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Megan Fitzgibbons

Former liaison librarian, McLennan Library

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

As a librarian in the social sciences, my teaching role is to give workshops and presentations for specific courses and to help students and researchers develop skills for finding information. So I engage learners in different ways depending on their background. For the class presentations, for instance, I’ll prompt students to share the knowledge they already have with question-and-answer sessions, or I’ll have a student control the presentation computer in my place, or I’ll ask them to tell me where to click and what to type when I’m asked to give a database demonstration. While it’s tempting to just show students where to click, the key to engaging them, regardless of background, is to get them to discover what the gaps in their understanding are because only then do they really get engaged and motivated to keep learning.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

I don’t have an opportunity for summative assessment in any of my courses. I do try to do some amount of formative feedback though, especially when it is a hands-on workshop in the library where the students have their own computers and they’re doing exercises. For example, I really try to make the situation as authentic as possible by having them search a given topic, then going over the results with them and assessing why some got 5000 results and others five. I find that letting them figure out their mistakes by building in practice time like this is much more effective than just giving them the answers.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

What I hope students get out of the workshops is the understanding that this is just the start of learning information skills and learning about the library. I don’t just show them tools, I show them what they need to do to further their learning. It takes time to really develop research skills, but there are strategies they can learn, and although I can’t cover them all, I can spark an awareness of what the tools and strategies are—for the discipline in question, but hopefully beyond that as well. So even though they’re coming to learn quick tips, they come away knowing not just how much more there is, but that help is available—from librarians, from readings, and from understanding how information is organized.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

I teach students strategies to “think like scholars,” that is, to look for more than just footnote material, to think beyond the quickest route to their course requirements. They need to see what the issues are, what questions researchers are asking, what sources can address those questions. Because experts have already marked the trail, a lot can be learned by following their paths through the literature. Students also need to learn the vocabulary of their disciplines, the nature of research, of peer review, and so on because it’s not just a question of “good” or “bad” information. “Scholarly journals,” for instance, are only a genre of information—it doesn’t automatically solve this problem of good or bad. So we need to learn how to evaluate information and evaluate its authors, their analyses and their motivations.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

Librarians often feel like we only have this one workshop to teach students everything, but meaningful learning isn’t about transferring information from one person’s head to another. Instead, focused workshops, where we’re inspiring students to see what’s out there and to recognize the gaps in their knowledge, are much more likely to build students’ motivation to follow up. So the main challenge is to assess students’ abilities and to make the material meaningful in a way that motivates them.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

For those students who come in thinking “I already know all of this,” I would recommend they keep an open mind and that they be aware that there are lots of tools and techniques available. For those who feel limited by their lack of knowledge, they should know that it doesn’t matter what level of knowledge they’re starting from because there are tools and people out there to help. And all students need to understand that research is hard work:  that’s why there are librarians and that’s why it takes so long to do a PhD. But although it’s challenging, there are clues and strategies for entering into this larger world of information. I think the last thing they have to keep in mind is that they have to actually read what they find to know what the authors are really saying, to know if it’s relevant.

Why do you teach?

It’s not always obvious to others, but librarians are also teachers. So I teach partly because it’s my job, and I want students to become self-sufficient. But also, I believe that to be effective librarians, to be part of the educational enterprise, we have to view education as the process of lighting lamps, not of filling vessels. It may be a cliché, but education is about inspiring students, and librarians have an important and unique role in that, in terms of opening up the world to students’ own thinking and academic pursuits. In a personal sense, I also find it very rewarding to work with students. Since I usually don’t have a background in their subjects of study, I learn from them, too. I’m fascinated by what they’re working on, and I love helping them discover a new world of information.