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Career Strategies for Librarians
Teaching Tips from the Instruction Front: Insights of a New Librarian
by Catherine Fraser Riehle

You Know It … Now Teach It!

For many librarians, particularly those of us working in academic libraries, instruction is an important
part of our jobs. The form of instruction varies, from “one shot” information sessions to workshops and
orientations to for-credit courses within departments. Graduate programs in library and information
science do not always prepare us adequately for this sometimes exciting and often daunting
responsibility. While new librarians are eager to share their passion for research and information
literacy, becoming a successful instructor can be a time-consuming endeavor.

Information Strategies

Within several months of beginning my first job after finishing graduate school, I was presented with the
opportunity to teach an undergraduate course entitled Information Strategies. The one-credit course is
offered every fall at Purdue University, and the faculty librarians share the responsibility of teaching it by
rotating every semester. As I agreed to teach this course, I began to question my abilities. After being in
school for what seemed like ages, how could I suddenly transform from student to teacher? Could I
stand in front of a classroom full of students without my knees buckling? Would students take me
seriously?  

Jumping In

Despite my initial hesitation, I accepted the challenge, and it proved to be an outstanding learning
experience. During the twelve weeks I spent planning and teaching this course, I learned more about
undergraduate students, information literacy, and instruction than I thought possible. The successes
and blunders of my fledgling teaching career have taught me a few things about undergraduate
instruction that might benefit any librarian facing his or her first teaching experience.

1.  Put your plan in writing.  

The teaching process involves more than standing in front of students and talking. Preparing for
instruction often involves doing research, designing visual aids, creating assignments and activities,
and possibly keeping track of attendance and student progress. Create a course outline to conquer any
false feelings of impending doom and to manage your time and stress level.

Tips for creating a class outline: At least a few days before your class, ponder what you hope to
accomplish, set goals, and determine learning objectives for your students. Settle on the main ideas
and skills you want students to learn in your class. Then, begin your outline by listing the goals and
learning objectives you defined, and arrange them in an order that makes sense to you. Fill in the blanks
by adding examples, illustrations, and discussion questions for each theme or section, and conclude by
jotting down ideas for an introduction and conclusion. This process will provide you with a substantive
outline to guide you through your class, ease your nerves, and keep you on track. The outline can also
serve as a handy guide for creating visual components, such as presentation slides.  

2.  Mix it up.  

Given that students typically have an attention span of 15 to 20 minutes, you may sense some tuning you
out well before class time is over. To tackle this common challenge, engage your students by including
elements in your class that encourage active learning. Though planning these activities can be time-
consuming, they provide an effective way to break up the monotony of lecture and give students the
opportunity to put into practice the ideas, concepts, and skills you are striving to teach.

A few ideas: Create an activity addressing a concept or skill that you covered. For example, design a
worksheet that guides students through a database or catalog search to find articles or books on an
interesting topic, or have students compare two websites based on a list of evaluation criteria you
covered during your lecture. You could also present students with a “real life” problem and tell them they
need to find information using a particular list of resources to solve it. Whether you ask students to work
individually or in small groups, it can be helpful to leave time for “mini presentations” at the end of the
class, which gives them the opportunity to learn from one another.

Effective demonstrations: If at all possible, host your class in a computer lab or a wired classroom. You
are then able to encourage students to follow along on their own computers while you demonstrate how
to use the library catalog or databases. To enable more interactive and effective demonstrations, allow a
few minutes for students to try searches themselves after you highlight important features of a system or
search engine. Give them the opportunity to search using their own topics or offer a few interesting
topics as suggestions. If you allow students to try searching a variety of databases, ask individuals or
small groups to demonstrate for the group a search they tried or to talk about what they learned or found
challenging. This allows students to learn from the experiences of their peers and to see
demonstrations of several different databases while you interject with tips and comments. Both you and
your students will appreciate this method of peer instruction. By enabling students to informally teach
one another, you increase interactivity while decreasing monotony. Everyone wins!  

3.  Dare to ask.  

Whether you gather feedback formally or informally, it can be very useful to find out what students think
about your class. To encourage your development as an instructor, seek frequent feedback from your
students and colleagues about your classes, including the content you cover, the in-class activities you
create, your teaching style, and, if applicable, any assignments you require.

For one-shot sessions:  Hand out a quick two-question survey after your session, asking the following
questions: “What is something new you learned today and/or something you liked about the session?”
and “What is something about the session you would change or do differently?” If your schedule does
not allow for a written survey, casually approach lingering students after class while they are putting
away their things. Ask them if they feel like they learned something new, if they thought the activities were
effective, or if they have questions you left unanswered. You may be surprised how open students will be
when you take the time to let them you know that you care both about your teaching and their success.

For extended sessions: If you are meeting with the same group of students for more than a few
sessions, design a short survey to hand-out mid-semester or halfway through your workshop series.
The comments and suggestions can help you to improve remaining sessions and to tailor your content
to the needs of the particular group of students.

4.  What? No iPods?

Communicate your expectations to your students. Whether or not being in a position of authority comes
naturally to you, there are ways of conveying rules and expectations that will save yourself and your
students grief.

For extended sessions: Create a clear and detailed syllabus outlining class policies, including
expectations for participation and attendance, grading criteria, and requirements for assignments and
any substantial projects. On the first day of class, go over the policies and expectations matter-of-factly
and offer to answer any questions to clarify. Open communication about these issues alleviates
frustration for both you and students, particularly when deadlines approach and grades are handed out.

For any session: If you expect students to listen attentively, make the expectation clear from the
beginning. Otherwise, you may find more than a few spending time in class checking email, messaging
friends, surfing the internet, or listening to music on their mp3 players. Undergraduate students today
are constantly connected – to classmates on Facebook, to family members on their cell phones, and
maybe even to a friend sitting a row in front of them. These ceaseless multitaskers may be capable of
listening to you with one ear while listening to music through a headphone in the other, but if you find this
distracting or offensive, be up front about it. For a compromise that avoids confrontation, allow students
to use computers before you begin class. When you are ready to begin, kindly request that everyone turn
off monitors (and any other potentially distracting technologies) while you teach, noting they will have the
opportunity later in class to turn them back on and try hands-on the research techniques you will be
covering.     

5.  Make it relevant!

Many of your students may not be as excited about research and information literacy as you are when
they walk through the door to your classroom, but refuse to let blank stares or silences discourage you. If
you are excited about the information you’re covering, your students will notice. Make it your personal
mission to convince them that the content is relevant and useful to them. Even if they leave your class
unconvinced that research is a thrilling process (sometimes a shock to us librarians!), hopefully they will
have an appreciation for what you do and a realization that the information you shared is important and
useful.

For revealing relevance: Resist the temptation to show students merely “how to” use the catalog and
databases. While these demonstrations are frequently an important element in library instruction, strive
to frame the resources and tools in a bigger picture. Begin instead by telling students why they should
care about how to use these tools and why it is important to know how to evaluate websites and search
for information effectively. For instance, let them know these skills are necessary “because we all live in
an increasingly overwhelming digital information world, and in order to be informed citizens, we need to
be able to find information we can trust.” Even starting with “this information will help you get an ‘A’ on
your research paper” or “impress your professors” will pique their interest. If you enthusiastically
advocate what you are talking about, students will realize that listening to what you have to say is worth
their time and attention.

6.  Show up to class early.   

Arriving to the classroom a few minutes before you begin lecturing will enable you to build rapport with
your students and to create a warmer, more open environment. Chat casually with students before
class; ask them how their semesters are going, if they are looking forward to Spring Break, or if they
have any questions about assignments they are working on. Even asking if it’s stopped raining is better
than nothing. Encouraging students to talk before class often results in great student participation during
class. You may find they are more open to answering questions and participating in class discussion.  

Teacher … or Student?

One of the strangest phenomena about instruction is that we instructors often assume we do all the
teaching. During my first instruction experiences, however, I realized that I was learning at least as much
as I was teaching. Experience is truly the best teacher, and “jumping in” will teach you far more about
instruction than reading this article. Happy teaching!

About the Author:

Catherine Fraser Riehle is the Instructional Outreach Librarian at Purdue University. During her first six
months at Purdue, she lead over 30 library research and information literacy classes and workshops
with undergraduate students. She is pleased to report that her knees no longer buckle while she
teaches.

Article published May 2007

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.