The most effective teachers understand the fundamental principles of human learning and how to apply those principles to learner-centered instruction. Now that librarians have taken on a greater role in teaching, it is more important than ever to hone up on good, solid research-based teaching and instructional design practices.
This is not easy to do without formal training. But a good place to start is a book titled Telling Ain’t Training by Harold D. Stolovitch and Erica J. Keeps. Telling Ain’t Training was created to serve as a how-to manual for developing effective training (or teaching) and instruction based on solid cognitive research. It includes strategies and models for structuring effective training, as well as examples of effective learning activities. It is one of the first books I was exposed to on my journey through the world of instructional design. I highly recommend it for any librarian who teaches, whether information literacy or professional development.
Here are just a few pearls of wisdom from the book (with my two cents added):
- Teaching should begin with an explanation of why it is needed and what the learners will be able to do with it (i.e. rationale, objectives). When learners are made aware of what they are expected to know and why, they are better able to prepare themselves for the learning process.
- Learning requires attention. When learners have difficulty paying attention, learning cannot take place. When preparing for an instructional session, it is a good idea to evaluate instructional materials (e.g. handouts, presentations) beforehand to eliminate distracting, extraneous information. The learning environment is also important. Side conversations and things like mobile devices can drive some learners to distraction, not to mention the teacher. Set your behavioral expectations up front.
- Learners have limited memories. Too much information presented too quickly creates cognitive overload. After visual information is removed from sight, it is available in short term memory for .5 of a second, with learners capable of recalling an average of 5 items. Cognitive strategies such as clustering or chunking can facilitate recall of larger amounts of information.
- Learners need opportunities for practice. If the goal of teaching is to improve procedural skills (e.g. Boolean searching), then the structure of teaching should be performance-based. Learning “a bunch of stuff” without ample opportunity to practice applying that “stuff” results in teaching that fails to be relevant to the learner.
- Learners need feedback. Feedback allows learners to identify and correct their knowledge and performance. Effective instruction requires continuous feedback that extends beyond the instructional session.
- Instructional approaches should match content, goals and learner characteristics. For example, if the goal of teaching is merely awareness, traditional modes of instruction (i.e. “telling”) might be adequately successful, albeit with a dynamic speaker. On the other hand, teaching procedural skills would require a hands-on, direct approach that includes ample opportunities for practice. When the goal of teaching requires critical thinking, guided discovery or exploratory approaches are the best fit. Also, in terms of learner characteristics, the less motivated the learner, the more direct the approach should be. In other words, if you are entering a teaching situation with a bunch of unmotivated learners, don’t expect great things to happen with more constructivist approaches, such as discovery learning because those types of approaches demand quite a bit of self-motivation among learners. You may have to start with a more receptive, but entertaining approach as an attempt to get your learners motivated.
- Message design is more important than delivery mode (i.e. face-to-face vs. online). The message is the instruction itself, and message design is rooted in the principles of instructional design.