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Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jconnolly@nsl.org, Assistant Editor

January/February/March, 2007
Volume 53, Number 1

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Openers

by Cy Dillon

Back in October 2005, Ferrum was selected to participate in one of the Council of Independent Colleges workshops on developing campus information literacy plans. My dean and our director of instructional design and technology worked with me on the first draft of a plan that emphasizes the role of academic disciplines in assuring that our students learn to acquire, evaluate, and use information from a wide spectrum of sources. Our faculty has been receptive to an approach that follows up a general introduction to information literacy for freshmen in the Gateway Seminar with discipline--specific requirements for all majors, and we should have a firm policy in place in early 2007.

Our business faculty became so convinced of the value of linking information mastery to their disciplines that they designed a team—taught freshman introduction to business, economics, and accounting — and asked me to join the team of an accounting professor, a systems specialist, and an economist. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I ended a fifteen-year self-imposed exile from the classroom and began working on lesson plans.

I should probably pretend that I quit teaching because I found the grade-neutral role of the reference librarian preferable to the seat of judgment I occupied for many years teaching English, but the bald truth is that in the tight-budget years of the early 1990s, our administration decided to quit paying twelve-month faculty (i.e., librarians) for overloads. That policy changed in a few years, but I found that I liked having no papers to grade on Sunday evenings, and stuck to bibliographic instruction sessions. The opportunity to teach within a discipline with three colleagues who constantly reinforced the value of information literacy was so welcome that I never even thought to ask for a stipend, and happily graded the six sets of exercises my students completed.

… I wondered if a guy who learned to teach in the early 1970s could hold their attention.

Our course structure was fairly simple. Students would explore six topics during the semester, two with each business professor. I would teach an introductory session and six additional sessions geared to the specific topics. The design of my sessions was strictly up to me, but I was responsible for preparing students to identify appropriate sources for short written and oral reports on each topic. Students had individual assignments as well as assignments in groups of four. Topics included immigration, the national debt, and accounting fraud, among others.

If you have read any of the literature about the learning styles of the "Millennial” and "NetGen" students, you can imagine that I wondered if a guy who learned to teach in the early 1970s could hold their attention. Since I had confidence in my ability to teach almost any college student how to locate information in our collection of print and electronic resources, I decided to make all my classes hands-on exercises in a computer lab. Further, each session required the completion of a worksheet that was collected at the end of class, graded, and returned before my next session. That tactic has always helped me get through bibliographic instruction efforts, and in this case it had the unexpected dividend of boosting my morale when the students began to make high marks consistently. On the other hand, you cant ever relax when you have freshmen online during class. I learned to keep the pace fast, try every exercise at least twice before class, and recognize instantly the sound of someone typing an instant message.

The success of this pilot program was such that the department plans to offer two sections next semester. That is forty papers every two weeks, so I plan to learn to use the automatic grading feature on our course management system, or at least the Scantron. But I have no plans to let anyone else teach in my place; it is simply too rewarding to hear freshmen seriously discussing whether to go to Academic OneFile or Lexis-Nexis to begin research on accounting fraud.

Perhaps any group of twenty freshmen who had a highly interactive class in their interest area taught by four senior faculty would do well — I wish we could afford to offer a similar experience to every student. Still, I was pleased that only one or two of the group finished with a below-average mark for the semester, especially since the three business faculty are known as tough graders. After the oral final exam, we asked the students about their reactions to the class. Group work, hands-on help, and get-ting to know the library were all seen as very positive. In addition, analysis of a written survey indicated that this class had more appreciation of the library's collections and more confidence in their ability to use them than is typical for our freshmen as a whole. Who could ask for more?

This experience leads me — perhaps it misleads me — to think that I am qualified to offer some suggestions about the characteristics and learning styles of the current crop of students. Since most librarians teach young people in some situation or another, I hope you will reflect on my conclusions and hit me with a corrective letter to the editor if necessary.

First, these students need a reason to learn any material or skill. Do not assume that they share our respect of learning for learning's sake. This need for concrete motivation is the reason it is so difficult to teach information skills outside a discipline. I had it easy in my class because, for example, our economist covered the amount of the U.S. national debt per capita and its impact on the economy before I had to show them how to find journal articles on the subject. As you can imagine, they loved the web-pages that show some version of a debt clock.

The web is as much their world as books were ours when we were eighteen. This is good in that they are adept at remembering how to manipulate pages, and they adjust to the awkward design of resources such as Factiva very easily. On the other hand, they tend to move too fast, and often fail to read directions. Repetition and working as a group ("Is everybody on the News Pages search? Your screen should look like this") seem to be good strategies for overcoming the urge to click on the first link they see. Repetition also helped the students wean themselves from always using Google as a starting point. As they were constantly reinforced by finding good information in library-owned resources, they developed a wider variety of research strategies.

… students can best be helped at the time and place they realize that they want help.

Since current students are quite comfortable with multitasking and are used to a constant stream of communication, librarians conducting group instruction have to develop methods for preventing distractions such as instant messaging, cell phone interruptions, text messages, and web surfing. For me this means having them work along with me, moving around the lab so I can check screens, and having a graded assignment whenever it is practical and acceptable to the professor. I have been pleased to find that our students learn to conform to strictly enforced rules and that they eventually appreciate the educational value of a learning environment that is focused and orderly. By the end of the semester, our group could enjoy the process of looking for sources along with me and one of the other instructors much the way more advanced students enjoy experiential field research with a faculty member.

Today's student enjoys group learning, and effortlessly combines academic work with socializing. Faculty from elementary through graduate school use group assignments to help prepare their students for the workplace in an age that emphasizes team efforts. As Nancy Van Note Chism pointed out in Diana Oblinger's Learning Spaces (http://www.educause.edu/learningspaces), this means that libraries need to review the way they provide access to technology--enhanced group work spaces. At our library it has meant more tables and fewer carrels, lots of wireless access points, free coffee service, networked printers, flexible computer labs, notebook computers available for checkout, and consolidating our tutoring and Peer-Assisted Learning programs in the classroom wing. It has also meant more students in the library and in the various study sessions.

Because our building has become the focus of academic activity in the evenings, we have decided to add professional staff for both a writing center and a mathematics center that stay open late. We reason that students can best be helped at the time and place they realize that they want help. And today's students value help, especially from professional staff. It is too early to tell if our strategy will succeed, but we know from years of experience that having composition professors available to critique essays is one of our most popular services.

This evening I'll be teaching a bibliographic instruction session for a psychology class. They don't know it yet, but they will be finding the most recent article on neuro-degenerative diseases in the journal Nature and an article on conditional inference processes from the psychology section of JSTOR. I just hope that when I finish, at least one student will go check out a notebook computer, get a cup of coffee, look up a couple of articles, and start an essay. VL


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