Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How Much Should I Worry about the Student Sleeping in the Back?

yellow flower whose name I don't know, in bloom right now

Well, the semester (and thus library instruction) is again in full swing. This means I am as likely to be found in front of a class as at the reference desk right now.

I notice a few things have changed since I last thought about how to teach effectively:

(1) I no longer assume students know what I'm talking about. I don't assume they know what a catalog is & what it's doing when they click 'search', I don't assume they know what books (particularly academic titles) are all about, I don't assume they know what a journal is, or know the meaning of the word 'periodical'. (In fact, strong majorities in BIO1 classes told me with a show of hands that they did not know what a journal was.) I try to define my terms as much as possible while still getting to the point of the lesson, but this leads to (2) me talking for a lot longer -- it's suddenly easy to go for 45 minutes without interruption. I wonder if this is good for the students, and in fact I have noticed a few of them falling asleep. And so I go back to being conflicted over (3) how I can make the material interesting to them. Moreover, how much energy should I spend worrying about this?

Begin rant / These are adult college students, and they have the responsibility to sit up and pay attention, and if they choose not to do this, how is it my fault if they decide to go to sleep? School -- even college -- is by its very nature boring for some students, and for every one student who is snoozing, there are 15 who are wide awake and attentive. Why should I grease the squeaky wheels by dumbing down my lesson with fireworks displays? I have no idea why they are sleeping -- maybe they are working three jobs, maybe the room is too hot, maybe they were kept up all night by screaming children, or maybe they really do not want to be in college. I usually only see them once, in a single class, which is not enough time to try and understand what is going on with them & what learning style will best work for them. / End rant

In an ideal world, of course, we would all be able to create learning experiences like this one:

I assume this video was meant to show a novel approach to changing people's behavior (while promoting fitness or decreasing energy consumption?). But really, how I can I make using library databases -- even taking into consideration all my enthusiasm and confidence that they are magical -- into an experience similar to this? Modify them into a first-person shooter game? I'm going to need some serious programming skills for that one.

Then again, if you asked the people who participated in the video above, I wonder what they would say they learned? Did they learn that using the stairs makes them fit and healthy? Did they begin to understand how much more energy the escalator uses than the stairs? No, they learned that they could play music on this set of stairs. Although perhaps the use of that staircase increased, those same people might well have kept using the escalator everywhere else -- i.e. where the steps had not been turned into musical keys.

The problem is, work is not always fun. Work is sometimes work. And isn't being able to successfully do something that is not particularly fun a valuable skill? Or, should we be encouraging the ability to constantly turn work into something fun?


  1. One has to ask - what are the students doing to make it interesting for themselves? and do they not see that if they are so bored in class - then they are also boring to the professor.

    and i think thats the biggest difference between students; those that are self actualized enough to see how their interaction affects others instead of only themselves are more interesting in class and make the group dynamic more interesting.

    Most students seem to say "I'm bored." Well, son, I'm sorry but you are also boring me and you're just a drag -an anchor - on the whole class obsessed with your own moment of interest.

    Since when did i become the dancing monkey here to entertain you?

  2. Thanks for this comment. A lot of what I read about in educational theory seems to imply that beyond teaching a subject, the best teachers are also teaching motivation. This last is really difficult, and for me leads to the dancing monkey sensation.

  3. I have kind of a different perspective.. I think that we tend to put far too much emphasis on the lecture part of instruction. For teaching in general, sometimes lectures can work, and sometimes they're necessary, but a couple hundred years' worth of expectations have sort of made them the default approach and a lot of people don't respond well to them--especially for procedural knowledge like database searching.

    Basically, my understanding of library instruction is kind of like this. For every instruction session, the student has three oppportunities to improve his or her research practices. The first is the lecture, the second is the hands-on part of the session, and the third is when the student is at home actually doing the work. Of course, there will be other opportunities in later assignments, so the students do not need to learn everything all at once. This is important--they will need to practice repeatedly before they can really do it. It also makes up for what I've learned, which is that the more material you give students, the less of it they get.

    So, the first part, the lecture, is necessary because there are definitely things that are flat out informational statements and that they'll all need to know. The second part, to me, is the heart of the session because that is when you can really get down to specifics and work with students on what is relevant to them (that is, what is relevant to their paper at this very moment). It's also the part of the process when they are least likely to fall asleep, because they are active at that moment rather than passive. :) And the third part, of course, is the time when they care the most and when you are the least present, but this is why I LOVE online course & subject guides like the LibGuides you are doing.

    But bascially, I think it's important to limit the amount of lecturing and remember that they'll have more opportunities to work on this later.

    The other thing that I think should be thrown into this conversation is that the professor should really be talking about a lot of this scholarly communication stuff in class. It's discipline specific and part of the justification for them doing research in the first place and ought to be part of that conversation. There's only so much you can do in a one-shot instruction session, so my personal preference is to keep it as focused as possible.

    And if the professsor isn't doing it? Well, I don't know, I'm not sure how to make that balance. But it's certainly part of the context here.

  4. I think this is a wise comment Anni, and I've been keeping your thoughts in mind during the past several weeks of instruction.

    Unfortunately, understanding that my lecture is only one piece of the process doesn't seem to relieve me of the (self-inflicted) pressure I feel when teaching in front of a class. (-:

  5. Wanted to add this to the thread here -- a great piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Brian P. Hall, "Trying to Engage Students Can Break Your Heart."