The Pedagogy of Reference Services

The librarian-student reference transaction has a lot in common with human tutoring. After all, they are both a form of one-on-one instruction, where the tutor helps the tutee master some type of knowledge and understanding, or a specific skill. So it stands to reason that best practices in tutoring pedagogy would translate well to best practices in reference services.

What are the best practices in one–on-one instruction? Three instructional strategies work particularly well together in tutoring. These strategies are equally applicable to the reference process. Here they are, with examples of how librarians can use them:

  1. Modeling. Modeling is the method of demonstrating tasks, while at the same time making the why and how transparently clear to the learner. The Think Aloud protocol is an example of this. For librarians, modeling can be done by demonstrating the selection, access and searching of materials within a database (or other source), where the librarian verbalizes his or her thought processes and justifications for each action taken. As a result, the learner gets an inside look at the librarian’s thinking processes. In an academic environment, this is a first step toward learning how to participate in library literacy practices.
  2. Scaffolding. I’ve talked about scaffolding before, which is really essential to all good instructional practices. In the realm of reference interactions, scaffolding means providing needed support to the learner as s/he performs a specific task. This step typically follows modeling. For example, a librarian is using scaffolding strategies when s/he provides hints or asks probing (or thought-provoking) questions while the student engages in a research task. Scaffolding is a ‘just enough, but not too much [support]’ instructional strategy.
  3. Fading. Fading is the process of gradually removing scaffolding support. For librarians, this is often the point where the reference transaction ends. The student has taken the wheel, so to speak, and is managing well on his or her own.

These three strategies, taken together, form a larger instructional process referred to as cognitive apprenticeship. They are strategies that I think the most effective librarians naturally use.

However, it would behoove all librarians to be cognitively aware of what these instructional strategies entail so that they may consciously apply them during reference transactions. That way, librarians can better avoid the habit of just plying students with information, or standing on the library soapbox and lecturing students. I’ve been guilty of both of those tactics, especially the former (when it’s busy).

From a learning perspective, delivering information instead of teaching the process of finding it just makes the research process more of a mystery to students. And the librarian-as-lecturer scenario just intimidates them (and there are plenty of students out there who don’t ask for help for that very reason).

We know that tutoring helps students precisely because of its one-on-one instructional nature. Reference services should be viewed in the same light. The reference transaction is one-on-one instruction, and a vitally important instructional approach for developing students’ academic literacy practices. That’s something to keep in mind when considering how reference services can be streamlined or modified within the library.


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