Posted by: Maria | September 17, 2008

trying non-demo instruction, and why is change so hard?

In a previous post and its comments, I talked about the impact of the internet on thinking, reading, and learning.  In one comment, I said:

I wonder what would happen if I merely pointed out the links to IUCAT and Academic Search Premier and then gave them the exercise, skipping the demo altogether? They would probably struggle a little bit, but that place where they struggle is an opportunity to learn, right?

Well, now that the fall semester is well underway, I’ve had the chance to try this.  And I’ve tried it exactly once.  Something happens to me when I start teaching–I almost go on autopilot.  I don’t mean to suggest that I am a robot and that I’m completely disengaged and disconnected to my students.  No, I’m pretty tuned into what’s going on around me.  It’s more like I have an internal script of some kind that kicks in once I get in front of a classroom.

But during one class I made a concerted effort to deviate from my internal script and give this non-demo teaching thing a try.  What I did was this:  I showed students how to get to the catalog and a few databases from the library homepage by pointing out the links on the projected screen in front of the room.  And then I said something like:  “Okay, row one, go to X database and look for Y.  Row two, go to Z database and look for Y.”  And so on.

Yes, students struggled.  Those who weren’t paying close attention, or those who didn’t find my quick “go here, here, here” directions to be helpful, were searching in IUCAT when I told them to go to Academic Search Premier, or they raised their hands to say, “How do I get to that thing again?”  But navigational difficulties aside, this non-demo thing worked.  After letting them search for around ten minutes or so, I called on students at random and asked them what they did, what kind of results they got, why they think they got those results, and how they can determine whether those results would fulfill their information need.  Based on the students’ responses, I could tell that once they got to the database, they were able to figure out some basic searching techniques on their own.  They knew enough about how to interact with a web page to understand what they needed to do a search and get results.

So, it worked, basically.  It was a successful experiment.  Students did what I hoped they would do, and maybe they even learned something.  The question now, though, is why don’t I do this in every class?  Why am I so stuck to my script?  Why is it so hard to do something different, even when we know that that different thing might be a good thing?



  1. What was the Y that you asked them for?

    I’m in school again myself, with books and a pencil case and everything, and am finding working in a small group to be pretty great. My prof. counts us off and then makes us move around the room to get together with each other. What do you think of that strategy?

  2. I am a proponent of group work. The zone of proximal development and all that. I sometimes pair students up and make them do searching together and answer questions together.

    The Y I asked them to search was…I don’t remember now. I think I asked them to find articles using the keywords we had brainstormed on the board earlier.

  3. Our learning style can say a lot about our default teaching style. If you learn well from lecture-and-demo (and most of us in academia do, since that is the traditional teaching style and we had to learn well with this style in order to be successful), then it feels most natural to stand at the front of the class and talk, point, and click. Even when I see students disengaging, I just keep talking. But trusting them to discover things on their own (with a nicely designed set of instructions and expectations) can be very liberating. We get to talk less and the students actually learn more. Good for you!

  4. I’m so proud of you for going ahead & trying the no-demo class. And I’m so happy it worked out well!

    I almost always have students pair up or get into really small (3-4 person) groups — in part for the proximal development bit, but mostly because I don’t want anyone to panic!

    So far (this term), I haven’t had a class in which to try this out…I’m hoping to do so with one or more of the first-year writing classes. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  5. […] | Tags: library instruction |   Inspired by an internetlibrarianfriend’s attempt at non-demo instruction, which, in turn, was inspired by an exercise in this book, I tried something new in a class last […]

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