Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Getting out of a rut: active and collaborative library sessions

From the Spring 2015 Newsletter

The Library’s instructional services include the possibility for classroom faculty to bring their students to the Library for a session with a librarian. What that session entails is up to the librarian in consultation with the course instructor with regard to the current assignment. There is no standard script or protocol; each librarian has his or her own technique for library instruction.

For my first six years at John Jay, I generally taught these classes this way: I provided a brief overview of using the Library catalog; then I spent the majority of the time explaining and demonstrating search examples using databases and key terms related to the course assignment or theme; then I left about 15 minutes at the end of the session for students to put what I had shown them into practice on the classroom computers. As far as I could tell, students seemed to be paying attention and hopefully absorbing the information.

Recently, I decided to shake things up to see if I could get a better indication of where students really need help with their searching. I know some of my other colleagues conduct more free-form, active sessions, and while I long thought I should experiment with that approach, it didn’t fit comfortably with my strong desire to control a classroom, dispensing what I believed to be essential information. I couldn’t imagine being able to share all that I wanted to if students were merely casting about with disparate searches all around the room. Having grown bored and frustrated with my earnest but staid attempts thus far, at the start of the Spring semester, I took the leap. After the very first session, I viscerally recognized the value of an almost completely student-driven instruction, and I have no desire to revert to my previous methods.

Now I start the class with a very quick “contest,” to see if students know how to find a book using the catalog. Many classroom faculty assume that students are familiar with this basic skill, but it is far from the actual case, even in 300- or 400-level classes. Then I show a brief video tutorial on “Talking to Databases” (thanks to my colleague, Professor Julie Turley, who introduced me to and who is a champion of the interactive class method) which gets across the fundamental principles of database searching much less discursively than I normally do. Then, the students are set free to work on their research questions using databases that I have suggested. For the remaining hour, I move around the room and work with them on their particular problems and answer questions (I also encourage them to ask each other for advice). I can see where the trouble spots are and help them tackle them in the moment. Occasionally, I interrupt the group with a tip when I see common pitfalls. In my previous sessions, students would sometimes have the tendency to wait out the 15 minute working period and not bother trying to engage in the activity. Now they see it as valuable time to get some of their work done.

Another related element that I have emphasized this semester is collaboration with the classroom faculty. While I always encourage the instructor to participate, now I frame the session as one based on co-teaching. So far, this has been highly effective. When the students see their professor taking part in the library instruction – they, too, move around the room with me answering questions and providing suggestions – they recognize the session’s importance to their assignment and in their learning in general.

The faculty I have worked with this Spring have been ideal collaborators. English professor Tara Pauliny says, “I have brought classes to the library for research instruction before, and I found those sessions extremely useful to students. But I think the collaborative workshop strategy worked even better,” she said. “My students all left the session with at least one useable source and they were able to continue the research process on their own.” After reviewing the first draft of her students’ annotated bibliographies, Pauliny says, “The sources they used were appropriate, scholarly, and directly related to their paper topics. Not only was the session a success for my students, but as a bonus, it was fun for me as well!” Likewise, Law and Society professor Michael Yarbrough found the session structure valuable. “Working in teams, students helped each other think of different ways to say what they were searching for until they hit on the right term,” he says. “Searching for secondary sources is a trial-and-error process, so there’s no better way to learn than by doing.”

While I wish I had taken the step to approach sessions in this “lab” format years ago, I am glad I finally broke free of my old habits. Far from feeling a loss of control, I find this method far more engaging and useful for me and the students.

Kathleen Collins

More from the Spring 2015 Newsletter »