talking through procedures. Some library research methods take lots of steps (find the database list, locate the specific database, input search terms, narrow, select source, find citation…) and it can take a few tries to get it down and remember it. Showing the procedure and talking through it at the same time is a great way to help students understand not just the how, but the why. For example, “I’m looking for recent articles, so I’m going to narrow the date parameters so I don’t get anything before the year 2000” while showing on screen how to do an advanced search.
  • Friendly demeanor. I remember when I was an undergraduate, I thought that academic librarians were really busy doing cataloging or building databases or something, and I didn’t want to bother them with questions. I bet most students feel that way, or have library anxiety, or feel embarrassed that they don’t know how to do something. Friendliness and eye contact can really help students understand that we’re there for them! I noted that the librarians I was observing demonstrated where to find contact information for subject librarians, showed how to access chat reference, and encouraged students to ask librarians for help. Sometimes I forget that we can seem kind of intimidating (especially if we’re behind a big ref desk) so mentioning that our primary job is to help students is really important.
  • Encouraging questions and participation. Active learning is the best way to ensure that concepts are understood and remembered. But asking a class to volunteer information about their research topics often results in cricket sounds and tumbleweeds. I saw one librarian ask for participation going row by row. This way, students were directly called on, but not singled out, and once one person started, it was easier for the rest of the students to participate. I’ve also seen gamification, clickers, and small group work as ways of encouraging participation.
  • Hands-on learning. Moving around, touching physical resources, and exploring online resources also help students process information. One librarian brought in physical journals so students could understand the anatomy of a journal article. Other librarians demonstrated a research strategy and then had students explore on their own as they walked around and helped as needed.

Each of these tips was covered in my information literacy instruction course in library school (Thanks, Michelle Holschuh Simmons!), but it’s so useful for me to see them enacted in real-life situations. It’s also been helpful to talk to the librarians and learn about their preparation methods, how much time they have to plan, and whether they collaborate with faculty or not. Seems like it’s a pretty mixed bag, so being ready for anything and having pre-prepared lesson plans is a good idea for on-the-fly sessions!


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