Posted by: Emily | October 1, 2009

Teaching less is teaching more

I had the same professor, same class, back to back this week. Two groups of English 14 students. Our coordinator of instruction worked with the director of the writing program to develop a very narrow instruction outcome: Teach students to move from the citation to the full text of the article.

This is an important skill that nobody has. It’s concrete, and should be fairly easy to teach and then practice. In the first session, only a few students found the assigned article, no trouble, and the rest had to be walked through it one by one, even after my extend-o demo. In the second session, everybody found the article on the first try, and I was left with half an hour of empty time to fill talking about our library Facebook page and hey, how great does Mark Sanchez look. So, what was the difference?

I think it had to do with teaching a very small thing, and nothing else. In the first session, I did what I always do–I opened up the catalog and looked at the database pages and discussed briefly what wonders lay in store and only after that introduction did I go to our “find journals by title” page and start talking about the difference between a journal title and an article title. While teaching the difference between catalogs and databases is part of my goal in most classrooms, it isn’t part of the goal in English 14. Introducing those parts of the library website outside of any context that required their use seemed to just make things more confusing. Students tried searching in the catalog and the databases, I guess because they’d seen them. In the second class, I told the students that while there are many wonderful things on the website that I was itching to talk about with them because the library is just so exciting. But all that excitement has to wait until they come back next time. Instead, we were going to learn only about a single link on the library homepage. When we broke for the exercise, everybody clicked that link and found the article in no time.

Of course, I’m still not sure what I think about the exercise itself. I continue to be suspicious of tool-based instruction that’s de-linked from actual research scenarios. (Sure, the students need the article to bring to class next Tuesday, but I’m sure they can tell that the mandate is an artificial one.) I wonder how I’d find out if the students ever use this skill again. But next time I want to teach one and only one skill, I’ll focus my teaching on the picture, and leave out the rest of the frame.

*These are mostly first year students whose diagnostics place them just under English 16, the standard freshman comp. They have to produce portfolios in 14 that will be assessed by outside readers before being placed into 16. They must pass 16 to graduate.



  1. […] Teaching less is teaching more […]

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