9 Partnerships are at the Core of My Teaching | Michelle Twait

Susan Barnes Whyte, in her role as the external reviewer for my third year review, wrote “Michelle is at heart a teacher.”  It is true.  There are a number of paths an academic librarian can take and I chose a path that emphasizes teaching.  Since graduate school, I have chosen to work at small liberal arts institutions and I have sought positions that would allow me to focus on facilitating student learning.

I am especially grateful to be at a library that, since the 1950s, has identified itself as a teaching library, committed to an active role in the preparation of students for lifelong learning.  Student learning serves as the compass that directs all of the library’s services and programs.

With my department and within the field, we use the term information literacy to describe the set of critical thinking skills needed to find, use, and evaluate information.  Though I may not like the imprecision of the term, I embrace the idea and the spirit in which it was created.  Information literacy has been defined in various ways.  The definition that, in my opinion, best captures the essence of the concept comes from the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy:  “Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn.  They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand.”

Whether at the reference desk or in the classroom, my ultimate goal is to equip students to be lifelong learners.  I hope to encourage their intellectual curiosity and help them discover the joys of self-education.  I view my role as that of a guide and facilitator on their journey to becoming independent researchers.  I want to demystify the research process and enable students to become responsible for their own learning.  I am helping them hone the skills that will serve them far beyond their baccalaureate years and well into their future endeavors.

There are many ways that students might develop these skills.  Recognizing this, my teaching occurs in several distinct, but interrelated, settings (the reference desk, library instruction sessions, my own courses, and through online guides and collection development work).   The discussion below will touch upon all of these settings, including student and faculty feedback related to these characteristics.

We live in the Information Age and it seems natural to be interested in something that pervades so much of our lives.  I have always been fascinated by the role of libraries as social and educational institutions.  My interest in this subject is linked to the core values of librarianship, which resonate with my personal values – intellectual freedom, lifelong learning, privacy, social responsibility, and equitable access to information.  Some of the most important economic, social, and political issues of our time revolve around information – ownership of information, information haves and have-nots, privacy and the social web.  Beyond this, as someone who has always enjoyed research, I find it instinctive to share that interest with students.

I find reference desk consultations particularly enjoyable.  In discussing a topic with a student, I often learn about new research in that area or see the topic from a different angle.  Looking at students’ search strategies or source choices, I have a window into their understanding of the research process.  I enjoy the process of discovery just as much (if not more) than the students.

I also enjoy the synergy among the various types of teaching (one-on-one consultations at the reference desk or in my office, working with classes, creating user guides, and collection development).  Each informs the other pieces and I take pleasure in seeing how these distinct elements contribute to students’ overall growth as scholars.

 In following the principles of instructional design, I try to create a welcoming classroom environment.  In the classroom, this may be as simple as greeting students as they arrive, acknowledging and affirming their contributions to discussions, and encouraging respectful interactions among classmates.  It can be a bit more complicated at the reference desk.  During reference consultations, I recognize that many students approach librarians with a mixture of fear, hope and anxiety.  They may be fearful that they might appear ignorant, hopeful that I may be able to help them, and anxious because they may feel overwhelmed by the assignment.  Creating a welcoming climate means being approachable, putting them at ease, being sensitive to their emotional state, listening carefully (so I hear not only what is being said but also what is not being said), asking clarifying questions, and discussing possibilities.

When designing an instruction session, I try to determine the essential components or outcomes for it.  I meet with the course instructor to discuss the learning objectives for the session and also to gather information about the course and the relevant assignments. I then go about preparing for the session by examining our library’s holdings (both print and electronic), anticipating the problems students may encounter, and making instructional design decisions.  Throughout this process, I will often go back to the course instructor for further clarification or to brainstorm about the upcoming session.  I am flexible and always willing to reframe the session if, upon further consultation with the instructor, we find that a different approach would better meet the goals of the course.

In my own courses, I try to provide clear expectations and feedback to students.  I believe students should be clearly informed on how they will be evaluated.  Therefore, I provide a great deal of detail in my syllabi and give students a grading rubric for each assignment.   I also provide students with specific and detailed weekly feedback on their written work and participation in class.  My goal is to offer constructive comments designed to help them build confidence, set higher goals for themselves, and also improve their understanding of the material.

In library instruction sessions, we acknowledge that the research process is not identical across disciplines and, therefore, our approach to the pedagogy of information literacy is discipline based.  We deliver our library instruction sessions within the context of courses rather than as “general” introductions.  When working with students on topic development or teaching research strategies, I link the information literacy concepts to their coursework and real-life experiences.

The tenets of information literacy are too important to be left to one group.  We are all responsible for helping students develop critical thinking skills.  Partnerships are at the core of my teaching – in fact, I rarely teach alone.  Sessions are intended to be a fusion of information literacy instruction and course content.  Therefore, the collaboration with course instructors is the key to the quality and success of the instruction.  I view the course instructor as my co-pilot and both welcome and expect their participation in a session.  Through this collaboration, I ensure that my goals for a session are consistent with the mission, goals, and objectives of the program or department.  I also foster and maintain relationships with other offices on campus.  In working with the Career Center, Center for Vocational Reflection, or the Advising Center, I am better able to understand the “whole” student and their learning needs.

To me, achieving quality in the use of student-centered, active learning, and collaborative methods includes supporting diverse approaches to teaching.  This includes responding to multiple learning styles.  I provide handouts and online guides for students who prefer to read and work at their own pace.  There is always some element of discussion or interaction for those students who are auditory learners.  Research is not a spectator sport and, therefore, discovery learning is the primary instructional method.  In the classroom, students are actively engaged in the search process as we experiment with various strategies and explore different tools.  I often ask students to work in pairs, so that they might learn from one another’s successes and challenges.

My instructional methods also accommodate student growth in skills and understanding throughout the college years.  A session for a First Term Seminar course is quite different from a session for seniors working on honors theses.

While scalability may be more of an issue for colleagues at larger institutions, we are also concerned about it here at Gustavus.  With a 416:1 student-librarian ratio, supply and demand is sometimes tricky to balance.  In addition to working with courses, I might also meet with students who have been assigned our reference desk worksheet. In this way, I can not only reach a relatively large number of students, but also provide them with individualized instruction.  Likewise, I am involved in efforts to develop modules that can be used or modified for many students (e.g. modules on evaluating web sites).  I might also work with a class by evaluating the bibliographies of students’ papers.  In seeing what students have selected, I may notice that one student relied primarily on online resources, while perhaps another exclusively chose books, neglecting the more current research.  I am able to suggest tools or resources that would strengthen their thesis.

During a library or class session, my concern for student learning is reflected in several ways.  I believe it is important to understand the audience and their needs.  In most of the classes I teach, students vary in terms of their academic year, degree of interest in the subject matter, socioeconomic background, language proficiency, and learning styles.  My concern for student learning might involve a quick survey of students at the beginning of a session or course to determine their level of expertise.  Taking into consideration the level of the student and their previous experience, I build appropriate scaffolding to take them to the next level.  I try to provide optimal challenges for students by including content that will appeal to and challenge the advanced student, but will also engage and not overwhelm the novice.

In library instruction sessions, I explain the underlying reasons for the way things work in the belief that such an understanding leads to a firmer grasp of the essential skills necessary to navigate in a complex information environment.  My goal is to clarify rather than simplify that which is intrinsically complex, to ground such explanations in concrete examples, and to foster skill acquisition through practical application.  For example, I try to employ cognitive modeling by talking about why we are modifying a search or by asking them to suggest how we might change our approach.  I ask students to suggest search terms and strategies while demonstrating tools.  By using students’ examples, they are connected more intimately to the material and are more engaged.  This method also allows students to see how they have to be prepared to consider different terms and try a variety of strategies in order to be successful.

My concern for student learning includes evaluating my teaching.  After a library instruction session, evaluation forms are sent to the students and the course instructor.  I also try to spend a few minutes on self-evaluation by jotting down notes about what went well, what I might do differently next time, and what external or internal factors may have affected my teaching that day.  I save all of the evaluations and refer back to them when preparing to teach a session or a course for the second (or tenth) time.

Finally, my concern for student learning extends to my collection development work.  Just as one might carefully select the textbooks and readings for a course, in my collection development work I am entrusted with providing students materials for their research projects.  To accomplish this, I draw upon my knowledge of the curriculum, my experience working with students at the reference desk, awareness of specific assignments, and conversations with faculty members.  Beyond the basic objective of creating a collection that reflects curricular goals, I try to ensure that the collection reflects diverse (and often conflicting) viewpoints.  Students then must go beyond their individual understanding of the world and critically analyze the materials.

Although Gustavus does not offer a major in library science, I have worked with many students interested in the field.  I have advised them on graduate school selection, supervised independent study projects, written letters of recommendation, and offered editorial assistance on application essays.

In January 2006, I offered a course (NDL124: Vocation and Information Professions) intended for students interested in librarianship, archival studies, or museum studies.  A few of the students were specifically interested in these professions and I was able to advise them on graduate schools, internships, and specialties within these professions.    The vocation aspect of the course allowed us to discuss the “big questions” and I found that to be very rewarding.  I remember one student in particular who repeatedly argued that he did not care about his career fitting into his calling, as long as he was making a six-figure salary.  A few weeks later, he reported that he was beginning to question to what extent the importance of wealth really outweighed the value of vocation.

Although I came to Gustavus in 2000 with much enthusiasm for teaching, I had relatively little teaching experience.  In my time here, I feel I have proven myself to be an effective instructor, but realize that I can improve upon many aspects of my teaching and I strive to do so each term.  As I gain experience, both my teaching philosophy and methods continue to evolve.

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