Getting Comfortable with Library Instruction, Part III: Do Less

The summer before I started library school, I filled in as an instructor for an adult ESOL class. Though I had no experience teaching, somehow I thought I could do this. It was a volunteer program, so there was minimal training before we were given our first classes to teach.

My first class was, well, disastrous. In two hours, I got through about one-quarter of my lesson plan, found that my activities were too complicated, and I sweated through my shirt. And then, 48 hours later, I had to come back and do it all again.

It was a long summer, and I had to adapt quickly. The people who came to these classes took time off of work or away from their families to learn whatever I had to teach them, and to not spend their time wisely felt criminal. And I couldn’t quit—if I didn’t teach this class, then it was getting cancelled for the summer.

Some things were easier to figure out than others. For example: Always wear a sweater over your shirt. If no one can see you sweating, then maybe you’ll look more confident, and then you’ll be more confident. Or something.

Slowly, slowly, I started to cut down on my lesson plans. “But, wait!” my brain said. “You have a responsibility to teach these people as much as possible in the limited class time they have!” But every time I tried to introduce more than two or three new concepts in a class period, people would start to get frustrated. If we were just going to wind up backtracking anyway, I figured, why not just plan to do less? And then class got a lot easier, people remembered the content we had covered in the last class, and both myself and the students started to look forward to coming to class.

That was a lesson I had to learn again when I started teaching library instruction sessions.

As Kevin writes in Part I, the one-shot library session is a strange beast. You may or may not ever see these students again, but you are tasked with teaching them all the research skills they need to successfully complete a complex assignment—in 50 minutes or less.

Before being let loose on freshman comp classes for the first time, I had significantly more training and support—an intro to lesson planning, an instruction mentor, many opportunities to observe more seasoned instructors leading sessions.

Planning the session around a specific assignment, as Kevin mentioned, was a crucial component of keeping my lesson plans from veering off-course. But still: I felt like I had to teach these students everything they could need to successfully pass this and every other research assignment ever. Let’s see, I have to teach topic selection, keyword generation, search strategies, citations, and at least three subject-specific databases in, oh, under an hour. No problem, right? Oh, and maybe give the students time to search for articles at the end of the class. Good.

Needless to say, my classes were frantic. And, based on observing other library instructors at all stages of their careers and at various institutions, that’s the majority of library sessions. I could almost feel the students feeling sorry for me, as I raced through all the material it seemed necessary to cover. Library instruction was not fun.

And then my friend Sarah Bankston shared this technique that she was using in her internship: Learning outcomes. (Diane Harvey’s excellent presentation on this is here) Being told that I should have specific, measurable outcomes was a transformative moment in my teaching. And one that made sense.

Remember when I was teaching ESOL and wanted people to demonstrate knowledge of at least 10 picnic words before the next class? Those were learning outcomes, and I didn’t even know it.

After that, teaching got better. My classes were more structured, and I wasn’t just talking at students; I was getting them to leave the class able to do things. But I still felt frantic.

And then, the last piece fell into place for me, thanks to good old Dan Willingham. Do Less. Here’s why:

“A critical feature of working memory…is that it has limited space.” (Willingham, 109) In fact, most people can hold about seven ideas or thoughts in their working memory at once (33). Learning occurs when information moves from the working memory to the long-term memory. To oversimplify things: If you try to put more than seven(ish) new things in the brain at once, it’s just going to stop accepting things. Cognitive overload, if you will.

In terms of library instruction, this means that you can successfully teach two to three different concepts in a session, maybe. Supply the conditional knowledge, model the concept, have an active learning activity, and connect it to the narrative. Repeat once or twice more. That’s it. Do less and they’ll learn more.

To give myself the permission to do less in the classroom, and to do it better, has been incredibly freeing. It makes sense to me, and I’d seen it in action before. And it sounds easy—just teach less things, and it’ll lead to a better likelihood of transfer! (That’s another post) But, of course, it’s not. You have to pick the right things (again, another post), and explain yourself to the faculty member who wants you to teach all of the databases. All of them.

So that’s one way that I address the challenge of: 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?



Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher

4 responses to “Getting Comfortable with Library Instruction, Part III: Do Less

  1. Pingback: Do Less, 17th-Century Style | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

  2. Pingback: On Learning Theories: What Are They Good For? | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

  3. Pingback: Of Databases and Deep Structure | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

  4. Pingback: Reflections on a Year in Librarianship | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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