Designing a Better Library Learning Experience

Librarians are educators. We may be instructing more formally in the classroom or less formally in our offices, at a service desk or somewhere on campus, but for most practicing librarians the work often revolves around creating learning experiences for others. The nature of the work presents us with opportunities to design learning activities, but teachable moments can present themselves at almost any point in the day. Those unexpected situations may be less designful, but some of the same principles for a good learning experience can apply in either formal or informal settings.

Those who educate and take it seriously will always be wanting to improve their ability to connect with students and effectively deliver transformative knowledge. Doing this well takes time and experience, and a desire to learn how to be a good educator. The resources to help in this endeavor are many and diversified. For librarians, the path to delivering the best possible learning experiences may begin in a classroom learning pedagogy (e.g. “learning is a persistent change in behavior”) or by being thrown into a classroom with a teaching assignment. Along the way one picks up a sense of what works, and some core beliefs about effective approaches (e.g., “deep learning is the result of authentic practice”). Along the way we add to our educator’s skill set – and our teaching philosophy – in many ways.

For example, I attended a lecture by Ken Bain (What the Best College Teachers Do) where I learned that a technique as simple as asking good questions can motivate learners. You need to regularly learn from other educators. To do that I also regularly read The Teaching Professor, which has great personal advice for all kinds of learning situations. It also has summaries of the latest research on learning at the college level (our Library offers a campus site license so all faculty can use this resource). Most of the reading I do on learning is from non-library literature, but there are occasional good articles in the library literature on learning – it is certainly worth paying attention.

Librarians working at institutions with a college of education also have access to a valuable source of learning resources – the many books published on learning and educator skills. I am currently doing all the selection in the field of education at MPOW (only until we fill a position in the next few months), and I skim many of these books to check the quality and value of our acquisitions in this discipline. That leads to too many books worth reading, but I try to pick up as many ideas and techniques as I can in the hope I will improve my teaching – all aimed at delivering a better learning experience.

Allow me to offer an example from a book titled “It’s All About People Skills“. This one caught my eye, and a quick skim revealed it contained potentially good advice in a fairly simple, practitioner-oriented style. There’s nothing particularly earth-shaking here and no deep theory is offered, but it’s a reminder that some simple people skills can often make a difference in the quality of the experience – particularly as a reminder that learning is about the learner – not the teacher – and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to create a better experience.

The point is that you can have the best knowledge of the subject, be well versed in pedagogy, and have great technology competency, but if as an educator you fail on interpersonal skills, your ability to connect with learners is greatly compromised. Here are the key points that I have drawn from this book on people skills that good teachers exhibit:

* Like the students: Never assume all educators like their students. If you don’t genuinely enjoy being around the students and caring about their education, it doesn’t matter how great the rest of your people skills are. If you do like them, it helps to show it.

* Be a good listener: Sounds obvious but an educator may get so wrapped up in their teaching, their lesson plan, their outcomes…that they forget to pay attention to the students.

* Be patient: It becomes increasingly more challenging as one gets older, [and that’s just a personal observation – not an ageist remark] has spent more years in the classroom and feels less able to cope with the demands of keeping evermore distracted students engaged. Always remind yourself this is the learner’s first time, and of all the challenges that go along with being new to something. Maintain your inner strength as you strive for patience.

* Have a sense of humor: It’s often best applied an an unplanned occurrence. Trying to force usually fails. Used appropriately it never fails to work in getting students to open up to what you have to offer.

* Use common sense: It helps to be practical. Good teachers know what to do in any given situation. It also means being mindful and making good thoughtful decisions in the classroom.

* Be flexible: Whatever you might have planned for the class, the odds are that something unpredictable will happen. If something good breaks out, try going with it even if it might mean not covering all the content.

* Show you are confident: Remember that no one in the room knows as much as you do about the content. Letting the students know you take the class seriously will build their confidence in your ability to deliver a good learning experience.

* Admit your mistakes: None of us is perfect in the classroom. If you get something wrong or a student points out an error, just be honest – accept the responsibility for your error. Trying to cover it up, making excuses or blaming it on the technology always makes things worse.

* Be approachable: A librarian’s instruction activity is as much about building relationships as it is about teaching new skills. Be the kind of instructor that students will feel comfortable with when they need individualized assistance.

* Use body language effectively: Use more than just your voice to communicate. Make sure your passion comes through in your gestures. In short, get out from behind the lectern.

* Be empathetic: This might be the most important people skill of all for an educator. It’s easy to forget how challenging 21st century research can be. Endeavor to put yourself in the place of your students, and see things from their perspective.

As DBL has discussed in the past, great experiences can be more than big moments, exciting places and highly unique events. It can simply be about a class where the library instructor effectively employs people skills. Under the right conditions those engaged in the experience feel that something different and worthwhile has happened – something they would look forward to experiencing again. Simple people skills, applied well in and beyond the classroom, can lead to a better experience. I hope this post will get you thinking about your basic people skills, and approach them as a checklist that you can use to remind yourself that these all too obvious skills are too often overlooked as we focus on the latest gadgets and theories. As with many other things, design can play a significant role in improving the quality of the user experience. The classroom should be no different.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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