Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Article Note: On Adult Learners and Library Instruction

Citation for the article:

Gold, Helene E. "Engaging the Adult Learner: Creating Effective Library Instruction." portal: Libraries and the Academy. 5.4 (2005): 467-481.

I read the article via Project Muse.

This is one of those articles that makes me want to read more on the topic. It also provides a nice reminder of ways to improve instruction. The article is focused on adult learners, but its suggestions are applicable to traditional students as well. The article reminds readers that adult learners have unique needs and traits; these are often not addressed by the traditional library instruction methods. The author looks at adult learning theory and her experience to provide some useful suggestions.

For me, this article is very timely. For one, I recently read some of Paulo Freire's work, which deals with adult education. Second, I am at a point of reflection in my practice at work. While sessions are going well, there are many more things I would like to try out. Once things slow down, I would like to redesign some lessons and plans. There are other things too, but those have to wait. Thus the article came to me at a good time.

In the literature review, Ms. Gold writes that five themes emerge about library instruction for adult learners. These are:

  1. "Adult learners have unique social, physical, and cognitive characteristics that have an impact on learning."
  2. "A variety of barriers should be recognized and removed when creating library instruction for adults."
  3. "Traditional library instruction models are ineffective for the adult learner."
  4. "Andragogical learning theory should be used when creating library instruction and services for adult learners."
  5. "Multiple andragogical-based models and strategies have been successfully used to provide adult-centered library instruction" (468).
She then proceeds to discuss the five themes, including references to related literature. It is important to note that much of the significant literature in the area of adult learners was written back in the 1980s and early 1990s. I made a note to look up some of those sources, including Malcolm Knowles's book The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. In his book, Knowles defined andragogy as "the art and science of helping adults learn, in contrast to pedagogy as the art and science of teaching children" (qtd. in 470). I will try to at least skim various other sources so I can see some of the sources that Ms. Gold considered.
One of the best quotes from the article is one I think every instruction and information literacy librarian should frame in their office or workspace. Gold quotes Patti Schifter Caravello, who suggests "that the librarian's goal should be to 'create independent learners who think critically'" (qtd. in 469). Maybe we should be advertising this more when promoting librarians and their value instead of fretting over Google.

At the end of the literature review, the author provides a small summary of the obstacles possible when implementing new teaching practices. These include:

  • Need for additional professional training, more institutional support, and more time and materials for librarians. This was pretty obvious to me, and I am sure many academic librarians can agree, especially the ones in smaller settings with less support and funds to draw from.
  • "Furthermore, the librarian--in almost all cases-- is responsible for initiating new adult library instruction programs, but there has been little or no mention of administrative guidance or support beyond the library" (470). All I can say is there has been the lack of mention in the literature because there is a serious lack of the aforementioned administrative support on campuses all over.
Next, Gold provides an overview of adult learners' traits. She provides numbers to show how this population has grown on campuses. In terms of library instruction, the keyword is practical. In fact, the need to be practical and show value to adult learners are the thrust of the article. Gold cites Randall Bowen and Richard Merritt who say that "introducing and explaining theories and ideas are not enough in the adult learning environment; their value and applicability should be made clear through active learning techniques such as small group work and problem-solving exercises" (471).

After the overview, Gold discusses the impact of adult learners' characteristics on instruction. Librarians need to remember that adult learners don't always have the prior technological knowledge the other traditional learners have. However, adult learners may have an advantage. "Although adult learners often lack technological and research skills, it is important to note that their resourcefulness and maturity may give them certain advantages over traditional learners" (471-472). Life experiences can often serve them to see solutions to problems that traditional students may find perplexing.

Gold goes on to give an illustration from her experiences at Eckerd College and follows that with a set of specific suggestions for providing better education to adult learners. Gold cites Stephen Brookfield on assignment and lesson effectiveness. This is another little gem educators should frame. According to the article, "Brookfield suggests educators should take risks by presenting material that might create an initially unfavorable response with hopes that, by challenging students, they may later experience a connection with the content" (473). Gold also provides reasons why traditional methods fail to meet the needs of adult learners. She states, "first and foremost, an emphasis on mastering skills outweighed the importance of teaching why the skills were necessary and how the learners might benefit from honing these skills early in their academic careers" (473). On library instruction, Gold says, "library instruction is most successful when information literacy is integrated into the curriculum. Library instruction should include assignments directly tied to the immediate curriculum, hopefull with input and assistance from the instructor" (475). To me, that is preaching to the choir, but it is nice to hear it reaffirmed.

Gold also adds a little on how to get instructor cooperation. She suggests doing it through professional development, in this case for the adjuncts. She observes that "when adjunct instructors are offered library orientation and instruction for their own professional development, an increase in familiarity and confidence makes them more likely to schedule their class for instruction" (477). I am willing to add that this would be applicable to all faculty, especially the veterans who may need a refresher on what their libraries offer.

In addition, the author has some thoughts on learner expectations, especially when it comes to full-text availability. I thought this went along nicely with other article I read on electronic journal use and acceptance. She writes the following:

"As full-text periodical literature becomes more available and affordable, distance learners, perhaps even more than traditional learners, need to learn early in their academic careers how to choose, navigate, download, and evaluate these online resources. Because adult learners have limited time for study and research, unlimited and unrestricted access to online resources is crucial for their academic success. When the issues of limited library outreach and programs to adult and distance learners combine with learners' limited access to technology, limited information literacy skills, and limited time flexibility, many adult learners are at a disadvantage before they even begin formal study" (477).

That is a lot of food for thought. She closes the article with her conclusions. This statement provides a good summary and a nice way to close this note:

"Adult learners do not need to be coaxed into the library or convinced that libraries are valuable resources. They do, however, need to be shown exactly how library services and resources can benefit their studies and why library skills are crucial to their academic success" (478).

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