Three shorts for Spring Break

Three things I’ve been mulling over lately, that probably aren’t enough to justify a blog post on their own but, put together, make a substantial post. Think of this as the tapas of blog posts.

Thing The First

I wrote up a lesson plan recently that contained the directive, aimed at myself, “and go from there.”  I posted this to a social network and then commented, “it’s either zen or chutzpah, and I’m really not sure which.”  My good friend Steve Lawson commented to the effect that that is, in fact, what teaching is: taking students from where they are, to another place.

More practically, however, it seems to describe how I’m approaching more and more classes this semester: I start off by getting the students to explain to me, in their own words, what their assignment is and what they’re being asked to do.  How they describe the assignment tells me a lot about where they are in the research process.1  I try to draw out of them their ideas about what kinds of sources they will need to use in their assignments, and where they expect to find those sources.  Then at some point I ask them, “so what do you most need today? How can we best spend the remaining time that we have here?”  And then, as I said, I go from there.

This approach is really modeled on Steve’s “zero preparation class.”  In my case, it often devolves into yet another “how to find peer-reviewed articles in EBSCO databases” lecture/demo, but at least if it does, I can labor under the illusion that it’s what the students wanted/needed in the first place.  Sometimes, though, we wind up going interesting places — not nearly as interesting as the places Steve’s students go, but more interesting than Ye Olde Database Demo.

Thing The Second

Recently, I taught a class where the assignment was to write a paper in which the students used theories they’d learned in class to analyze specific situations in topics/works that they selected themselves.2  They were also supposed to incorporate at least 10 peer-reviewed journal articles into the paper.  Now, to me, the requirement for outside sources seemed nonsensical: if you’re using specific theories to explain a situation, what do you need the outside sources for?

So that’s where we started in class: I asked them about their assignment, and the first thing they said was “10 peer-reviewed journal articles,” so I wrote that up on the board.  Then I asked again, and they started talking about using the theories to explain the situations, and I wrote that on the other side of the board.  Then I asked, “so how to we connect this (articles) with this (theories/situations)?”  We probably spent a good 20 minutes just talking about that.  The students were clearly as flummoxed as I was, but we struggled through and tried to connect the dots.  The faculty member sat in the back of the room and didn’t participate in the conversation, which was a bit disappointing, but s/he was definitely engaged and pleased with the direction that the discussion was going. I’m not sure I emerged any clearer on how the two pieces were supposed to be integrated, but the students had good ideas, and I think on the whole, the time was exceptionally well spent.

Thing The Third

The third thing I wanted to talk about was prompted by a conversation at the Library Society of the World’s Friendfeed room about  teaching students to sift through a list of search results to a) find what’s useful and relevant and b) use what you learn from those results to refine your search and get better results.  One of the participants framed the exercise as teaching students to navigate a world of information abundance, rather than one of information scarcity, which I think perfectly describes the issue.

I was going to write at some length about my thoughts on this topic for classroom discussion, but really, I can’t do much better than the commentors in the LSW, so just go and read it.  Some day when I’ve done one too many “How To Find Peer-Reviewed Articles In An EBSCO Database” demos for students who I suspect already know how to do exactly that, but don’t know what to do once they’ve found them, I’m going to go all guerrilla librarian on some unsuspecting class and do this instead.  When I do, I’ll be sure to post about it here.

  1. This can often have the bonus effect of making clear to the instructor of the class how much or how little they understand what they’re being asked to do, and how much or how little they need the instruction that the faculty member has asked me to provide in class that day.
  2. I’m being purposefully vague about the topic so as not to identify the course and instructor.