Saturday, 26 February 2011

Reflections on my first solo teaching session

Last week, I had my first chance to do a teaching session by myself. I have taught before – during my graduate traineeship, many of the librarians kindly involved me in their classes, giving me the opportunity to demonstrate search techniques, databases, the library catalogue etc. to groups of students, and to help out in hands-on sessions, and since I have been in my current role I have observed classes and taught jointly with a colleague. This, however, was the first time I would be standing up in front of a class and giving a whole session by myself; two sessions actually (the same one twice in a row to two different seminar groups). To make it all even more new, one of my colleagues was coming in to observe the first session; I have never been observed before (I’ve never done enough in a session to be worth observing before now!). While I was excited – the teaching aspect was one of the things that first attracted me to academic librarianship way back in my undergraduate days, so it’s been a long wait to get to this point! - I was also extremely nervous. What if the students got bored and started talking to each other over me? What if the tutor accompanying them was totally unimpressed with what I was demonstrating? What if I got something wrong, or one of the searches didn’t work as it should? What if they ask me to demonstrate a database I’d not used before, or to perform a search that I hadn’t tested? What if I talked too fast or gabbled, as I usually do when I’m nervous and there are a load of people looking at me? What if they all said “the librarian was rubbish” (or worse) on the evaluation forms they filled out in the end?
As it turns out, the sessions went absolutely fine – I’d even go so far as to say that they went well! Here is what I learnt about the aforementioned things that were making me nervous:
  • Most students will pay attention in a session directly related to their assignments, even if they’re not particularly interested in learning how to refine their searches, or even in the assignment itself! They are paying a lot of money to go to university and most of them want to do well. Library sessions are teaching very practical things – in this case, demonstrating a list of databases that the students had been asked to gather primary sources from for an assignment – and, while you can make the session more engaging by doing things like showing the students the most clever and helpful bits of the databases , and inviting them to ask questions or start a discussion, it does really come down to a) how interested they are in doing well and b) whether they can see how what you are showing them will help them achieve this. I very much subscribe to the theory that library sessions relevant to what students are studying at that time are the best kind, and I made sure that I emphasised at the start of the session that the reason they were here was so that I could show them how to use the specific databases that their tutors wanted them to use for their forthcoming assignment, not just so I could show them general search techniques.
  • It’s OK to talk slowly! Knowing that I am prone to gabbling, I made a conscious effort in the first session to slow down and think about what I was saying. As the session progressed, I realised that this was fine! Yes, the students were sitting there, looking at me expectantly. But they weren’t about to start heckling me if I let a couple of seconds go by without speaking; what they were expecting was an informative and helpful session, however I chose to deliver that. By speaking slowly and thinking about things, I was able to give them clear explanations of what I was demonstrating. It also made me feel considerably more relaxed, and by the second session I was feeling completely happy and comfortable with what I was doing.
  • Don’t panic if you’re asked to perform a search that you haven’t practised! Yes, the reason we plan searches before teaching sessions is to enable us to demonstrate certain features of databases, or how to refine searches. But as I mentioned earlier, it is generally agreed that sessions that are relevant to what is being studied are the most effective and successful in engaging the students. This is also a chance to be really helpful; one student had tried a search for her topic in one of the databases already, and had found nothing. I was able to show her how she could use different keywords and refine the dates of her search, and we found some useful material. Also, most students understand that not every database will yield something for every search, and that you sometimes have to spend quite a bit of time refining or changing a search to find anything (this can even be the case with Google!), and so they won’t think you’re useless if you can’t produce a list of perfect, full-text search results, straightaway!
  • Analysing feedback can be really helpful. We ask students to fill out short evaluation forms at the end of every session. I was tasked with analysing the forms from my sessions and the other sessions that week. Although it can be time-consuming, I do think it’s worth sitting down and doing a content analysis of the feedback (even if it brings back memories of analysing dissertation data!), to work out how many people said what. Flicking through the forms, you might see lots of mentions of how useful learning search techniques was, but if you do a proper analysis, you might, for example, find out that the most commonly made comment within that was that they found learning about wildcards and truncation the most useful aspect of the class, which can inform future sessions. 
The feedback from my sessions was overwhelmingly positive, with many students saying that the databases had been clearly and effectively explained and demonstrated, which I was really pleased about due to my efforts to speak more slowly and not to gabble nervously. The students appeared to have found the session helpful for their work, which was really rewarding. I’m sure I will continue to learn more about teaching the more that I do it, and I really am looking forward to the next time.