Friday, March 14, 2008

Instruction Meeting on Knowing Your Audience

Today I conducted an instruction meeting with my colleagues, and we talked about knowing your audience. After talking about a few laundry-list items, librarians split into groups of two and read two paragraphs each from my blog post "Information-Literacy Audiences." A spokesperson presented their ideas, comments, and observations to the rest of the group.

One librarian suggested that it is a good idea to sit in on a visiting instructor's information-literacy session that is held within our library instruction room. A librarian, whose job it is to keep up-to-date with the library's information resources, can correct any misinformation given during the session. Librarians tend to know more specific building-related information, such as hours, circulation policies, printing issues, etc. They also study the databases in greater depth and can provide insights into manipulating their interfaces better.

When we talked about the instructor who had attended a graduate-level, library-instruction session and complained about not having adequate time to conduct hands-on research during the session, we also considered why that may have happened. These graduate research classes usually occur in their first semester as graduate students, and many graduate students are not traditional students, meaning they are coming back to school after years of working outside the realm of academe. If such a graduate class includes more of these "non-traditional" students, they may need a more basic library-instruction session. In this case, the librarian is more than justified in adapting to the majority's needs.

We briefly discussed how a teacher might engage a student who feels they already know the material being presented. These students may put up barriers that prevent them from learning anything useful or different from the librarian giving instruction. One colleague suggested that getting those students to talk or explain something to the rest of the class would be useful. If a student feels comfortable explaining the use of Boolean operators in a search statement, let them teach their peers how it's done. Creating a group activity can also help these students understand why a librarian might cover so many things they already know, since the group activity will allow them to see that their peers do not know as much as they do. Of course, engaging students in group work requires some forethought and preparation, but I have found it to be useful in several ways.

When students collaborate with each other in groups, they tend to speak up more as they are more comfortable talking with a few people than presenting their ideas to an entire class (generally speaking). In a class where few people respond to questions or invitations for comments, group work can liven things up and oil the rusty parts, get their creative juices flowing. A lecture frequently produces the opposite effects. Peers identify with and trust each other more than an "authority figure." Group work may not be advisable in every situation, but sometimes it's just the thing a teacher needs to pull from their bag of tricks/tools.

To some extent, our instruction session may have been a therapy session in that we shared some personal experiences from within the trenches as library instructors. However, these experiences raised some important questions as well as confirmed the fact that teaching does not come natural to anyone. What do you do to help those students who feel like they know everything, because they have attended a number of library-instruction sessions? What do you do with unrealistic expectations? How basic can you get with complex stuff?

These last two questions deserve a few moments of consideration. Some instructors communicate a long list of things their students should know about the library, but librarians feel that to cover everything on the list in a 50-minute session does not do the students justice. Many of the databases are complex. Colleagues recommended that a second session of instruction and hands-on research be proffered to the instructor. At the least it seems appropriate for librarians to warn incoming instructors that all they want their students to know may be a bit much for a one-shot library session.

Anyway, we had a fruitful discussion that benefited most, if not all, present in the instruction meeting today. A colleague suggested that we can always ask instructors to send us topics that interest their students and even the names of the texts they require as reading assignments in their courses. This information can be useful in helping library instructors prepare relevant searches to demonstrate and increase the value of the instruction session as a whole.

Finally, I wanted to mention some jokes I shared at the beginning of the class. (1) "Why did the teacher need dark glasses? . . . Because her students were so bright." (2) "Why are fish so smart? . . . Because they live in schools." My motive in telling the jokes was to lighten the mood and get their attention at the beginning of the meeting, and I think it worked in spite of my poor delivery lack of experience in conveying humor. Hopefully, I can continue to incorporate humor in future teaching situations.

I found these two jokes at the following website: I really likes their reasoning for including humor in the library-instruction classroom: "We like jokes because they make our minds stretch to places we didn’t expect to go but when we get there it’s a pleasant surprise. That is the way we want you to think about the library. (Not as a joke but a place for pleasant surprises!)"

Yes, the library can and ought to be full of pleasant surprises always.

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