17 February 2009

What's working?

Probably like thousands of other librarians, my inbox was full of friends and colleagues sending me this article in the New York Times about school librarians. The article is pretty interesting but I was particularly drawn to the video (which I can't link to...NYT needs to fix that!). It coincides with a major issue we are dealing with at Champlain: what information literacy skills do our students already have?

At the moment, the five teaching librarians are teaching info lit sessions to all first year students. Our information literacy program is embedded into Champlain's Core Curriculum. The Core curriculum is an integrated, interdisciplinary, incremental program that is a required component of the Champlain education. The chance to reach all students, every semester is incredible. And we have a lot of ideas about what our sessions should encompass. But the spring semester of their first year is when students encounter their first research assignment. And trying to make sure students are equipped to handle that assignment is difficult because we don’t know with which skills students have come to Champlain.

To cover all the bases, in the IL session for first years students will:
-be introduced to the library catalog,
-practice using print material effectively,
-develop keywords,
-apply their keywords in an academic database, and,
-use database results to deepen their searches and refine their keywords.

We are combining a lot of hands on, interactive tasks during the sessions with some more traditional instruction. One of the activities students try is using the index and table of contents of books to seek out specific information. Pretty basic, right? We thought so too. But during reference interviews, we have been incredulous at how few students know how to find a book or use PARTS of a book rather than the whole thing. Yet, when we go to classes, many of the students say that they know this already. Mostly, that's a relief. But the same is true when using the databases. They say they know this already.

Essentially, as the NYT video shows, librarians in K-12 are doing valuable and important work in teaching IL skills early. The problem I face in a higher ed library is that we don't know if every student has had it. As the article points out, "as school librarians increasingly teach students crucial skills needed not only in school, but also on the job and in daily life, they are often the first casualties of school budget crunches." So, some schools have librarians performing this function and some don't. Where does that leave students when they get to me at the college level?

Many other librarians advocate for pre-tests to determine where students are. I have never been a fan of pre-testing and I haven't seen much literature that points to its effectiveness. Moreover, just because students say they know how to use an index, does that mean that they know how to use an index effectively or know when it is an effective tool? Regardless, we are faced with the challenge of students coming to us with different levels of knowledge and practice when it comes to research. How do we deal with students that are more experienced and sophisticated users with those students that haven’t had much experience or instruction?

I am seeing it as a balancing act. We are trying to pitch these sessions as refreshers and “tips and tricks”. We talk to students about what we, information professionals, would do to deal with their questions or assignments. At first, I was pretty skeptical about that approach. But students seem to really take to it. I think a big part of that has to do with authenticity. I remember reading Parker Palmer’s piece for Immersion and the idea of teachers being authentic and open to vulnerability really struck a chord with me. And it seems to strike a chord with students. I don’t know the answer to their questions but I talk them through how I try to figure it out. And they seem to appreciate it that. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Is it working? Our assessment data will show us. More importantly, as they delve into their research papers, we’ll see whether the reference questions demonstrate that they are hearing what we’re saying and practicing what we’re showing them. But as we wrap up our sessions….it feels right.

No comments: