Getting Comfortable with Library Instruction, Part II: The Psychology of Learning

When we were in library school, Dani and I took what was, to me, the most valuable course I could have taken when it comes to library instruction, a doctoral level course in Educational Psychology in UNC’s School of Education. Speaking for myself, I had for a long time been dissatisfied with the approach to library instruction as though it were a discipline in-itself, one that failed, in most cases, to take into account the rich insights of psychology, education, and even philosophy. (Or, in the limited cases that it did, how outdated I thought it all was – class-length discussions of learning styles, Skinner’s behaviorism, etc). Although I had already been applying ideas from psychology and my philosophical background in much of my instruction and research, I had no formal coursework in education. So, I looked through UNC’s graduate catalog, and was taken with the idea of understanding how students learn, and what motivates them, from a cognitive and psychological perspective. This being the case, I enrolled in some doctoral courses in education. This was really valuable.

One of the things that the Ed Psych literature did for me was help me develop an empirically based approach to instruction that I could apply systematically as a framework for approaching teaching. Particularly useful – at least from a cognitive standpoint (Willingham is largely silent on the key issue of motivation) – were many of the insights in Daniel T. Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Student’s Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom. Willingham, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, does an excellent job of providing a popular overview of many of the insights from the more technical literature in Ed Psych. As such, this was the book we read in the first two weeks of our course, before delving into the more complicated empirical research in the field.

Going back to the question I left off with in Part I of this post,

How do I approach an instruction session so that I facilitate the transfer of information literacy skills across domains when teaching to this particular assignment?

I was able to use this research to develop an answer for this question that worked for me.

To over-simplify one of the central principles in Willingham’s book,  people don’t like to think unless they’ve been presented with a problem to be solved. By problem, Willingham means “cognitive work that poses moderate challenge” (p. 19). He writes that “without some attention, a lesson plan can become a long string of teacher explanations, with little opportunity for students to solve problems” (19).

I did not take this to mean that I need to come up with context-less active learning exercise after active learning exercise for the students to complete. That is a mistake I think many library instructors make, and it’s one I’ve always sought consciously to avoid. Rather, one of my central takeaways is that it’s important, in order for the students to understand why what I was doing was relevant, to situate my instruction within a clear problem context. This became one of my central tenets for approaching an instruction session:

Principle 1: Focus on a Problem to Be Solved

Now, going back to my question, how does this relate to assignment based-instruction? What I began to do was take the assignment as my problem context, and view the assignment from the student’s perspective: If I were this student at this stage of the research process with this assignment, what research skills would I need to complete it successfully? So, in essence, the “problem to be solved” in the session is helping the students do their assignment.

I am almost always explicit about this. Indeed, I will always state, at the beginning of the session, that I’m not going to give them a general lecture about libraries, but that we’ll focus the session on the research skills they’ll need to successfully complete their particular assignment. I find here, too, that this often goes a long way with students if I actually use the language of the assignment, e.g., “This will be particularly helpful in Feeder 2 (when you need to select three scholarly sources for your literature review).” It lets them know that I’m not here to waste their time; that the session is about them; and that what I have to say may actually be worth listening to. They know now that I’m coming correct.

One major advantage of this approach, too, is that it points toward a solution for a common complaint of library instructors: There are so many things I want to cover, how can I figure out which to choose?! Well, you focus on the key research concepts the students need based on where they’re currently at in the research process. And you provide them with the relevant conditional knowledge – knowledge of why you’re doing what you’re doing and when it’s useful – by pointing them to the problem context for your instruction: the research assignment they came into the library to work on in the first place.

So the assignment requires them to choose a topic and find some sources for their paper? Great, that’s the focus of your session: how to go about choosing a quality research topic based on the sources available in the library databases. The assignment requires students to know how to read a scholarly article? Sure, spend a minute explaining how research-based articles are structured. And so on.

The literature also points toward an answer for how you should go about doing this, and it’s probably not what you’d expect. The second principle I use for approaching a session is:

Principle Two: Model Successful Research Behavior through Narrative

One of the central ideas I’ve used in my research and instruction practice is modeling good research behavior for students. Now, by this, I do not mean giving a context-less database-demo. I totally agree that that’s useless. But I don’t agree with the growing number of folks who think any time you’re up there talking in front of students you’ve committed a punishable pedagogical offense.  That kind of thinking is ridiculous. Let’s get hip, librarians, and learn from Elliott et al, who recommend in their book Educational Psychology: Effective Teaching, Effective Learning, that teachers should “model some of the resourceful behavior that curious people use to solve problems (349) for their students.”

One way to do this is by telling the narrative – or walking students, verbally and visually, through the step-by-step process of how you went about the process of research, thereby modelling the research skills needed for their assignment.

There’s at least two reasons to tell your story. First, through narrating your research behavior, it can provide a kind of worked example  for students about how do research. I assume that this is the logic behind Elliot et. al.’s claim. But second, framing at least part of your instruction as a lecture (where you model) helps students retain information.

Here’s Willingham: “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories – so much so that psychologists refer to stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material …organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember” (66-67).

So yo then man, what’s your story?

Principle Three: Focus on Deep Structure

According to Mayer and Wittrock, in their piece “Problem Solving” from The Handbook of Educational Psychology, the “primary goal of education is to promote learning,” (duh). They then go on to specify that  “two classic measures of learning outcomes are retention and transfer” (289). By retention they mean the ability on the part of the learner to remember, recognize, and recall information presented to them. And by transfer they mean the ability to take what one has learned in one situation and use it to solve problems in unrelated contexts (289). In other words, remembering stuff so you can use it in your life is the point of learning anything, information literacy instruction included.

Daniel Willingham seems to think so, too. One way to emphasize transfer is to focus on what we can call the “Deep Structure” of a problem – or, the underlying conceptual skills we hope our students will learn and can thereby apply to other contexts. The way to do this is to get students to think about the meaning of the material (p. 63, see also Willingham, Chapters 3, 4, and 5, more generally). The way I think about this is to take a particular topic, e.g. “Understanding the Difference between Scholarly vs. Popular Sources” and ask myself, “Well why this is important for the students to learn?” Being able to pick a scholarly article out of a line-up is a surface problem. We want them to do it, yeah, but that’s not what we really want them to learn, when we talk about “teaching information literacy skills.” What is the deeper thing we’re trying to teach students here? Well, what we really want them to understand is reliability, or the general set of criteria that makes something truth-conducive, or not. So why not just talk about that, about why it’s important and relevant (the conditional knowledge), and then demonstrate it with a bunch of examples? For, according to Willingham, the best way for students to learn abstract ideas (“reliability”) is to demonstrate those ideas with concrete examples (and narrative!): “The surest way to help students understand an abstraction is to expose them to many different versions of the abstraction” (88).

You can even think of an active learning piece, or an assessment quiz, that puts the students to work learning the first-order research skills that will contribute to them understanding the deep structure of the content. According to the literature, practice makes perfect: “As far as anyone knows, the only way to develop mental facility is to repeat the target process again and again and again” (115); “continued practice … protects against forgetting” (117). In short, “practice improves transfer” (120).

But ask yourself this: Does what I’m asking the students to do “demand deep understanding or is it possible to complete it with just a surface knowledge of the material?” (104). Am I just doing this active learning exercise because that’s what I was told I’m supposed to do, without giving much thought to what the active learning exercise is supposed to help students do?

The educational psychology literature is full of insights for how we, as instruction librarians, can develop our knowledge and expertise for the betterment of our students. This only scratches the surface. But it tells you a little bit about how I used that literature to approach a larger practical problem, “How can I get comfortable teaching in libraries?” and then a more particular one, “How can I best facilitate the retention and transfer of information literacy skills through teaching to a particular assignment?”

My hope is that developing this kind of understanding will lead us to ask different kinds of question about teaching,  and to engage in more fruitful, empirically driven conversations, about the kinds of problems we face in the classroom. I think these conversations will be difficult and productive ones, and that are students will be better off for it.

*Post based, in part, on a professional development presentation by myself and Dani Brecher, given to UNC Chapel Hill House Undergraduate Library librarians and graduate student instructors, April 2013.

**My wonderful instruction mentor while in library school, Jonathan McMichael, helped me work out, in practice, how to approach library instruction at the assignment level, and how to think about and implement building a narrative in the classroom – and for that, and many other things, I owe him a formal acknowledgment, and much personal gratitude, unless he’d rather not be associated with me publicly, which might be professionally prudent, and like totally understandable.

***Some stuff I cited in this post:

Elliot, S. N., Kratochwill, T. R., Littlefield Cook, J., & Travers, J. F. (Eds.). (2000). Educational Psychology: Effective Teaching, Effective Learning, Third Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Mayer, R.E., 7 Wittrock, M.C. (2006). Problem Solving. The Handbook of Educational Psychology (pp. 289-303). New York: Routledge.

Willingham, D.T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Plus a couple exams and papers I wrote in Ed Psych.



Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

5 responses to “Getting Comfortable with Library Instruction, Part II: The Psychology of Learning

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