February 22, 2017

“Small Teaching” and Library Instruction

By Elena Azadbakht, MSI, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg.

I’m a big fan of books on the science of learning and developing effective study skills. Currently, I’m reading James M. Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Some of the ideas he explores in the book appeared in a series of articles Lang wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2016. Small Teaching focuses on modest strategies instructors can easily put into practice to improve student learning in big ways. Lang’s suggestions are all supported by research on cognition, memory, and learning. Of course, much of what’s in the book wouldn’t work in a one-shot instruction context, which – if you’re like me – is what your library instruction program chiefly consists of. A few of the ideas, however, have made me consider ways in which I might tweak my workshops.

Some of the strategies most pertinent to library instruction are those intended for the first and last few minutes of class. Since connecting new knowledge to existing knowledge can help students learn better, consider starting the session by asking students a few open-ended questions about their previous research or library experiences. Revisiting those questions at the end of the session might also be a good idea, because having to recall what they have just learned increases the chances that they’ll remember it later. Consider ending with the popular Minute Paper exercise, where you ask students to reflect on the one or two most useful things they learned during the session. Or, alternatively, have a group discussion about what they think the key takeaways of the workshop are. Another option is to have students to write down the most useful thing they learned as well as one thing they’re still kind of unsure about, or the “muddiest point.” I’m thinking of having students do this on note cards that they can hand to me on their way out. These suggestions are not new, but Small Teaching has made me realize that they really can have an impact on students.

The second chapter of Small Teaching looks at how prediction impacts learning and the long-term retention of material. Students who are encouraged to make predictions about the material beforehand retain more of what they subsequently learn – even if their predictions are wrong. Pre-tests and polling the class at the start of the session (formally or informally) are ways of harnessing the power of predication. I primarily work with upper-level allied health and nursing students, and in situations where I use a problem-based learning approach (one of my favorites), I might have the students think about what the literature will have to say about the problem before I have them start their searches. I also lead workshops on APA style, which, let’s face it, is kind of a dry topic. I’ve started using Poll Everywhere to break up the workshop content with quick multiple choice questions. But now I’m thinking where those polls are within the presentation is something I should reconsider. Maybe I should place them ahead of the content to which they pertain rather than after.

How do you begin and end your instruction sessions? Do you encourage student reflection? Has anything you’ve read recently made you re-think how you do library instruction?

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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