Contexts for Learning, and Positive Changes

Context: Library or Classroom-based, but not formally assessed

Looking at my own practice, I am trying to think about the context in which ‘my’ students are learning.  This has always been slightly problematical in library teaching, because attendance is not mandatory.  Until a couple of years ago, new students had a tour of the library and a hands-on demonstration of how to use the catalogue.  A lecture was also provided for music students, to introduce them to key e-resources, such as Oxford Music Online (the world’s most prestigious music encyclopedia) and the streamed music services. (There are also a number of leaflets offering guidance to different aspects of the library service.)

Realising that for most students, this was too much, too soon, the library induction package was un-packed, so that new students got a basic library tour in the first week, and then we liaised with course-leaders to provide more detailed, tailored instruction later.  The theory behind this was that students would be better able to take in what they were being shown, if it wasn’t all thrown at them at once; and when they were beginning to need more resources, they’d be more motivated to come and listen.

Some course-leaders were admirably pro-active, whilst others didn’t take up the offer, or provided informal tours of their own, quietly ignoring the e-resources offer.  Moreover, we have no control over whether individual students attend or not.  The context, then, is basically on-site provision of training (we’ve no way of knowing whether students found their way to the Moodle podcast that Gordon made for us a couple of years ago), but without the formality of a fully academically endorsed (or assessed) course component.  We get the impression that library induction and training is viewed by the students as “not really part of the course”, and “not really necessary”.

With the seminars I provide for research students, it’s a smaller group.  Students are encouraged to attend, but are not always available to attend on the day/time allotted by Research Dept staff.  However, those that do attend are always keen to participate and share their opinion, so although it’s still not mandatory, there’s more enthusiasm and appreciation!  By this stage, students have realised that proper academic discourse requires them to read widely and cite correctly, so there’s an awareness that the instruction I provide may be useful to them as they write their dissertation.  (Also, strangely, there’s respect for me amongst researchers who know I’ve ‘been there’ and am now engaged on postdoctoral work, whereas I guess undergraduates perceive me as ‘just a librarian’, and not to be taken as seriously as their tutors.   Librarians universally hate their fuddy-duddy stereotype!)

So, what positive changes could I make?  For new students, I still think the library tour is worthwhile. It’s quick and cheerful, and just tries to convey the most basic information about the library, but more importantly, it introduces students to the subject librarians.  For the more detailed e-resource instruction,  I still think these resources need to be demonstrated, much as an experiment might be demonstrated in a science lab.   By way of a parallel, you don’t say, “here’s a bunsen burner and few chemicals, do try them out!”, but after demonstrating them, pupils might then try them out under supervision.  Similarly, our new undergraduates need to be shown WHAT is available and how they work, and then invited to try them.  Unless each entire class of new students is allocated time in the IT suite, though, we have to content ourselves with telling them about the resources, giving the handouts, and hoping that some of the information will be remembered.

I’m beginning to wonder if there might be any mileage in emailing student groups later, to follow up the session and get some kind of feed-back. I am uncertain about mounting quizzes etc, because not many students will do a quiz that is not part of their assessed work.  (Backwash, as Biggs says.)  How does one constructively align teaching that is not assessed, but regarded as supplementary and optional?   One is informing the students about what is on offer, and directly pointing out resources that are likely to be useful.  Tasks can’t be set for later submission – it is all rather frustrating!

With the research students, there are fewer individuals, and the direct email follow-up might be even more effective.  I could also use social media, though I’d first have to persuade students to “follow” the library on Twitter, or subscribe to the Whittaker Live blog. Only two people have ever bothered to subscribe (though the blog has plenty of drop-in traffic) – this doesn’t look a very effective way of getting targeted information to them.  I would need more advice before I ventured to start discussion on Moodle or Mahara.  It seems a sensible idea, but if research students don’t “hang out” there, then it wouldn’t have much practical effect.  our Teaching Artist collaborative space works so well that it would be great if all the research students had a space like this of their own.  Maybe Marius could advise me if they do?


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