How Well Do You Know Your Students? How Well Do They Know You?

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This past week, I came across an article in The Atlantic that discussed a recent study about the importance of student-teacher relationships. When students and teachers find out they share interests in common, the entire educational experience improves.That got me thinking about the impact of librarian-student relationships on library and research skills.

How well do you know your students? Do they know you? From my own experience, I suspect there is quite a bit of room for improvement in that area.

This is what I know. When I asked my daughter about the librarian at her elementary school, she said, “you mean that lady who reads us stories?” Now that she’s in middle school, I’ve asked her about the librarian there. She doesn’t know the librarian’s name, she is not even sure what the librarian looks like (“is it the lady that checks out my books?”). This coming from the daughter of a librarian. This is not good.

I also know this. In my experience working as an academic librarian, the protocol for librarian-student interactions tended to be very business oriented. Not a lot of small talk. Even then, instinct and observation told me that was not a good thing. I always admired the way the circulation staff chatted up the students. Guess where the students tended to go to ask reference questions? Not the reference desk! I think the students were less intimidated to approach the circulation desk because of that friendliness.

I wonder, if librarians took the time to make small talk with students, were less business as usual, less “lecture-y” (there’s always that one librarian that enjoys the soap box), would more students be compelled to ask for help when they need it? Would they become more information literate as a result? This would make for an interesting research study. If it turns out that a correlation does exist — that librarian-student relationships play a central role in both literacy and information literacy development — then the entire trajectory of library space design might be turned upside down. It might even serve as a compelling argument to keep old library traditions, like the reference desk (alone or in combination with other service desks).

Information Literacy: Credit vs. One-Shot

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How would you answer this question?

Which is better, one-shot sessions or credit courses in information literacy?

I think a good number of librarians would heartily agree that credit courses are the better approach to teaching information literacy skills. I say, not so fast. There are lessons we can learn from the literature on teaching critical thinking skills that are applicable to information literacy instruction. Like critical thinking, information literacy is a skill that can be thought of as having both general and specific applications. Information literacy is also a skill that requires critical thinking skills. That overlap makes it impossible to not pay attention to critical thinking instruction.

The literature on teaching critical thinking skills has debated the standalone vs. integrated approach for many years. At one time, standalone critical thinking courses were in vogue. Today, a growing body of research is leading to the consensus that an integrated approach to teaching critical thinking is more effective, both in general and discipline-specific courses (Hatcher, 2006). You can see the evidence of that in the learning outcomes statements of many undergraduate programs.

That research has implications for information literacy instruction. If you think about it, the average classroom instructor cannot discern between information literacy and critical thinking skills on many counts. For example, those who are more familiar (or comfortable) with the concept of critical thinking are likely to view research as a critical thinking skill rather than an information literacy skill. They’re right too. Research is in fact critical thinking — critical thinking about identifying, finding and evaluating information. This leads back to the question of credit vs. one-shot. If an institution takes an integrated approach to teaching critical thinking across the curriculum, it makes more sense for information literacy instruction to follow the same protocol.

As I see it, the real problem for information literacy instruction is the same as for critical thinking instruction. Both suffer from poor implementation. I think an integrated approach makes much more sense for both. For information literacy, a better approach to implementation would be to anchor the one-shot around embedded and collaborative approaches to teaching. The librarian would not necessarily play a bigger role in the classroom than in a typical one-shot, but the library would.

The downside to an integrated approach is that you need classroom instructors on board with it. They need to understand what it is, how it fits into their teaching, and how to assess the outcomes. Frustration with lack of cooperation makes standalone approaches tempting. However, if we are to look at learning from a student-centered perspective, we must make an effort to try the most effective approach.

I do think standalone information literacy has a place in education, but primarily in teacher training programs and graduate studies.