For better or for worse… teaching information literacy, week 3

January 28, 2011 at 5:41 pm Leave a comment

Well, I got my surly students to behave. (That’s the “for better.”) Unfortunately, I think I went over most of my students’ heads when we went over Boolean searching last night. (And there’s the “for worse.”)


  • The homework assignment they turned in last week asked them what steps they took when they did research for a paper and how they evaluated the sources they found. Most of my students wrote that they go to an encyclopedia to get some background information and then go to the library catalog, yadda yadda yadda… This may be the ideal search process, but I highly doubt that this is what they actually do (which I wanted to know for this week’s lesson–how to use Boolean and create a search string). Only a couple wrote that they search Google and don’t really evaluate sources (or don’t know how to).
  • I wrote last week that I was having some difficulty coming up with strategies for dealing with grumbly, know-it-all students. I outsourced this to Facebook, and ended up taking my former professor’s advice to “kill [the surly students] with kindness.” She was the only one of my FB respondents who didn’t urge me to lay the smack down in no uncertain terms, whether in private or in public. Dad (a near-40-year high school teaching veteran in an area with a similar student demographic) urged me to call security and claim the students were making terroristic threats :-O Eep! I think that would get me fired. Thankfully the “get more flies with honey” approach worked pretty well–I was extra nice to the problem students as they were signing in at the beginning of class, and that seemed to take the edge off. One student continued to sigh melodramatically throughout class, but I’m beginning to think this is her response to everything.
  • I was unexpectedly amazed at the difficulty my students had in coming up with a 200-word response (total) to 2 questions for their class participation assignment. I write 175-word book reviews for Library Journal all the time, so I know this isn’t much writing at all. Mostly, I am astounded at their inability to BS in lieu of truly thinking about and answering the question–I was in all-honors classes in high school, and let me tell you, we had no trouble BSing answers to what we saw as busywork. I think my high school classmates could have easily spat out paragraphs on this assignment (which was for the FYE portion of my class–“Why do you think employers give personality tests when they interview prospective employees? How might having personality types affect a team?”) without having taken any of the tests my students did or doing background reading. Obviously I’m concerned about my students’ lack of critical thinking skills, but I still remain surprised that I was wrong to assume that the career-college student demographic would be even more skilled at BS than high school honors students.
  • I think I need to SLOW DOWN when going over difficult subjects. I’m always nervous teaching material for the first time (and to a class with a few hostile students), and I think this makes me talk too fast, which I’m sure doesn’t help with retention of information (or the ability to take notes…) Alternative: Come up with handouts for students? Hate wasting paper, though…
  • Boolean: Oh, gosh… where to start? I found all sorts of wonderful resources on the Web and was hopeful that they’d be helpful in teaching a difficult concept. (My boyfriend, a math professor, went wide-eyed when I told him I planned on teaching my students Boolean.) I showed an introduction-to-the-process <a href=””>YouTube video</a>, had the class brainstorm synonyms for “juvenile” in preparation for doing pretend research on “juvenile crime”, played the stand up/sit down game (“Everyone who’s wearing black stand up! Everyone who’s wearing black OR jeans stand up!” etc.), had them work through the <a href=””>Colorado State tutorial</a>, worked through a full search-string-creation-process for the topic “Laws I should know about if I’m starting a new business” using a great form adapted from the <a href=””>J. Sargeant Reynolds CC library</a>, reviewed steps one more time, and then gave them an activity to practice on their own with a partner… and they were completely lost. I’d written the keywords for our “new business law” activity on top of the whiteboard and their synonyms beneath them, and the students were unable to translate this vertical format into a horizontal one (as I asked for the search string and gave them three lines–one for each concept–to write this on, the worksheet itself urged a horizontal information placement). This totally confused them and wasn’t something I was expecting. I’m going to make an effort to write the synonyms next to, rather than beneath, the key words tonight and see how that helps. Also, the JSRCC online search techniques worksheet breaks down the search-string-creation process into manageable steps; I didn’t want to waste a huge amount of paper by printing off one per problem (there were three on the activity sheet). The activity specified that they should include their keywords and their final search strings; I assumed the students would know to work through the synonym-generating part of the JSRCC worksheet to come up with those synonyms. Wrong. They immediately went from keywords to creating search strings without any synonyms. Sigh. I think tonight I’ll work through the first of the three problems with them in order to emphasize use of the JSRCC worksheet.

I checked out the ili-l archives while I was creating this week’s lesson plan, and saw that one librarian had posted what I thought was a key point: “I, too, have played the stand-up/sit-down game, used Venn diagrams, and various analogies to explain the logic of searching. Then I ask students how they would use this knowledge to create search statement, and I inevitably get blank stares. Usually, even the instructor doesn’t have a clue how to transfer this newly acquired knowledge of how to create groups of people, or vacation requirements, or ice cream sundaes to the task of crafting a search statement that includes synonyms and alternative vocabulary, and creates connections between dissimilar concepts. It’s really important to situate your explanation of Boolean logic in the context of a discussion of alternative vocabulary and relationships between terms and concepts. If students go away with the knowledge that OR makes sets bigger, and AND makes them smaller, but not understanding that OR should be applied to synonyms, and AND to separate concepts, the knowledge is more likely to hinder their efforts at searching than to render it effective. The fact that this seems simple and intuitive to us, after years of searching, and that Boolean logic is inherently time-consuming to teach, make it very easy to forget that students do not automatically make this important connection.”

Definitely found this to be the case in my class as well. Two students–out of 12–had picture-perfect worksheets, though they were working together and one had taken an Incomplete in the class last semester, so I don’t know how much of their comprehension can be attributed to me.

It didn’t help that I lost 40 minutes of class time (out of 205) for a guest speaker (my Friday class got the spiel last week). Maybe that extra 40 minutes can be devoted to a <a href=””>really fantastic interactive tutorial</a> I didn’t have time for last night, one-one-one workas well as some good old-fashioned drilling and repetition

(“When do you use OR?”

“When you want more results!”

“What do you use OR with?”


–which, according to Time’s cover story on <a href=”,8599,2043313,00.html”>Tiger Mom Amy Chua</a> really does work– will help. We’ll see how tonight’s class goes.


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Library Day in the Life #6 For better or for worse: redux

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