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Developing your teaching skills
June 11th, 2012 by Honorary Editor

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by Natalie Bevan

Introduction

If you are a new library professional, or hoping to become one, it is possible you will be interested in some kind of educator role. In this role, you could be involved in training students in information skills; inducting new users on specific databases, referencing and bibliographic systems; giving tours of special collections; running library workshops – to name just a handful of the various tasks you could be involved in.

I attended a Career Development Group workshop on Developing Your Teaching Skills recently, which inspired this article. I was particularly interested in attending as there do not seem to be many workshops specifically about teaching for librarians. For me personally, this was one of the best training sessions I have ever attended and offered a lot of advice and ideas on teaching in practice, with the right blend of theory and practice that could be applied in the real world.

The course made me want to find out more about what tasks to expect and the types of roles you may find yourself in. I wanted to get an idea of what skills are being asked for and what is required for these tasks, and how professionals can develop these vital skills-sets.

Teaching or training?

‘I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only make them think.’ (Socrates)

In essence, teaching and training are, and have been for a long while, an integral part of what being an informational professional is all about. Training and teaching information retrieval and information literacy skills can be part of a dynamic and user-focused service. It is vital to the role we have in research support and customer care. It can be challenging and, in some cases, daunting to begin a training workshop or give a lecture for the first time. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding and satisfying aspects of the work, and incredibly good fun. That sense of achievement when you have been able to make a real difference to a person’s studies makes all those hours of painstaking lesson preparation worthwhile.

The contribution to teaching that librarians and information professionals are successfully undertaking is becoming more recognised by institutions, and this – in part – may be due to our own profession raising its profile and realising just how much teaching we are actually doing. In 2010, the Defining our Professional Future report commisssioned by CILIP found that 71% of respondents use training skills and 50% use teaching skills in their current roles (CILIP 2012, pp).

There is a fine line between teaching and training and it’s often blurred, and this article is not the place for such a broad discussion. In very simple terms, it seems acceptable to define ‘teaching’ as ensuring the student ‘knows’ something new – located in the broader educational context, conveying theories and concepts or facets of knowledge as well as facts and figures. ‘Training’ can be seen as ensuring the student can ‘do’ something new.

Often the work we do combines both teaching and training. Certain practices, such as learning how to use Endnote or Harvard referencing, can be seen as more traditionally ‘training’, but certain information literacy training is actually teaching, conveying major concepts in understanding information to enable users to effectively participate in the information society.

In our day-to-day work, it is easy to overlook just what we are actually doing but librarians are becoming increasingly proactive in showing just how much we have to offer in terms of delivering effective and necessary information skills. The key to advancing our profession and helping users in the 21st century, with all its information-overloaded confusion, is to actually help students and users to think; to ask questions and integrate information confidently and with awareness.

A core function of the profession is teaching to develop and learn mature literature searching strategies; to understand the limits and possibilities of online tools, and to guide and advise in order to support the development of independent information literacy skills. School librarians often have the crucial task of encouraging reading and a love of books in early years. These are vital skills for children and students to learn to integrate well into society. Librarians are doing this – on top of the traditional inductions, tours and group sessions, which are all just as vital.

People and learning

‘Twenty-first century librarians need to be outgoing people; they need to like people and empathise with the learning needs of their users, so they need to understand what learning is and what it might be.’ (Secker et al., 2007, pp.154)

Information professionals, by their very nature, enjoy engaging with people from all walks of life. We know how to empathise and communicate to assess information needs and provide the correct information and advice. From my own research and experience, it does seem to be that  librarians are effectively using more formal teaching skills and practices to deliver training sessions and ensure they are as productive as possible.

Information literacy is ‘a basic human right and an integral part of education for all….The creation of an Information Society is key to social, cultural and economic development of nations and communities, institutions and individuals in the 21st century and beyond’. (Walton & Pope, 2006, pp.3)

In 2006, Staffordshire University organised a national conference on the topic of information literacy. The findings of the conference recognised that the information profession cannot change users preference to ‘just Google it’ but we can adapt our responses and be proactive in our engagement with learning and teaching, through innovative online methods such as blogs, wikis, virtual learning environments (VLE’s), online tutorials and e-learning.

Some key concepts to come to terms with when devising training programmes are: recognising information needs, identifying sources and access, search strategies, locating and accessing content, comparing and evaluating, organising, applying, communicating, synthesising and adding new knowledge. It can be useful to be aware of some key education theories such as the Honey and Mumford model for learning styles. Good preparation for lessons; clear outcomes; a range of activities; using the appropriate media for the subject and level; knowing your students’ needs; and knowing your subject inside out are all vital for delivering good sessions.

Devising and undertaking information skills programmes are becoming an essential and central part of the information professional’s role. When devising a programme it is important to identify current user training needs. A survey is one way to gauge this. Many libraries have well-developed training programmes already in place but it is good practice to continually appraise and review your sessions and get feedback on what went well or not so well; what new areas could be considered; what areas are no longer as relevant and so on; do not be afraid to change if its right and appropriate for your trainees’ learning needs.

The survey – taking a snapshot

To help me find out more, I sent out a brief questionnaire, which I distributed on the jiscmail mailing lists LIS-LINK and LIS-CILIP-REG to try and gauge the current situation in its broad professional context and get a sense of what we are doing in practice in terms of delivering training and teaching sessions.

The respondents seemed to be mainly school and university librarians, which is reflected in the nature of some of the answers. The answers offer a snapshot of the sectors and the varied teaching and training involved.

Here is a brief summary of the key points:

Q.1: What specific activities are you involved in with regards to teaching and training information skills? E.g. inductions, workshops, guides, online tutorials. Please give details.

The responses to this question were incredibly varied, and undoubtedly reflected the key business of the particular respondent’s institution. It became quite evident fairly quickly that, although there are similarities, the activities undertaken for the needs of school libraries and those of university libraries are somewhat different.

Activities mentioned were specific to the demands of the particular age group and educational environment; this is natural and obvious but it is worth noting. School librarians tend to be more aware of the curriculum and linking it to training. School librarians are deeply involved in encouraging reading at an early stage; establishing good practice in terms of essay writing, plagiarism, searching and using online resources effectively, whereas university librarians are heavily involved in training on referencing systems and bibliographic software and advanced literature searching for graduate/postgraduate research.

Inductions, group sessions, workshops, 1:1 sessions, database training and formal lectures are all regularly undertaken. Training is not limited to library users only; many also train other library staff. Documentation and written guides are prepared both in print and online. The utilisation of VLEs and e-learning is evident, as is the use of multi-media such as video.

Q.2: Please explain what skills are required for these tasks? And how have you developed these skills to meet demand? E.g. formal training/qualifications/ ‘on-the-job’ learning.

The key skills highlighted by respondents were varied, with communication and presentational skills being by far the most common.

Other vital skills mentioned were:

  • behavioural management and discipline;
  • understanding how learners learn and level of ability;
  • teaching and training;
  • subject knowledge;
  • resource knowledge;
  • IT skills;
  • customer service;
  • observational;
  • facilitating;
  • evaluation;
  • marketing;
  • organising;
  • motivational;
  • time management;
  • and writing.

Other attributes such as sense of humour and empathy were also mentioned as important and relevant.

Again the responses to the second part of this question were varied. On-the-job training appears vital and by far the most common as a source of learning and updating core skills as is the support and advice of other colleagues. Valuable skills are learnt on the job and through years of experience.

What was also extremely interesting was the number of respondents who have undertaken formal qualifications, and who combine a variety of different qualifications to meet the demands of their role. Qualifications that respondents’ have or are working towards that are relevant to teaching include:

  • MA (with an educational element to it);
  • ECDL;
  • NVQ;
  • City and Guilds;
  • Train the Trainer sessions;
  • PgCE HE;
  • Academic Practice (PgCert);
  • HEA pathway certification;
  • Teaching Qualification in Further Education (TQFE);
  • Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector (PTILS);
  • e-learning qualifications;
  • SVQ qualifications;
  • and FHEA qualifications.

Some respondents also had backgrounds in education or previous educational experience.

Q.3: How important do you feel developing skills in these areas is for delivering a service, meeting users information needs, as well as your own career development?

There was a consensus that these skills are essential for developing a service and maintaining the relevance of the library, as well as keeping up to date with individual professional development. Delivering and supporting information literacy and skills was noted as the core business of the information sector and library activities.

Q.4: Please explain the learning styles and techniques you use to undertake your training sessions or learning activities.

The responses again were incredibly varied and no doubt depend very much on the institutional environment.
Styles and techniques highlighted included:

  • demonstrations;
  • presentations;
  • discussions;
  • workshops;
  • hands-on sessions;
  • active learning techniques;
  • practical exercises;
  • enquiry-based questions;
  • Q&A sessions;
  • FAQ’s sessions;
  • online testing;
  • show and tell;
  • use of quizzes;
  • group work;
  • online tasks and activities;
  • tours;
  • games;
  • Cephalonian Method;
  • real life searching examples;
  • videos.

The general consensus was that what techniques are used will depend very much on the level, subject and type of learning you are providing. Demonstrations and presentations balanced with real-life practical examples with appraisal and reflection in-built seem to be the key to developing styles and techniques. It is vital to adapt the styles and technique to the subject and level.

Respondents also noted that there are limits to what styles and techniques can be used, for example, space and time constraints, or lack of available resources and facilities.

The trend when inducting new students is to start with a presentation or demonstration and then follow this up with more practical skills-based workshop and hands-on techniques. The use of real life examples and basing the learning around the students’ subject or coursework is also seen as popular and beneficial.

Q.5: What technologies (if any) do you use for teaching and learning?

This is quite a broad question and what technology that information professionals use is in large part determined by the stipulations of the institution or working environment.

Common types of technology used for training and teaching mentioned included:

  • Microsoft Office;
  • Adobe Captivate;
  • virtual learning environments (VLEs)
  • laptops;
  • interactive smartboards;
  • whiteboards;
  • Web 2.0;
  • Twitter;
  • Facebook;
  • wikis;
  • Slideshare;
  • Prezi;
  • Vimeo;
  • LinkedIn;
  • and Youtube.

Voting handsets and the use of music and traffic light cards were also mentioned.

Q.6: Please give your opinion of teaching/training skills in the profession today, for example, how vital they are to the work of the service, what trends are you seeing, and how do you see teaching skills for information professionals developing in the future.

There was unanimous agreement that teaching and training skills are vital to today’s professional and indeed routine training such as inductions, and information skills sessions are seen generally as the norm and a core part of the service.

Teaching skills are being asked for more and more by employers and many information roles require a certain level of teaching awareness. It is expected that these requirements will grow over time.

There was general agreement that keeping up to date with changes in technology will keep libraries relevant and dynamic. The opportunity to develop core support to research by developing teaching in research skills will add value to the student experience.

The high levels of online resources that are available are seen as a key aspect in requiring information experts to be adept at these technologies. Information experts are required to provide this essential training / teaching to students to navigate the vast amount of e-resources and tools.

Issues that may affect the level of effectiveness of teaching information skills as part of the library service were highlighted as time-constraints i.e. in learning new techniques, subjects and resources. The need to forge collaborative and positive relationships with academic staff and study centres to ensure sessions are compulsory in students’ timetables was also raised as a key issue.
Trends highlighted were the move to mobile technologies in order to be more flexible in meeting user needs, and the development of e-learning routes.

There was recognition that different techniques and styles are required for different roles and tasks, levels and abilities. For example certain staff may provide teaching information retrieval skills while others focus on teaching information literacy and critical appraisal skills.
There was an evident need on behalf of the profession to have more available and appropriate courses and formal qualifications accessible geared to staff working in information and recognising the important part played in teaching. Respondents felt that, in the long term, postgraduate library courses should include an element of advanced teaching and training practice and theory.

Conclusion

Teaching is increasingly becoming a vital element of information work. It’s evident that, in many roles, teaching activities are an integral part. Looking back at 2006 and the recommendations of the Staffordshire University conference, it is heartening to see that the profession is actively developing creative and innovative teaching techniques.

There are other formal qualifications that may be of benefit to your professional development such as a PTILS. There are some great new innovations available to get involved in, for example, Librarian TeachMeets are becoming increasingly popular and effective in sharing advice and ideas. There are also websites, research projects and blogs created by professionals working in this area that offer advice in developing these skills. For example, the project Bridging the Divide: information literacy the forgotten link  is one such project that is looking at the developments in information literacy teaching/training in order to provide the right kind of support as learners move through education and into work.

However, I would say that the best source of learning has got to be on-the-job experience; practice, practice, practice.  Don’t be put off or feel daunted by one bad experience. It is a learning experience in itself for you too. Be enthusiastic and creative and it will pay dividends.

Resources

Bridging the Divide: information literacy the forgotten link:
http://bridgingthedivide.webeden.co.uk

Cambridge Librarian Teach Meet website:
http://www.camlibtm.info

Career Development Group workshop Developing Your Teaching Skills slides and write up:
www.facebook.com/CdgEoeTeachingSkillsEvent?filter=1

References

CILIP (2011) Defining our Professional Future. [Online]. Available at: www.cilip.org.uk/about-us/cilipfuture/pages/default.aspx
Secker, J et al. (2007) The information literacy cookbook: ingredients, recipes and tips for success. London: Facet
Walton, G & Pope, A. (2006) Information literacy: recognising the need. London: Facet


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