Failing Better

Earlier this week, I did a one-shot library instruction session for a developmental writing class. On the face of it, it was set up for success: the instruction was tied to a specific assignment and was focused on helping the students meet one of the requirements for their writing assignment, which was to cite at least one academic encyclopedia in their essays about literacy. It was in a computer lab, where students could immediately practice what I was showing them. I had an activity for them to complete that would ensure (theoretically) that they left with the one encyclopedia article they needed – an activity that has worked for me in the past. In spite of this, it felt like it was one of the least successful instruction sessions I’ve ever conducted, which left me mulling over what went wrong and what I could do different next time.

One major point of confusion for students was the different platforms we have for searching and accessing e-encyclopedia articles. And, even though I covered keyword searching techniques, students were still typing unproductive search phrases into the search boxes. Irrelevant or null results ensued. (This, of course, points to one of the reasons one-shots don’t work so well – you need more than 15 minutes to teach students how to search effectively).

Near the end of the session, one student asked me, “Can’t I just search Google? I’m not finding anything and I’m really frustrated.” She wasn’t the only one with this kind of response. Luckily, it was a small class, and my colleague (who was along for training) and I had time to go around and help students individually. But, that doesn’t change the fact that they will now associate library research with difficulty and frustration and will want to avoid it.

Another thing I noticed was that students were running into problems not just with finding stuff but also with determining that what they’d found was relevant to their topic. I had a student who found a perfect article for her topic but who discarded it because it mentioned – in passing – a statistic about exiled Afghan women and literacy, and the students’ assigned topic was specifically on literacy in the United States (which was what the article was really about). In the future, I may need to spend less time on how to search and more time on evaluating what they find (again, difficult in a short one-shot).

Even though I thought I was keeping it pretty simple and manageable, I think it ended up being too complex and overwhelming. Next time, I think I’d try to pick just one e-encyclopedia platform for them to search and spend more time on the evaluation of what they find. I think I’d also try to have a more structured activity that would better scaffold the search and selection experience from start to finish, whereas my current activity ignores the evaluation/selection piece of the process. Maybe some of these revisions will help. Maybe they won’t, but at least I’ll fail better the next time.

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4 thoughts on “Failing Better

  1. Michele: Thanks for posting this. So many faculty still approach us with “show them everything at once, in 20 minutes, for a project they will work on in four weeks” request. We know this a poor approach, but can have a tough road to change these patterns. A Developmental English faculty member asked me a few years ago to pare down our instruction sessions to show only one resource per instruction session, clearly but briefly, and let students experiment with it immediately. This is our preferred method of teaching, too, and this experiment has turned into a workshop series that we are using as our population to study for the Assessment in Action (AiA) project we are participating in. Students want to FIND not to SEARCH, and I agree with you that evaluating what they find is where real learning comes in.

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  2. Thanks for your wonderfully honest blog post. Failure? As an instructor you learned something during this one-shot, and that in itself is always valuable. If you hit it out of the park every time, perhaps you miss some opportunities. I prefer to look at my one-shots as being on a sliding scale of success, rather than placing the big red FAILURE stamp on the ones that don’t go exactly as I’d hoped. Students can’t help but approach library databases in the same way that they’ve always used web-based search engines: i.e., describing the article they want, and then clicking on one of the first 3 links and assuming their research is complete. It’s great when our developmental students are required to follow up the one-shot with an appointment for a one-on-one session with a librarian. Once you build a relationship, then over the course of the semester, you can guide their progress and watch as they become more confident and successful in using the library’s print and online resources. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and time, patience, and kindness go a long way in getting developmental students to where they should be. Just my two cents.

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  3. @Elizabeth – Your workshop series and Assessment in Action project sounds really interesting!
    @Beth – I like the idea of a follow-up appointment – what a great way to extend the brevity of the one-shot and to continue the teaching/learning experience.

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  4. I agree with Beth. It’s not failure. I’ve learned to focus on one resource, but then the trouble is that later on, that’s the only resource that group of students will use, even though there may be a better one for the topic/subject at hand. OJC has identified information literacy as a student learning outcome, so I am just starting working with instructors on showing them how they can do some info lit themselves. But…no easy answers! We keep trying!

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