Teaching strategies for librarians

This post is a summary of my notes and ideas from a recent session on “Using innovative methods in training”. 

When planning a teaching session, pace is important.  To maintain momentum, break your session down into segments and have each activity lasting 5, 10 or 15 mins.  Don’t wait until every person has finished before moving on to the next item.

Occupy different spaces in the room according to whether you are presenting, facilitating a discussion, observing group work, taking feedback.  This gives a subtle signal to the group about the role you are playing.

For academic or school librarians: get academics’ support for your session – it will increase its perceived importance among students, and may provide an opportunity for creating links to their curriculum.

For online tutorials for databases, use vendors’ own online tutorials and save your time and expertise for developing generic resources that can be re-used across subjects at your institution.

Getting feedback from groups

  • Anonymising answers: each participant writes their answer on paper, passes it to someone else, who passes it on again.  This last recipient is the one who reads it out to the group
  • Set questions before a break: this gives more time for participants to think, and an opportunity to discuss responses
  • Invite answers to a question via sticky notes on a wall – encourages discussion, and participants can see others’ responses

Using quizzes

  • Put ‘true or false’ statements on slides and let the audience vote using ‘traffic lights’ cards or other voting methods (see the “Interaction using technology” section below)

Traffic lights

  • Use quizzes to show students what they don’t know e.g. IT skills, then direct them to IT courses or other resources to help them improve their skills.
  • Here are some examples of puzzle generators: AnagramsCrosswordsWordsearches.  Many others are available!

Interaction using technology

  • Text message polls e.g. PollEverywhereSMS Poll.  Good for getting group feedback, and replies can be displayed on a screen in real time
  • Interact via Skype, live chat e.g. Google TalkAIMWindows Live Messenger (formerly known as MSN Messenger), Chatterous
  • Get students involved in making videos to promote library services e.g. advice for international students from international students

Plagiarism and referencing

  • If you know a (co-operative) student who got caught, you could ask them to make a short video in which they explain the mistake they made and the impact it had on their education e.g. zero mark for an essay, possible ejection from the university
  • Activity: get students to organise a list of sources in order of academic credibility e.g. newspaper article (specify which newspaper), textbook, journal article (refereed), journal article (not refereed), conference paper, government report, website (specify which one).  Then present them with an answer (not the answer) and get them to argue with you over the order suggested.  You can use this technique with all sorts of lists/ranking activities
  • See also Skills4Study site – study skills section includes info on exams, learning strategies, personal effectiveness, writing, thinking

My manifesto for more effective staff development!

Today I am attending a course entitled “Influencing your team’s effectiveness”.  Well, I say attending, but at the first break I made the decision to go back to work (after coffee, natch) as I felt I wasn’t learning anything new.

These are my main criticisms of the course:

  1. The title implied that it was a course for managers (“your team”) but most attendees were not managers, and this had a significant (lowering) effect on the level of discussion in the group.
  2. The presenter began with a long (nearly half an hour) preamble which included us sharing what we wanted to get out of the day.  I have two problems with this – firstly, strike while the iron is hot and get going with the course content when everyone is alert and expectant and secondly, how am I supposed to know what to expect when you haven’t provided us with a course outline?  This kind of activity can be valuable, but I think it’s best done as a preparatory exercise before the course begins.
  3. The pace was painfully slow.
  4. Level of assumed knowledge was very low.

I was nearly tearful with rage about how poor today’s session was. I’m now going to use that anger to some purpose and imagine how staff development could be done better – see my manifesto below!

If I build it, will they come?

I’m considering running some courses along these lines. But I fear that many people who attend these staff development events are just looking for a day away from their normal jobs and don’t want to be challenged.  If that’s the case, and the feedback from my courses isn’t good (because I won’t let people just sit there and not participate), it will be a short-lived project.

It reminded me of a conversation I had yesterday with @davidclover about rebranding librarians/CILIP as militant, feisty, techy leaders in the field of information.  It was pointed out that most librarians just aren’t like that.  Many of them choose this career because they want to be the old-fashioned stereotypical librarian, rather than bringing the professional up-to-date for the information era.

I would be very pleased to be proven wrong this this though!

Manifesto for more effective staff development

  1. Pitch sessions to specific segments of people in the organisation e.g. level of responsibility for other staff
  2. Clearly define the aims and outcomes of the session, and circulate these in advance so people can decide if the course if appropriate for them, and know what to expect
  3. Require participants to do some kind of warm-up activity before the course begins, so they’re not arriving ‘cold’
  4. Dive into the content right away – don’t waste the first part of the day on long housekeeping announcements or talking us through the programme (you already sent it to us, remember?)
  5. Expect people to join in and contribute.  Choose people to speak/do something, don’t ask “who wants to go next?” and listen to the echoes of your words around a silent room in which no-one volunteers
  6. Don’t humour people who won’t join in.  Acknowledge that they are opting out, but don’t spend a lot of time focussing on it otherwise you will reinforce their behaviour and normalise it for the rest of the group
  7. A pet hate: don’t give everyone a pile of handouts and then tell them not to read them
  8. Make your supporting materials powerful and productive.  Don’t just dump all your thoughts on the topic into a handout – make every word count.  If you’re using slides, make ’em good
  9. Have a punchy finish, which relates back to the learning outcomes.  Everyone should be able to give an elevator pitch or three things they’ve learned from the day if you were to stop them on the way out and ask them.
  10. Have a follow-up activity (like homework) to keep the momentum going when participants go back to their workplaces.  Something they can do the next day or week that will reinforce what they learned in the sessions.  You could also encourage people who met at the course to use social media to continue getting to know each other after the event

None of this is rocket science.  Any teacher training student could tell you that planning sessions in this way enhances students’ learning.  Let’s put an end to the kind of sessions where you sit and are talked at for several hours, and let’s transform them into continuing professional development that really means something.

Rant over 🙂

Staff IT skills survey

Alan Brine (De Montfort University Library) carried out a survey of library staff IT skills in order to target staff training needs.

A number of competencies were listed, and each respondent ranked their ability by selecting one of these options to describe their skill level: I can / I need reminding / I can’t.

A range of training solutions was then offered, including:


  • Recognition of staff level of technology engagement by management was essential to the success of this project
  • It was also important to allow time for the additional workload involved, both in training and exploration
  • As possibilities multiply and skillsets expand, who will keep current?
  • Managing the overall student experience is now more complex
  • Face to face and personal communication still preferred and important

Good IT skills are a common requirement for many library jobs nowadays, but it is not always easy to know what is meant by this or find a way to measure it at interview.  Many library-related IT skills may be specific to a particular role depending on which integrated library system is used, whether staff support students who use Windows, Mac, Linux or other systems or a combination, so many staff will need on-the-job training once in post even if their general IT skills are already good.  This audit and follow-up sounds like a great way to assess the gap between the skills required and the skills of the current team members.

Lessons learned from being in a boat

Last summer, I took part in a novice rowing course run by Oxford Academicals Rowing Club.  I was keen to discover more about a sport that is very popular in Oxford, and pleased to discover that I wasn’t rubbish at it.  I went on to join the club after the course, and the women’s novice VIII+ had our first taste of racing victory (against the novice men!) at the City of Oxford Royal Regatta in August 2010.

Why do I mention this here?  Because work and rowing have many lessons in common:

  • Rowing and working involve being part of a team.  You have to be aware of what others around you are doing, as well as your own actions
  • Good team performance relies heavily on individuals having prepared well on their own, knowing their particular role and how it fits with the rest of the group
  • The value of a training session is influenced by the coach or trainer, but also the attitude you bring with you and the effort you make
  • The importance of mental determination: telling yourself to keep going even when you are tired, or the task is boring or difficult
  • Gaining a sense of satisfaction from a job well done, whether it’s being friendly and helpful to a reader or completing a 5,000 m test on the erg

This week I am also rowing for my college in the Women’s First VIII+ in Torpids, the Hilary Term bumps race.

If you live in or near Oxford and would like to learn to row, Academicals are holding their next 4-week novice course from 29th March to 23rd April 2011.  More details here.