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Tuesday 3 March 2009

Getting cheered

So my colleague and I got cheered at the end of a library skills lecture to 280 new engineering students last week. Ruling out, for vanity's sake, the possibility that it was because
  • we finished early;
  • that corner of the room was watching sports on their iPods;
  • the students that way inclined thought I was hot;
  • the students the other way inclined thought my colleague was hot...
...It might have been because of a couple of things we tried a bit differently this year.

A bit of background: this lecture was for the first year ("intermediate year") of Engineering students, in their first week ever at university. Latest figure I've heard is that 780 are enrolled; we gave the lecture in three sessions with ~250 students attending each day. The lecture is to support their first assignment, an essay requiring library research which they have a week and a half to write. Anguished quote from the first year this course was offered: "I choose engineering so I wouldn't have to write!" Citing is a completely new concept to 95% of them.

The last two years, we did a powerpoint going through the research process, different kinds of sources, how to evaluate sources including websites, the evils of Wikipedia, etc, and citing.

This year we did three things differently:
  1. we restructured the powerpoint to start with *their* research process - ie, Google and Wikipedia. We showed how some bad search results come up, eg, written by a follower of L Ron Hubbard, and I told the story of how Hubbard made a bet at an sf convention that he could create a religion and make a million dollars. (People laughed, it was great.) I showed the Wikipedia page from that Google search - it had some gorgeous orange warnings on it so we talked about those, then looked at the introductory paragraph which had footnotes. (Subliminal introduction to the concept of citing.) Scrolled to the reference list at the bottom of the page which had dictionary entries, books, journal articles, newspaper articles - and segued from *there* into the scholarly research process and the things we hold in the library. And so forth.
  2. Inspired by Beyond active learning: a constructivist approach to learning(1) we got interactive. We were really dubious about this because a) the class size was 250ish and b) these are engineers, and most engineering classes have mutely resisted interaction. So we made sure the powerpoint would work even if they didn't answer questions. The interaction itself was things like: "So you've got an assignment: where do you start?" We expected to elicit "Google" - actually people had various responses and were all talking at once so we couldn't hear them all. Some said the library so we cheerfully called them "greasers" :-) and then when we heard "Google" from others we moved on to the next slide. Google results - "What do you notice about these results?" - they noticed some things, and the rest of what we talked about we just added to what they were saying. Same thing with Wikipedia: "What do you notice? What do these numbers in brackets mean?" And so forth.
  3. We rejigged the slides themselves. The old slides were endless bulletpoints. So, inspired by the movement in conference presentations to use images rather than bulletpoints, we did the same thing. This worked particularly well for a photo-tour of the different parts of the library they'd need, eg a photo of where the reference collection was, then a photo zoomed in on some dictionaries. We had a series of photos physically walking upstairs to the main stacks of books for the assignment subject area. It was a bit hokey and people laughed, but... hey, people laughed, so it was cool.
    3a.   We paused in the middle for a couple of minutes to let the students write down links to the library website, the subject guide, and Internet Detective.
So we gave this lecture three times. People seemed engaged for them all, and the first two times we got regular applause and then people coming up for questions afterwards. The third time someone asked a question in the middle of it (during the citation section), and at the end we got applause and cheers from one corner, and people coming up for yet more questions. So, I dunno, maybe the cheering was a fluke; but either way, I think that format worked really well, and I'm going to be trying it with more classes in future. (Even if more advanced engineering students might have learned how to resist interactivity - it seems worth a try.)

(1) Cooperstein, Susan E. and Elizabeth Kocevar-Weidinger (2004). Beyond active learning: a constructivist approach to learning. Reference Services Review 32(2), pp 141-148

PS Of course we're still having to tell half this stuff again and again to people coming to the combo lending/reference desk, and I'm considering how to find physical space for some mini-workshops, but that's par for the course.