Posted by: Emily | October 21, 2008

Some things are harder than they look

So I tried something new in class last night. Instead of giving my thirty minute website-walkthrough and then breaking for some very directed searching practice, I walked us through an exercise in structuring a research plan before getting started. I had these handouts, and we walked through them one by one.

So I talked a little about how to generate a research topic by thinking about what’s most interesting and compelling to you in the course material. I broadcast the slide in the front of the room on our SmartBoard (not so smart–I could not get those pens to work! bring back the whiteboard! or chalkboard, even!) and wrote in an example topic on the first slide:  Women’s rights in Cuba in historical perspective. The rest of the handouts/exercises were built on this first one that required students to formulate a question. It didn’t work. The vast majority of students looked at the white space and blanched (and upon reflection, I actually do that a lot too), and most of them didn’t write anything down at all. And then I thought about how rarely students are asked to articulate something of authentic or genuine interest to themselves, especially in this age of No Child Left Behind. It’s actually not an easy thing to do at all. So I ended up losing to total confusion about half or even two thirds of the class.

I was fundamentally happy, though, with this talk-about-the-research-process approach. When I did finally turn the class over to open searching, every single student (except those who took the opportunity to leave the lab to “go to the bathroom”) was actually searching a database. I didn’t see anybody Facebooking or even checking email. I think structuring the class so students were engaged in a thinking process from the get-go was a good idea, and I will for sure do that again. I’m thinking next time, though, I’ll generate a few examples of topics for students to choose from for that first slide, so we all at least have something to work on for the remainder of the class.


What do you think?



  1. I think it is better to engage students. Trying something new at first doesn’t always work, but it lets you think about how to do it better.

    The concept is solid and you are getting the students thought process to work instead of having them space out during your class.

  2. I’ve long been afraid of new things, Jeff, but am jumping in feet-first this semester– It’s a new job for me, so I figure I may as well make everything new! And it’s good to have this blog as a place to reflect on my practice.

    What’s been totally important to me has been consenting to fail in brand new ways while I try out brand new classroom strategies. My standard lecture format always fails but makes me feel safe, because I know how the session will go wrong–students will space out, fall asleep, etc. No surprises there! Letting my classroom struggle and sometimes fall apart in brand new ways–while risking success at the same time!–has been fruitful so far.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Library Praxis…meet Pegasus Librarian. Your compatriot here in MN, who is also dealing with Rethinking Library Instruction

  4. Thanks, Karen! Into the googlereader it goes!

  5. […] of working through the five-screen handout like I did last week, I distilled it down into a single handout that asked students to articulate their research topic […]

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