Teaching Methods Used in Library School

Editor’s note: This article was first published on January 27, 2012.

Since I was a high school teacher before I started library school, I’m finding it really hard to switch off my “teacher brain” even well into my second semester. This makes sense, considering that I want to become a teacher-librarian. However, it has also had an unintended side effect: I spend all of my time in class imagining how I would teach the course.

Hopefully this is the universe’s way of telling me that yes, school librarianship is my ultimate purpose here on earth. But it’s also led me to give a lot of thought to the teaching methods used in library school, not to mention experience a lot of frustration when those methods are antiquated. Librarianship is a field that lends itself naturally to self-directed inquiry, collaboration, innovation, and interactive, Web 2.0 styles of thinking. So I was dismayed to discover that while these terms are used a lot in library school, the format of my courses is based on a much older model of education where students acquire knowledge through rote learning and memorization.

To me, learning does not mean remembering stuff that you can regurgitate later. As award-winning educator Sir Ken Robinson points out, this model may have been useful in the Industrial Age where workers on assembly lines specialized in specific, repetitious tasks, but it does not serve 21st century purposes. The day-to-day realities of librarianship require “transferable skills”, such as the ability to collaborate with others, solve complex problems, deal effectively with patrons, and manage resources – the very skills that make an MLIS so flexible and useful.

Now, to a point, it’s our own responsibility to make sure that we acquire these skills. An MLIS is a packaged educational commodity that by virtue of its flexibility cannot be “one size fits all.” If our programs don’t suit our needs exactly then it should be our responsibility to hack them until they do. That’s why Hack Library School exists, after all! But at the same time, the library schools that provide this commodity also have a responsibility to ensure that their curricula strive to reflect the current demands of the profession.

I’d like to open up a dialogue with all of Hack’s loyal readers about teaching methods used in library school. My experience is limited only to my own program, and I am certainly not a professor. But nonetheless, I have strong feelings about this topic, as well as some ideas that might be effective. I’d also like to hear from you about aspects of your programs’ pedagogies that have worked especially well for you – or haven’t. So, without further ado…

Powerpoint Killed the Lecture Star

Now, I hate to bash the lecture format because I enjoyed lectures immensely during my undergrad and I still think that a well-delivered lecture is a thing of beauty. However, I did my undergrad in the days before students were checking Facebook and texting all through class. Not to mention the rise of Powerpoint, which in my opinion has had a disastrous effect on the lecture format.

Although Powerpoint has a lot of potential to augment lectures if used creatively, I can attest from my teaching days that it becomes all too easy to use it as a crutch. Instructors simply plug in their content and recite it word for word…and wonder why their students are playing Tetris on their iPhones. Another pitfall is that many instructors have a tendency to load Powerpoint slides with down with huge blocks of text. When students see this, they don’t read it, they just disengage.

Powerpoint also takes away all impetus for students to take their own notes; what’s the point of copying out a Powerpoint when the prof’s just going to upload it to Web CT anyway? But as it turns out, when students write notes by hand, they better retain the content. There’s something about the physical connection of hand to pen to paper.

An effective Powerpoint presentation uses minimal text (only for key points) and images that are relevant to the content. If a slide with a block of text is absolutely necessary, intersperse it with slides that have very little text to ensure variety. An instructor should then use the Powerpoint only as a jumping off point. I used to try to make my own presentations as bare bones as possible and just riff on them. Not having everything on the Powerpoint forced me to stay fresh and spontaneous in my speech. It also had the added benefit of making students pay attention to my voice (not just the screen) to get that necessary information.

Besides, why use Powerpoint at all? There are other, more engaging tools out there, like Prezi! And, low tech though it may be, sometimes a good old-fashioned whiteboard allows for the most spontaneity of all.

Length of the Lecture, Length of the Lab

Again, I can only speak to my program, but many of my courses last semester were structured so that we had two or three hours of lecture followed by an hour of lab work during which we were expected to apply the lecture’s principles. Although the professor would cover the important points in the lecture, I usually zoned out about halfway through – and I wasn’t the only one. Combine sitting for hours at a time with information overload, and you’ve got yourself a perfect recipe for student boredom. By the time I got to the lab, I was often stupefied – and lost. I figured it out in the end, but only after going back and teaching myself what I needed to know.

In the educational field, new developments in brain based learning show that students do better in subjects they struggle with when they do physical activity prior to studying those subjects. Obviously I do not expect a professor to install treadmills in the classroom, but it is easy to build simple causes for movement into a lesson. One way to do this would be to integrate the lecture and lab. Lecture a little, let the students try it out, lecture a little more, let the students try that out. Let them talk to each other as they work to figure it out together. That not only gives the students a chance to move around, it will help them to retain information and encourages them to collaborate, a skill they are going to need far more than the ability to memorize.

Which brings me to my last point: assessment.

“Congratulations Batch of 2013!”

As Jeff Jarvis points out in his Ted Talk, another issue with lectures is that they are very much based on the industrial model: “Turning out students all the same, convincing them that there is one right answer — and that answer springs from the lectern.”

When planning assessments, instructors need to take a step back and ensure that their assessments are meaningful. Are they assessing students in a way that measures their ability to do the interactive, collaborative work that lies ahead of them…or are they just looking for the “right answer?”

For example, there is no call for students to memorize facts and dates for a final exam in Reference Services that is closed book. If students do eventually become reference librarians, it will be highly unlikely that they will ever be in a situation where they can’t consult outside sources, check the Web, or ask another librarian for help when they are stuck. So why create an artificial test-taking environment completely divorced from a real-life context? Mostly because it adheres to the industrial model of education. An exam room of students all churning out the same exam answers bears a strong resemblance to an assembly line of workers all turning out the same product.

But what do such exams actually assess? Only a student’s ability to memorize and regurgitate. There are far better ways to tell if students know how to come up with creative, innovative answers to reference queries. Scrapping midterms and exams in favour of project-based instruction is one option. Or, if there must be an exam, make it a take-home exam. That way, it is the student’s process rather than their product that is assessed.

To Wrap Up…

Library schools aren’t the only ones trying to cope. Educators at the pre-school through graduate school levels are all trying to figure out how to address the issue of outdated educational paradigms. But in library school more so than in other contexts I have seen an antiquated system struggling, and often failing, to address 21st century educational needs. Fortunately, I have also seen library students taking the initiative to fill in the gaps and learn what they need to know. We can take it upon ourselves to create new methods of best practice in librarianship and information literacy instruction.

I’d love to hear from you. Which aspects of library school instruction have worked well for you in your own programs? Which haven’t? Feel free to respond in comments or tweet me at laurainthelib. Until then…happy hacking!

19 replies

  1. Hello, this was a very interesting post. I have to add that my experience so far in library school has been very different. I attend school in an online environment (not my first choice, but what was do-able)…so I am sure this effects greatly the differences in program. If I was going to write an article like this, it would be totally the opposite. I often feel that it is left up to me to learn on my own things that one would assume a teacher would actually teach. Often times, I don’t even get a preferred standard for projects (literature reviews, reader’s advisory, abstracts, etc.).

    This is good and bad. I have to admit I think I learn more when I self-educate, but then what’s the point of being in school?

    Thank you for posting, it’s great to see all the variety in programs out there!


  2. hm I guess it depends on your program. Sure I definitely had some boring classes that followed the old teaching paradigm of “banking” knowledge acquisition. Within the program it also seemed to vary by professor.

    But by that same token I had some classes that definitely lived up to the buzzwords. Tons of collaborative projects, including a collaboratively written and researched journal article. For one class we wrote our own grading rubric and then later designed 2 class sessions. I only ever had one class that did “exams”. We created websites coded for real clients merging in academic service learning. Many classes had short lectures and lots of discussion. Many students also took self directed internships or designed their own courses and worked individually with a librarian.


  3. Wow! 3 hours and then a lab, I would be zoning out too. I agree with Megan that an online experience is mostly the opposite — though I have had one class where the professor read her (ugly) PPT slides to us for the most part – but there was still more interaction and live research then it seems like you are getting in your lectures. I think the most troubling point you made was about the testing environment: not only should tests be cognizant of the ability to google information, they should incorporate it. Like you said, learning and knowing process and best methods is what is important – especially as application is going to vary widely.
    But first: Down with ugly, senseless PPT!


  4. I wonder how other online students feel–for me I think teaching methods are as important as course structure in an online setting. I think the bottom line is that the status quo will no longer do. As our libraries shift our education (methods and format) must shift as well. Thanks for a great post.


    • It seems to me that Canadian library schools are extremely hesitant about online courses and programs, as I am not aware of any that are moving in that direction. Personally, I prefer courses in real time (that’s just me, though…I understand that online courses fit others better). One advantage I think that online courses have is that they require teachers and students to alter their methods.


  5. I’ll stand up for in-person classes. I’ve never taken a library science test, I’m surprised that such a thing even exists! I love a well done lecture, sure a few of my classes had boring lectures. But pretty much ever single one of my in-person classes included discussion, problem-based learning, and other interactive modes of teaching. Most assessment was done through creative and collaborative group projects including building a digital library, re-designing information architecture, writing a quantitative journal article. This experience not only taught me the transferable skills you talk about, but also left me with presentable portfolio for finding a job.


    • Agreed, Alex. I think lectures definitely still have a place in education, because sometimes the teacher does have to communicate information to the entire class. But that should be done to augment the types of collaborative projects you mentioned, not stand in place of them.


  6. Great post, Laura! One of my teachers has a learner-centered philosophy of teaching in which she understands that rote memorization is not the way to learn anything. The students must synthesize the material into their thinking and when they can express it and discuss it fluently, then and only then have they truly learned it. She also understands that assignments aren’t one size fits all. She gives a rough outline and guidelines for assignments, but allows the students to make it what they want based on how they learn. I appreciate this approach.


    • Thanks, Chris! My teaching philosophy sounds similar to the teacher you mentioned. Memorization is not always bad (how would you learn a second language, for example, if you didn’t memorize vocabulary?) but it should be just one tool in a massive toolbox, not the only tool!


      • I don’t even think memorization works well for learning another language. The best way to learn a language is to be immersed it and just pick it up. Remember how we learned English when we were young, we didn’t memorize, we just picked it up. Then, later in school, we went back and learned all the rules (grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc) that backed it up. That’s the best way to learn a second language, too, but we go about it backwards.


        • I can’t say I agree entirely. After years of teaching English to second language learners combined with even more years of studying French and Korean, I’ve learned that memorization is a useful and necessary tool. (That comes with the caveat that it MUST be used with other tools.) The brains of small children are wired to pick up languages, but by the time you become a teenager or an adult, that ability has been lost. Second language acquisition must then become more explicit and deliberate.
          Now, there’s a lot you can learn from being tossed into an immersion situation, and that’s the best way to learn. But most people (and I can say this after meeting hundreds of foreigners who have lived in Korea immersed in Korean for years but can barely order in a restaurant) require formal grammatical instruction to understand the structure of the language. After you are taught these things, sooner or later you will come across something that just doesn’t stick in your brain, like verb conjugaison patterns, irregular verbs, difficult pronunciations, etc. So you just have to sit down and drill them. For situations like these, rote memorization and repetition are invaluable. HOWEVER, after you’ve hammered them in, you need to make sure that you go out and use them frequently enough that you can actually learn to apply them to a real-life context.
          That’s what I mean about memorization being one tool among many. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it shouldn’t be the backbone of education and it does not lead to student engagement. (It also leads to situations experienced by my Korean students, some of whom could recite to me the definitions dozens of hundred dollar SAT words but couldn’t use them in a sentence.)


  7. I agree with your comment about “teacher brain.” Once you have been trained as a teacher your brain has a hard time turning that filter off. Everything I have learned in my MLS courses, I relate to my school and students. I always try to think of ways to incorporate what I am learning into my services and lessons as a new media specialist. As for your experiences in library school, how sad! Library school should not be one of memorization and typical exams. Aren’t we in the business of learning skills to share/teach/assist/our patrons? How can you test a skill with a traditional exam? My experiences in an online program thus far have consisted of meaningful projects and collaborations. I feel very lucky! Thanks for sharing!


  8. Nice post! Totally agree as I was a high school teacher too. My experience of library school really depended on the instructor. I had some great ones who, as you suggested, combined lecture and discussions/exercises/etc., while others provided boring lectures with everything already on powerpoint. I definitely think that some material is best presented as lectures or at least, talks, but definitely the most interesting ones were ones with either no powerpoint or primarily images to provide visual aids in support of the lecture.

    Thankfully, we never had any exams, so at the very least assessment were either paper or project based (in which case I tended to choose courses with project based assessment). I was shocked to learn that there were exams at other schools!


  9. I like this post and it’s full of ideas and concepts to with which to engage, but I have a more specific question. It is in reference to the statement (and link) “…when students write notes by hand, they better retain the content. There’s something about the physical connection of hand to pen to paper.”

    Do you know what the connection is for typing notes? As more and more people carry around some sort of mobile device, does the typing of notes work the same way as taking notes by hand?


  10. This is just my own experience, but after three years of teaching at a 1:1 laptop school where students were constantly typing, I’d say that no, it doesn’t have the same effect on long term memory. When I allowed students to type their notes out, they just didn’t retain as much as when I had them write notes out by hand. There’s something about holding that pen!


  11. Good post. In my first semester, I took two library classes and one lit course, and each class was 3 hours long. One class was almost all powerpoint, though it had a teacher who at least would make funny comments and things to break it up. The other one, reference, was better because powerpoints just bulletpointed and led us to websites, databases, etc. I think it’s just important that library classes really break things up and not rely on only one teaching method.


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