Changing my game plan, slightly

Something like half of the one-shot instruction sessions I do follow the same pattern: the faculty member wants me to teach the students “how to find (scholarly) journal articles.” During the first couple of the semesters I was in this position, I gradually worked out a lesson plan that works pretty well for this:

I start with an exercise on taking a topic phrase like “reducing juvenile delinquency through after-school sports” and translating that into a database-friendly keyword search like “juvenile delinquency AND (sports OR athletics).” Then I have the students go through the same process with their own topics on a structured worksheet, working in pairs, and we put one or two examples on the board to discuss them. No computers — mine or the students’ — are used in this portion of the class.1

Then I turn on the instructor’s computer and projector, and do a short demo of whatever the relevant database is for the class. 99% of the time it’s an EBSCO database, due to the intersection of the classes that tend to do instruction (Psych, Education, and Communication are our biggest customers) and the particulars of our database subscriptions.  Lately I’ve been having a student “drive” the computer while I stand in front of the screen and point and talk.

Then I turn them loose, either individually or in pairs/small groups, to search on their own for the remainder of the class (usually between 5 and 15 minutes), while I circulate and try to solve problems in the room.

This has worked relatively well for the past year or so, but I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the database demo portion of the class: I feel like it’s too lecture-y and I’d like to get away from it.  Here’s a chronology of my thinking on this:

  • I started being involved in some online conversations with librarians I respect and trust, who were talking about how much they’d moved away from the more mechanistic, “click here, type here, now use this menu option…” aspects of demonstrating databases, and how much they had shifted over to letting the students figure out the mechanics of the database interface themselves.  I wanted to move in this direction, but just wasn’t quite sure that our students were up to the challenge.
  • A colleague of mine gave a presentation on using blogs and wikis with her classes — her extremely humanities-based classes2 — and explained that she really doesn’t teach the students how to use the blog and wiki tools’ interfaces, and the students are generally able to figure them out just fine.
  • I heard a presentation a LOEX just a few weeks ago, where Emily Mazure talked about asking students who were about to attend one-shot library instruction sessions to view a couple of tutorials ahead of time, so that certain basic concepts wouldn’t need to be addressed in the session itself.3
  • Also at LOEX, I heard a fantastic keynote address by Brian Coppola that, among many other fabulous things, introduced me to research from cognitive psychology that suggests that people learn stuff more deeply and thoroughly if they think they’re going to have to explain it to someone else (regardless of if they ever actually do so), than if they’re just learning it for themselves.

Whew. That’s a lot of influences and relatively random, unconnected conversations and presentations.  But what it convinced me was, students can probably figure out the basics of the EBSCO search interface on their own, especially if they get a little bit of pre-preparation via a tutorial of some sort; and having them figure it out on their own, and then report back to their classmates, is probably much more effective than me talking at them and pointing at the screen.  So here’s what I’m planning to try this fall:

  • Before the session, ask the faculty member to ask/require the students to watch NCSU’s “Article Databases in 5 Minutes,” and/or NCSU’s “Peer Review in 5 Minutes,” and/or a tutorial (to be determined, possibly by EBSCO themselves, but definitely not created in-house, so as not to reinvent the wheel) on the basics of the EBSCO search interface.
  • Keep the Boolean/keywords section as is, with lecture/discussion followed by working in pairs, followed by group discussion of 1-2 search strategies.
  • Then put them in groups and give them 5-10 minutes to find appropriate/peer-reviewed articles on one of the topics we’ve just discussed in class, not on their own topics.4 I’ll give them directions for how to get to the database, but nothing beyond that.  And I’ll tell them they should be prepared to teach the rest of the class what they learned through this process.
  • After the 5-10 minutes, call 1-2 groups up to the podium to teach what they’ve learned.  Make sure to fill in any essential gaps that they’ve left out (e.g., if nobody mentions the “peer-reviewed” checkbox, make sure to mention that).

I have no idea if this will work better than what I was doing before. But, it’s different, and it’s less me-focused, which can only be a good thing.  I’ll try to remember to post about how it’s working sometime in the fall.

  1. Also, the word “Boolean” is never uttered in class.
  2. A major part of the mythology of her department is “I’m majoring in Humanistic Studies because I hate/fear/suck at computers.” Needless to say, there is considerable angst when the students discover they’re going to have to use them for more than just Microsoft Word in her classes.
  3. Now, the concepts she chose to address through tutorials aren’t the same concepts that I would have chosen, and there was some complicated stuff with pre- and post-tests that I think was mostly there to measure the effectiveness of the tutorials, but the basic concept was sound.
  4. This is somewhat counterintuitive — why not have them search on one of their own topics? — but necessary, I think. First, because otherwise the groups would spend a good deal of time deciding whose topics to use; and second, because even after the worksheet exercise, they still manage to come up with lousy search terms. If they’re using search strings that we’ve already discussed, I’ll be able to head off wildly non-useful search strings at the pass and they’ll have a better chance of getting good results earlier in the process.