“Any Questions?”: Hands-on Search Strategies in the Classroom

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Michael Scott, The Office.

Part of my job includes instruction at my small art school library, and while I only just recently took teaching on for the first time, I’m sure that every instruction librarian regardless of experience can agree that one of the biggest difficulties to face is assessing whether or not students are connecting to what you are saying. There’s only so much pizzazz you can put into your powerpoint and time you can spend talking at your students.

My least favorite part comes at the end of my session, when I ask “Any questions?” and my students just stare blankly at me and I can only hope that what I said resonated with at least one of them.

Being at a small library means that we don’t have large-scale instruction strategies. It’s a very DIY environment, where we work out our ideas and see what works and above all, try and try again. I’m fortunate in that way, that I have the space and leverage to experiment and grow. But it can also be like grasping out for something in the dark – you don’t know if something is there, but you’re going to try and find it anyway.

We also do not have the space for things like a computer lab. Instruction sessions are usually limited to one-shot classes in the back of our library, where we do our spiel in front of a projector. Our faculty usually don’t have enough time allotted in their syllabi to bring us in as embedded librarians, so we have to take advantage of this time as much as we can and hope that we’ve provided enough information to send our students on their way to do their own research.

Lately though, my fellow instruction librarian and I were approached by one of our more enthusiastic faculty members who wanted to devote an entire class to have us come in and lead a hands-on session for research. With an assignment in mind, we instructed all students to have their laptops on hand with them – all students here are required to own a laptop for their schoolwork. After leading a discussion on scholarly sources and Boolean operators, we guided the class through different databases and search strategies. It was absolutely refreshing to be there in person with the students as they searched, exploring new databases for the first time, and learning how to mind map. The professor, my fellow instruction librarian, and I made ourselves available to walk around and answer questions, helping students refine their search terms. It was new for a lot of students who are used to turning directly to open-web sources first before they venture into library resources, as so many studies will tell you. Trying to shift a student’s perspective from a Google-centric view of searching (where you only stick to the first two pages of relevant results that have been tailored to your past search history) to that of a library database (where you might find the best result on page 11) is a challenge, but it’s something that could possibly be addressed with more hands-on research sessions in the classroom like the one we led.

“Why can’t all of our classes be like this?” we mused together after the session came to an end.

This may be a very regular occurrence at other institutions, but it was a breakthrough for us and it really got us thinking about how to improve our information literacy strategy. With the right technology and time, we could be improving our students’ research capabilities in every class.

Following this classroom session, that professor reached out to the library and our Vice Provost with a brilliant idea to conduct a brown bag workshop for all of our faculty to show these findings and advocate for the library to be integrated into more class syllabi. We would give a demo of the library services we could provide, have iPads and laptops available for faculty to follow along with our research instruction, and provide an open dialogue for instructors to voice their observations on student research & writing at the institution with the hopes that we can address challenges with our sessions while tailoring them to individual subjects of study.

Having faculty and administration advocate for you is one of the most helpful ways for your library’s instruction program to be given the time and attention it needs. We hope that this will give our infolit strategic plan new life and improve our school’s writing and research capabilities overall.

I will be following up with the outcomes of this workshop in the months to come. But until then….any questions?

How has your library used technologies & resources in and outside of classrooms to help teach library instruction? Do you have any success stories?