The No-Demonstration Class, Or, Not

Wow, it’s been pretty quiet around here.  I’m sorry about that; the semester got kind of busy.

So what have I been working on this semester?  Well, to begin with, I made a real effort to move toward fewer database demonstrations in my instruction sessions. A lot of the one-shot instruction sessions that I do, after I consult with the faculty member about what their students need in order to succeed on their assignments, end up with the same basic pattern:

  1. Practice turning a topic phrase (e.g., “reducing juvenile delinquency through after-school sports programs”) into a Boolean1 search string (e.g., “juvenile delinquency AND (sports OR athletics)”).
  2. Basics of the user interface for whatever the relevant database is for the class. Because of the way our database subscriptions are configured, 9.5 times out of ten, it’s an EBSCO database.
  3. Locating the full text of an article, whether online, in print, or via Interlibrary Loan. Our link resolver, she does not have the most intuitive UI design in the world.

Now, in the corners of Information Literacy Instruction Land where I hang out, the conventional wisdom is:

  • Students learn better by doing than by being told.
  • Today’s 18-22-year-old college student is pretty darned good at figuring out online interfaces.
  • Therefore, they can, and should, do better by figuring out how to search a database on their own.

And thus was born the Holy Grail of database instruction: The No-Demonstration Class. No more standing in front of the class and futilely waving your hands at the projector screen! No more “click here, type here, and don’t forget this radio button!”  Student-directed, active learning!  Hands-on practical practice!  Social learning, because they do this in groups!

Different librarian instructors handle this differently: some turn the students loose from the get-go and gradually move them from their inevitable initial Googling into more and more specialized resources, while others give them a head start by pointing them to the library databases to start with. Some have the students present what they’ve found to the class after a certain amount of time spent fumbling around, and have the rest of the class critique the search strategies that  are presented, moving towards more and more sophisticated strategies.  Some provide more structure; some less; and some none at all.  All of them report dynamic, engaged, actively-learning classrooms, instead of classrooms full of snoozing, texting, Facebooking students.

Sounds great, right?  Of course it does! So I had to try it out for myself, and since so many of my classes seem to devolve into “how to search EBSCO databases,” and since I’m relatively comfortable with completely unstructured chaos in the classroom, I figured, what better opportunity to try it out?

Now, I should start by saying that I didn’t exactly jump in with both feet.  We still started the class with a brief discussion and exercise (in pairs) on constructing keyword searches.  I have enough experience with my students to know that, if we didn’t cover this ground first, I’d be turning students loose who would just do this to the poor unsuspecting database:

using an entire phrase as a keyword search

Or this:

single keyword search with a far too general keyword

Or, heaven help them, this:

What would this search retrieve, exactly? I don't even know.

So we went through the Boolean part of the lesson plan, and then I got them into pairs or groups, sent them to Academic Search Premier, and turned them loose with one of the two search strings we worked on in class — which were derived from their own topics, not “canned” topics that I had brought into class. And…

…it kind of bombed.

What did they do? Well, they dutifully went to the database, input the search more or less as one would expect, got some results, and were promptly done.

What did I expect them to do, based on what I’d heard from other librarians was happening in their classrooms? Well, for one thing, I’d expect them to look at their search results a little more carefully than just long enough to say, “oh, there’s an article that looks good.”  Maybe notice that a lot of their results were from, say, the New York Times and think twice about why that might have happened.  I’d hope that they’d explore the interface a little, poke around, try some options, discover the limiters (limit to peer-reviewed articles, limit by date, etc.).  Heck, even making a gonzo mistake like searching by subject heading right off the bat would be good, if only because it would make a useful example to talk about with the rest of the class.

But instead, they did what they were told: no less, certainly, but also no more.

Why didn’t it work as well for me as it clearly does for many other librarians?  I really don’t know.  It’s absolutely possible — even probable — that it’s something in the way I’m presenting the task that constrains them.  Either I need to give them more direction, or less, or different directions.  It’s convenient (and plausible) to blame the existing classroom dynamics that have developed between the faculty member and the students over the course of the semester.2  It’s also convenient to blame a campus culture that is not especially hands-on, experimental, techy, or DIY (our campus is kind of the opposite of MIT). Some of the campuses where, anecdotally, I hear about the No-Demonstration Class working very well, have more of those hands-on qualities as part of their campus cultures.

So what can I do to improve on the situation?  I can’t really change the existing classroom dynamic between students and the teaching faculty member, nor can I change the campus culture.  The only thing I can change is how I approach the lesson: how I frame the activity, what I tell the students as I turn them loose, what specific prompts and questions I direct them to answer (or not).  That’s clearly where I’m falling down, and where I could use some help.  Ideally, I’d go visit a bunch of campuses where librarians are teaching this way and see how they do it, but that’s clearly not practical (hellooooo, sabbatical project!).

In the absence of a grand cross-continent tour, then, I’ll have to ask for suggestions: How do you make this work in your classroom?  What has worked for you — and not worked?  How do I get my charmingly dutiful students to break out of their constraints and experiment a little bit?

  1. I never use the word “Boolean” in class. Ever.
  2. We know that whatever dynamic and form of instruction the faculty member has established for a class will be the form of instruction that, when the students arrive in the library, they are most comfortable with. If the faculty member lectures, they’ll be most comfortable with a librarian lecturing at them, and uncomfortable with active group work.  And vice versa.


  1. Posted March 28, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    First, I wonder sometimes how successful or different all those self-reported successes are. We may not all have the same idea of what a successful class or technique looks like.

    Then, I guess your students’ response indicates that they think you have already presented the ultimate goal–there is a disconnect between you presenting what you think of as a technique to help get research started and what they must think of as a task that encapsulated research in itself.

    So perhaps I would have them do what you have them doing so far, then have them describe what they found–what things are possible to notice? Number of hits. Languages. Sources. Length of articles. Recency of articles. Etc. I think that reading the results screen is at least as difficult as doing the search.

  2. Catherine
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    “I think that reading the results screen is at least as difficult as doing the search.”

    YES. Thank you, Steve, for pinning down that idea so well for me. (And now that you’ve identified it so well, I realize that I’ve actually written about this before, though admittedly from a slightly different perspective.)

    But your suggestion is an excellent one: ask them to identify patterns, describe what they found, offer an assessment (heh) of how useful the results they got would be to a hypothetical paper on the topic. In other words, spend far more time talking about reading the results screen than setting up the search in the first place.

    And one final comment, which is that I think “satisficing” factors in here as well, in a fairly significant way. Maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog post…

  3. Posted April 1, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days now – and finally have time to comment.

    So I’m a “they can figure out how to drive it” advocate but this got me thinking about what I really mean by that. Because I still totally demonstrate – and demonstrate some of the same stuff – just to a different purpose. Where I used to demonstrate so they’d learn how to use the tool, now I try to demonstrate (or model, maybe that sounds better) a process that integrates the research tool. Almost a think-aloud… Give me a topic. I’ll start with these keywords because… oh that is interesting, how can I get more like that. Oh no, that keyword isn’t doing me any favors, what else should I use. I’d better make a note of that so I can search it separately later. I want that article, how can I get it…”

    I try to keep it as authentic as possible, like I was really doing the research myself and give them some reasons why I use this tool — I do a LOT of searches, and I use this tool, here’s why and how. And I try not to care if they remember *any* of the specifics of what I just showed them when they start trying it for themselves.

    And then after that 3-5 minutes, I turn them loose but I’ve never tried to do that when they don’t have their own stuff to work on AND when I don’t have a hefty chunk of time to talk to several of them 1-1 as they try the process with their topics. As stuff comes up in the 1-1s I try to bring it to the class – getting the class to participate in a “what happened – what did we find -what can this tool do” conversation is really rare. I get great stuff in the 1-1 but can hardly ever translate it to an experience where the whole group can learn from each other.

    Basically, I think in a one-shot I can’t possibly teach them everything I’d want to teach them about the research tool, so I focus more on the why they’d want to use it , how it is likely to behave and what they can do when they don’t get what they want first try. One of the advantages is that I see a lot more of what trips them up about reading the result screen, choosing articles, etc. than I used to.

    So while I do think that it works better than what I used to do, and that I find out more useful things about their skills than I used to, I would rarely describe any of my one-shots as “dynamic, engaged, actively-learning classrooms” even though they are not full of snoozing, texting or facebooking students. I think Steve’s right about different standards of success and I also think there’s some internal comparisons going on – “it was better than the last time” 🙂

    P.S. I totally turn them loose with those awful initial searches. Sometimes in my think aloud I say something about keeping my keywords keywords and then pause. Tell them to think of their topic. Then tell them to write 1-2 word keywords or phrases on the little whiteboards we have next to their computers. Then I go on and when I turn them loose I point them to their keywords. But that’s the most I do at the start.

  4. Tiffini
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Well, based on your outcomes it seems the students did exactly what you wanted them to. I would say your experiment was a success.

    What you seem to be disturbed about is that they didn’t get excited and want to go beyond what the learning outcomes of the course were. To make the students explore the database you would be best served to build that into your learning activity. For example,have them conduct the search multiple ways (find a subject heading in the record, change the limits etc.) this would hit at the things you identified as missing. Otherwise I applaud you for trying the NO DEMO mantra:-)

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Context Matters on April 11, 2011 at 7:54 am

    […] works very well for them, but when I tried it with the students at my small liberal arts college, it kind of flopped. In fact, our students almost seem to want to be told about things, rather than figure them out on […]

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