Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Article Note: On Students as Audience for Instruction

Citation for the article:

Willis, Carolyn N., and William Joseph Thomas. "Students as Audience: Identity and Information Literacy Instruction." portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.4 (2006): 431-444.

Read via Project Muse.

The article opens with a reminder that librarians usually focus on the material to teach rather than on the students. This is usually due to the usual time constraints, especially for one-shot sessions. Given diverse learning styles, teacher librarians have their work cut out for them. The authors also remind us to look over ACRL's "Characteristics of Programs of Information Literacy that Illustrate Best Practices: A Guideline" (see CR&L News 64 for September 2003). That document provides insights on planning and pedagogy. The document emphasizes the importance of student-centered learning and responding to different learning styles. The basic goal of instruction, learning how to use the library's resources and selecting the best resources to meet research needs, does not change. What should be changing are the methods of teaching.

  • "Instruction librarians may need to change their instruction methods, however, or change aspects of the space in which instruction takes place. This article will encourage librarians to ask who their students are and how the varied characteristics of the students will influence their receptiveness to information literacy instruction. The composition of the audience forces librarians to consider instructional space and equipment, to plan learning objectives, to deliver instruction through a variety of activities and assessments, to present instructional content in person, and to consider implications for outreach activities to new student groups" (432).

When you look at it, that is a tall order for any instruction librarian. The part about implications for outreach catches my eye as I was thinking on that a few days ago. I was having a semi-formal discussion on the topic with our evening librarian, who was considering possibilities of promoting the library and its services to campus organizations. This is definitely an area we need to explore further.

Willis and Thomas move on to describe the students. They provide a description of the Millenials or GenY. However, they point out that there are other students. This is something worth remembering.

  • "But not all students are Gen Y, and in reality, Generation Y is not monolithic. Some students are nontraditional, ranging from Baby Boomers returning to school to Generation X, the cohort immediately preceding Gen Y; some are transfer students from community colleges; and some are student athletes. There are also international students, students for whom English is a second or third language" (432-433).

The authors continue to expand the diverse picture of students in terms of learning abilities, ethnicity, handicaps, those with children, etc. The points is that librarians should be taking this into consideration rather than planning for a homogeneous group that does not exist. To address this, the authors provide some suggestions for learning more about students.

The core of the article is a discussion of a student survey at their library. The survey was designed to provide information on student characteristics, and it asked them "to select all teaching strategies that would improve library instruction for their class and to select the one strategy that would most help them personally" (433). To me, those questions are intriguing. They are questions I would like to ask my students as well.

  • The importance of learning detailed information about the students: "Learning more in-depth about such aspects of student identity through such questions as these will enable librarians to better prepare for planning and conducting information library instruction" (435).

The authors then proceed to discuss the implications of their findings.

In terms of space and equipment, it is necessary to have spaces that meet the physical needs of students. This includes making the space accessible (think ADA compliance), but it also includes awareness on the part of the librarian such as using larger fonts or changing settings on a projector. Classroom control software may be useful as well. "Creating and maintaining a place that makes learning possible owes much to well-designed physical space" (436).

In terms of planning:

  • Start by looking at ACRL's Instruction to Diverse Populations bibliography.
  • "To approach planning for different audiences, instruction librarians should incorporate discussions with departmental faculty members in order to select learning objectives, plan for multiple learning styles, select the instructional activities, and plan for evaluation" (436). This is not really new or revolutionary given that others have discussed the need for collaboration between faculty and librarians (for example, see here).

In terms of instruction delivery, or how teaching is actually done:

  • "The delivery of instruction through various activities does not mean changing the content--the students still need to learn a specific subject matter determined by the course--but it does mean using alternative activities to teach that content" (437).
  • "Modifying instruction to accommodate multiple learning styles requires planning for a variety of activities during the information literacy session. Within one session, librarians can design several activities to appeal to multiple learning styles. Varying lecture with hands-on practice and allowing for both individual, guided practice, and group work appeal to different learning styles, potentially maximizing the impact of the session" (437-438). When I read this statement, I jotted on the margin: not possible here given serious constraints. And I mean it too. While I may do my best to practice using various activities, my current physical space simply does not allow for much variety in class activities. It barely allows for a lecture model as it is. And while there is remodel plan in progress, I will say that it has not exactly been swift or consistent (to put it politely). Add to this that I often deal with faculty who only want "the usual library talk" (whatever the heck that means) and simply do not plan on any integration to their classes, and the problem is aggravated. The faculty issue can probably be fixed with some education and dialogue over time. The space issue requires certain institutional support that is simply not present, and it is out of my hands. At any rate, sometimes a librarian needs to make do with what he's given.
  • No matter the setting, this is worth remembering: "in order to reach all students, librarians cannot rely only on one mode of instruction" (438). I don't: I try to deploy different tricks and strategies at different times. This is not simply to address diverse student needs, but it also keeps things interesting to me.
  • "Far and away the most preferred teaching activity that students felt would benefit their class was hands-on" (439).
  • "A pleasant surprise was that about 10 percent of students across the board expressed their favor for individual follow-up with a librarian" (440). This seems to provide some validation to my efforts in terms of consultations and working individually with students.
  • "The variety in learning activities should be matched by a variety of assessment techniques, and assessment should be continuous" (440). The authors list some options for this and cite some relevant literature.

In terms of presenting in person, this part of the discussion is mostly a set of reminders on presentation basics. The authors conclude the article by discussing implications for outreach. They discuss targeting other student groups, such as accelerated programs, that could benefit from library instruction. Remember: "The intention of outreach efforts is, of course, to generate additional opportunities for information literacy instruction to the targeted groups" (443).

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