Novotny, Eric and Ellysa Stern Cahoy. "If We Teach, Do They Learn? The Impact of Instruction on Online Catalog Search Strategies." portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.2 (2006): 155-167.
I read the article via Project Muse.
I must be on a roll for reading articles that seem promising but then end up being another piece of stuff that I know already. This particular article deals mostly with generalities that many academic librarians already know. The article, in the end, seemed to lack substance, so it compensated by discussing broad concepts.
The article is a follow-up to a study the authors did in 2004. Here's what they did: "To determine the effectiveness of library instruction for improving user strategies, we observed a group of students after they had recently participated in an instruction session" (155). The article provides the customary literature review; in this case, it gives various references to the use of the "think-aloud" protocol in user studies. They also provide a list of problems in online catalog studies. The study takes place at the Penn State Libraries. This setting is a big contrast to my setting. For instance, the authors report that "the majority of the study participants reported receiving library instruction in high school before arriving at Penn State" (164). In other words, some pretty good college prep going on. In out setting, most of our students lack that preparation. I am saying this mostly for self-disclosure, but I also say it because, when it comes to learning about the library catalog, students share similar obstacles no matter their setting. So I wanted to seem more in this article that might be helpful in my teaching. I did not find it here.
At eight students, this seemed an extremely small sample. In their findings segment, the authors claimed that the strongest evidence in "implicit rather than explicit" (159) and that "other evidence of the impact of library instruction can be inferred" (159). I found this to be disappointing, and it made me wonder about rigor a bit. Recently, I have been thinking about the concept of impact of library services on student success. I understand it is not something that is easy to measure, but I don't think I could go to my campus administrators, who need a lot of persuasion, and say that "our evidence is implicit."
The rest of the article discusses some of the observations and moves to provide various suggestions. There was nothing terribly new here; a lot of their suggestions are things I knew from teaching experience. Some examples:
- "The behaviors observed suggest that library instruction sessions must address students' preexisting search behaviors" (163). This basically says that Google and similar tools are a major influence on student users, nothing new about that. Therefore the authors suggest simplifying catalog instruction to focus on simple searches and how to carry them out. At face value, are they saying we should make it more like Google? Or are they saying we need to simplify because they don't think students can (or won't) learn more sophisticated searching? The making the catalog like Google debate will be with us for a while, but we should be asking those two questions and others as well.
- In order to present a session that is most appropriate to students, librarians must be realistic about what can actually be accomplished in one instruction session and make every effort to tie instruction to the students' current research assignment. Unnecessary details should be curtailed" (163). In the interest of keeping a civil tone, I will say that the quoted statement is self-evident and presenting it in the article is redundant. In reality, faculty also have a role in making sure that library instruction is relevant. The greatest instruction librarian cannot fix a faculty member's lack of focus or planning nor his/her lack of cooperation when he/she fails to provide information about any assignment to the librarian. This common fact that many librarians face is not acknowledged at all by the authors of the article.
The article seems to fall short in terms of answering the question about impact suggested in the title. It seems more like a list of items with some statements about what librarians ought to do. However, other than telling librarians what to do, it does not consider the external, real life factors. In the end, many librarians who are experienced and well versed in terms of teaching and reference can probably skip this article.