Teaching as Learning and Exploration

Written by Jennifer Schnabel, Assistant Professor and English Librarian


The Teaching & Learning Committee is excited to host a showcase and discussion on December 5. Three OSUL librarians will reflect on their approaches to teaching in a variety of roles and environments and brainstorm new strategies as we prepare for next year. Others will share lightning talks with the group.

In preparation for the presentations on our individual teaching methods as librarians, we met over coffee to identify a common thread that might inspire a robust group discussion. A clear theme emerged: “Teaching as Learning and Exploration.”

Jane Hammons, Teaching and Learning Engagement Librarian, shared Annie Armstrong’s article about the ACRL Framework and lifelong learning of teaching librarians (citation and link below). Using this piece as a springboard, Jane will talk about how specific frames, such as “Research as Inquiry” and “Scholarship as Conversation,” can inform how librarians view themselves as experts in specific areas while exploring new strategies, however experimental, to engage students.

Courtney Hunt, Art and Design Librarian, will share how she has used object-based learning and informal lesson planning with disciplinary instructors to facilitate student interactions with unique materials such as artists books. These consultations and sessions have led to collaborative class projects and informed studio and design practices. By remaining flexible and valuing her role as facilitator, Courtney has been able to leverage resources at the Fine Arts Library to spark innovative teaching and research in her liaison areas.

Jennifer Schnabel, English Librarian, will discuss how librarians can partner with disciplinary faculty to design project-based learning assignments such as web sites or physical exhibits. Students appreciate that their research and critical analyses will be visible to audiences beyond the classroom; instructors view the class project as a tangible representation of a collective learning experience. By collaborating with other experts in the library and acquiring new skills, such as facilitating a multimodal project, Jennifer supports teaching and learning beyond the one-shot instruction session while exploring methods of scholarly communication to reimagine the traditional research paper assignment.

Librarians who teach: when have you taken a risk in the classroom? What did you learn? Let us know in the comments below.


Armstrong, A. (2019). New models for instruction: Fusing the ACRL Framework and Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians to promote the lifelong learning of teaching librarians. College & Research Libraries News, 80(7), 378


Inclusive Teaching in the Library

By Pamela Espinosa de los Monteros, the Latin American Studies librarian and assistant professor at The Ohio State University

In 2019, Ohio State welcomed its most demographically diverse class to-date. Each student will arrive in our classroom with uniquely formative experiences that are a product of their past education, professional and personal experiences, access or lack of access to educational resources, as well as the domestic or global communities that have shaped them.

Designing for a diverse classroom can present itself as an intimidating task. As librarians and instructors, we are responsible for developing curriculum that will be inclusive and effective for each student. The demographic shifts in higher education and the universal use of the library well position librarians to experiment and model inclusive teaching practices. But how does one go about customizing curriculum to meet the needs of diverse students? Below is a short list of suggestions to consider when designing library instructional sessions.

1.) Schedule a planning session with the faculty or instructor to find out more information about the students. In addition to discussing instructional learning objectives or the specifics of a course assignment, use this time to gather information about the students. Inquire about any special populations that may be in the course (e.g. non-traditional students, first-generation, international students, etc.). Has a student disclosed a learning disability that you should be aware of? Are the students highly engaged or relatively quiet? How are students used to receiving instruction and information? Having a better idea about your target audience will help you to select the appropriate instructional style and tools to use.

2.) Design for different styles of participation. Have you designed different ways for students to contribute, digest and share what they are learning? Consider cultural and physical factors that may contribute or hinder a student’s willingness to respond to a standard open-ended question. Are there other ways to engage students (with or without technology) such as through small group discussion or individual reflections that will maximize student participation? Make sure your communication and directions also speak to different learning styles.

3.) Review the visuals, examples, and language that you are using in your instructional session. Does your selection of visual materials assist or potentially impair your examples? Are your visuals or examples clear to a global audience and will they be appealing to your target student demographic? Are you including metaphors, references to U.S. pop-culture, or using regional slang that can be understood by a global audience? Do your slides need captions, definitions, translations, or decoding to help contextualize or fill in information that some students may not have. Test your slides with different audiences to make sure they are achieving their intended purpose.

Examples are the perfect opportunity to expand students’ global knowledge and awareness. I encourage librarians everywhere to be creative with their visuals–in other words refrain from using cat images as your main visuals except when providing instruction to library audiences.

4.) Consider including global information sources in your information literacy workshops. A fundamental pillar of the library is to provide access to a wide range of information resources. It is important for librarians to teach students how to access global information sources in different languages and from different countries. Including open access databases from respected global institutions and acknowledging the contribution of global scholars (at our institutions and beyond) helps support student’s engagement in global conversations. Often it takes extra effort or perhaps a slightly different search strategy to access international sources. Make the effort to do so. In addition to teaching critical information literacy skills required to access this information, it may help students to reflect on the uneven geographies of information online and in our library collections. Omitting global information from our instruction, limits students to echo chambers of information leading to a limited world view. Because our academic campuses seldom reflect the diversity of our world, we must compensate by making our information resources reflect the populations and perspectives that are missing in our academic communities.

5.) Create materials that speak to the different learning styles of your students including presentation slides, a handout, a libguide, and follow-up email. By providing multiple communication tools and methods, different students are able to gravitate toward the learning tools that are most useful to them.

Librarians are well positioned to experiment with inclusive design that helps to engage all students in the classroom. These suggestions are not meant to be an exhaustive list, but perhaps a starting point.

Consider contributing your own examples in the comments below.


Acknowledgements: The content and ideas of this blog post were created in collaboration with Meris Longmeier, Associate Professor and Head of Research Services. The author would like to thank Stephanie Porrata and Zachary Walton for editing and posting this entry.

An 8 am Class: Good or Bad

By Pat Wood, Interim Head Librarian of The Ohio State University at Marion regional campus library


“I did it! I’m still alive!” These are my thoughts sometimes after teaching an 8 am library instruction class to college students. Although this is one of my favorite times to teach, students don’t always arrive with the same sunny disposition as me.

When I first started doing library instruction, I fell into a false sense of security by thinking that if students were looking at me, I had captured their attention. However, I have learned that students’ faces, and body language are not a good indication of that.

Over time, after experiencing blank stares, bobbing heads, or side conversations while trying to capture students’ attention, I have tweaked my sessions using comments and suggestions from surveys that I have students do at the end of any teaching session.

Here are some things that have worked for me from a sample teaching session:

When asked to teach library instruction at 8 am with a time-frame anywhere between 60-90 minutes, I usually arrive to the class instruction session 20 minutes early to set up the room based on the instruction requests of the professor and put out any handouts. This also gives me the opportunity to greet students with a friendly smile as they arrive.

As I am introducing myself while walking around the room, I’m aware of the importance of capturing their attention so I usually add a fun fact about myself that sometimes gets a few laughs which lets me know they haven’t fallen asleep yet. Time for the ice breakers!

Some ice breakers that I have used include Kahoot, which, for those who aren’t familiar is an interactive computer game where you create questions based on a subject (library information) and students answer using an electronic device (I always have a spare or 2 just in case the room doesn’t have technology or a student doesn’t have any). This can be 2-3 questions that can be fun stuff, or information they may not know regarding the library and its services. This is usually 5-7 minutes in length.

I also have done an activity where I write one word on the board (example: baseball) and then I have students make a list of keywords that relate to it. My word selection is usually related to the discipline of the class (example: History course). This activity usually has students talking amongst themselves, which is perfect. I usually give them 3-5 minutes for this activity. We then talk about the importance of good keywords and how they play a role in creating search statements

Now that I have their attention, the real work starts. Here is where I show students how to do academic research related to their assignment. This includes websites such as Google and Research databases from the library catalog. Students get to see the differences in searching and what features each resource must assist with their selections. They also learn how to construct good search statements through trial and error.

Once finished with this task, usually 20 minutes, the students then start doing research on their chosen topic while I wander around the room to answer questions and assist with anything else they need. This type of instruction also includes handouts on the three types of sources as well as the different types of periodicals to choose from. The time frame for this part is usually 30-45 minutes. The wrap up includes a survey of two questions: what information was helpful and what information was confusing.

The above activity is one of my favorites because students learn the difference between using Google and a research database while getting a good understanding as to the benefits of each type of search. Many good talking points have come from these sessions because most students are freshmen and they really don’t know what a database is. Google has been their best friend up to this point, so learning there is something better is sometimes a shock.

Lessons learned from 8 am library instruction sessions include:

Greeting students as they come into the class works well. This seems to help with interaction during the instruction session.

Make sure that you confirm exactly what the instructor is looking for from the session. Asking them detailed questions about what they want from the library instruction session is also very helpful. I once had a professor send me their syllabus in an email that said teach from the first lesson on the syllabus. My response was “WHAT?” We then exchanged many emails to determine what was needed.

Teaching search strategies from multiple sources, and showing students how to verify scholarly information has been a huge success, because today’s assignments seem to be giving students more freedom on their source selection. From my experience on our campus, depending on the course, students’ assignments aren’t requiring a lengthy list of scholarly sources as in the past.

The bottom line is that 8 am library instruction is not the worst thing in the world. Yes, it is true that in some cases no matter how you begin the session or what you plan to teach, you will have disengaged students. The goal is to be successful, sharing great research strategies so that students can complete their class assignments to the best of their abilities.

Resource Links:

Renaming Primary

By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist

If you read my previous blog entry, you know I have been pondering a bit lately about the topic of primary sources because I think there is too much emphasis on primary sources. Before anyone starts panicking, let me go into details.

The main reason is that I think the definition is not common across disciplines, yet libraries and librarians often apply a disciplinary definition on the concept to all disciplines. Many non-humanities disciplines would consider the journal literature to be their primary literature, but in reality do not really make use of terms like primary, secondary, or tertiary when describing or categorizing resources. So trying to apply a concept not even used in those disciplines will just create confusion. Sometimes librarians and libraries produce information about this concept as if it’s a standard definition that can and should be applied across all disciplines, which is not the case.

Second, “primary sources” found in libraries are very heavily slanted to certain disciplines. They are heavy on the humanities, medium on the social sciences, and light on the sciences. So trying to encourage the use of these types of items (or implying they are the gold standard) in certain disciplines will leave students of some disciplines with few choices.

A third reason is that the definitions often are applied to the format regardless of purpose or need. For example, a diary is usually considered primary. But what if the diary is used to garner information about a person other than the writer of the diary? That information is secondhand, so is the source being used as a primary source, or is it a secondary source given how it’s being used?

A fourth reason is that students in many courses likely will not use these types of sources. In many cases, books, journal articles, web pages, etc. are what the students will use and are what they need. It is not until students really begin digging deeper when they need what might be called primary sources. But in some disciplines, they may never need or use these types of sources.

A fifth reason is that the primary/secondary/tertiary terms implies value and that primary sources are “better.” Since journal articles are usually considered secondary, some disciplines are being told that their “gold standard” literature (peer reviewed journal articles) is inferior and that they should be using materials which will likely not meet their needs or don’t exist.

Given the above, when should primary sources come up? Only in discipline-appropriate courses when they are likely to be used. Bringing them up at other times is often meaningless for students’ needs or imposing one discipline’s definitions and values on another discipline. And distributing content across disciplines that pushes “primary sources” is doing just that.

So I’m not saying primary sources are bad. I’m saying the concept and term is murky when moving beyond specific disciplines and to act as if it’s a universal concept leads to confusion and problems. I think libraries and librarians should stick to these concepts only when it comes to the disciplines that recognize these concepts as part of their discipline. And I think that we shouldn’t be encouraging the use of these material types for courses/situations where they do not make sense.

I’ll leave with a question to ponder – is there something we can call “primary” materials and talk about them in a way that is more universal and accepted? Perhaps talk about these item types as unique, rare, special, etc. and why they’re important – but not in a manner that implies they’re “better” than other formats?

What’s Primary?

By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist

I’m going to make this blog entry an exercise in making the concept of primary, secondary, and tertiary resources more confusing. Bear with me, it’s to make a point that this concept is confusing to students for a reason.

Scenario 1: A diary

Primary right? What if the person is using the diary because of what the person is saying about a relative? It’s second-hand information. So shouldn’t that be secondary? Is the source still primary if the person is using it in a secondary manner?

Scenario 2: A photograph

Primary, right? What if the photo is of a painting? Wouldn’t it be secondary since it’s a derivative from the painting? And what about a painting someone did from a photograph?

Scenario 3: A journal article

Secondary, right? What if the article is entirely theoretical in nature and has no citations? This can sometimes happen (although fairly rare). So is this primary or secondary?

I think this illustrated that the concept of primary/secondary/tertiary sources is quite gray in nature. It seems like trying to apply a definition based on format alone falls flat when the idea is that primary is meant to be “from the horse’s mouth.” If a diary is used for second-hand content, is it really primary? If a journal article is original theoretical work, is it really secondary? And can a work be a mix (a lit review might be secondary, but the bulk of a journal article might be primary)?

Do you think the primary concept is too gray and we should seek to define it by purpose rather than format?

How on Earth do I Incorporate Active Learning into a 50-minute One-Shot Session?

By Stephanie Schulte, Head of Research and Education Services at the OSU Health Sciences Library


Have you ever had a request for a one-shot session where the course instructor wants you to teach their students everything you know in less than an hour? If you are like me, of course you have had this experience. Time is precious, and having worked primarily in the health sciences, accreditation often dictates what topics have to be covered, leaving less than ideal bits of time to cover literature searching or other pieces of the scholarly publishing world that are pertinent to these students. We often feel the pressure to make sure students are at least aware of everything they have available to them and cover many topics in a superficial manner. They can always follow up with an individual appointment, right? And who has time for active learning in this situation?

Well, if you’re at a large institution, you may not be able to scale individual consults for everyone who wants one, at least without losing your sanity. But, do not lose hope! You are a professional who can both negotiate what should be covered in a session and also provide opportunities for students to facilitate their own learning for the course at hand and in the future. Active learning can be a tool, even in a small amount of time, that can make the most of the learning opportunity at hand.

At the Medical Library Association’s annual conference in May, I was a member of a panel who discussed active learning. Active learning can take many forms and involve different aspects of librarianship, including getting on curriculum committees, acquiring collections that play a role in active learning, participating as a small group facilitator, and being an instructor who uses active learning. So, as an instructor, how can you use active learning in a one-shot?

The concept of backward design can be a useful framework when planning a one-hour’ish one-shot. What I suggest below is a rather simplistic way of thinking about this, but it can work!

  1. What do your students need to be able to do at the end of the session? Don’t overthink this. What are 2 or 3 things that they need to do to be successful in the course or with the assignment at hand?
  2. How will you know they can do these things? What evidence would demonstrate they learned to do these 2 or 3 things?
  3. Based on this, what teaching methods – including active learning – could/should be utilized so that they learn how to do these 2 or 3 things?
  4. What content needs to be covered in order to do these 2 or 3 things?

Notice how I point out 2 or 3 things.  That’s to emphasize that we cannot and should not be teaching these students everything we know in such a short period of time. Think hard about the idea of must know, nice to know, optional to know.

To help you conceptualize how you might incorporate active learning into even a short session with students, I developed a handout based on backward design principles to take you through the thought process as well as a handout that identifies some simple active learning activities by the amount of time and effort they might require. This is by no means an exhaustive or prescriptive handout! There are many resources out there. I’ve included links for a couple of my personal favorites in the handout too, but I’m including them here for your quick reference.

Now, go forth and teach! I’ll be putting my own advice to work in a couple of days. Stay tuned.



Active Learning for a OneShot

Active Learning by Complexity

You Have 30 Minutes – Go

By Katie Blocksidge, library director at The Ohio State University at Newark and Central Ohio Technical College


The one-shot is a pretty standard part of any library instruction program: you’re invited to visit one class in the semester, and have between 50 to 120 minutes to discuss library resources, research, evaluation, and anything else that might be necessary for the course.  But occasionally, due to snow days, power outages, or just the restrictions of a 16 week semester, you might also get a request to visit a class for only 20-30 minutes.

So how do you plan for an instructional session that is only half of a class period?


Follow-up with the instructor to determine the assignment students will be working on, as well as the research requirements for that assignment.  If students need to use current newspaper articles for their work, great: that is now the focus of the class.  The difference between primary vs. secondary sources, and how to find them: time to highlight some of the historical databases, and JSTOR.  If students need to build a profile of a business: bypass the databases and highlight resources through the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census.

You may not be able to cover everything, but spell out what must be covered for class in order for students to understand and complete their assignment.

Engage your students

With a short time frame, it becomes even more important to give students the chance to practice the skills they will need for an assignment.  Kick off the class with a quick overview of the assignment, and a few resources students can use to find information/research on their topic.  Then break the class into pairs or small groups, and set them loose with a few sample topics or projects; this gives you a chance to circulate around to the small groups and address any questions that might arise.

After about 7-10 minutes, bring the class back together to report out: what did they learn?  What did they find challenging?  How can they apply what they learned to their own research?  Use this time to address any misconceptions with research, and connect the activity with the assignment they need to complete.

Point to additional resources

As part of your prioritization process, you likely had to jettison some topics/resources you would have preferred to cover in class; these are excellent candidates for video tutorials or a course-level LibGuide.  Depending on your relationship with the instructor (and your time frame), consider sending any tutorials or LibGuides to the class ahead of your session.  A pre-class video can provide students with an overview of a library resource or resources, and free up time in class for applying that knowledge.

If you don’t have time to address all of the questions that come up in your instructional session, you can also record a video to provide additional answers and explanations for students.


A shortened class session can feel like the last place you would want to add an assessment component, but it is really the most important.  A multiple-choice quiz at the end of class, a minute paper, or a brief online survey will provide you with feedback on your instruction and identify what students learned and where they struggled.  Even more important than assessing your own instruction, you can use this information in conversation with the course instructor: if a significant portion of the class responds that they are struggling with one aspect of research, this opens up a conversation to schedule a follow-up visit.  Even if it is not possible to visit the class again during the semester, this information can still help you advocate for additional time in future semesters.

Shortened library sessions are frustrating, but allow us to adapt to the needs of faculty and the semester schedule; a successful instruction session can lead to a longer session in future semesters, or the sequencing of smaller instruction sessions throughout the term.

Using Humor and Fun for Librarian Visits to Courses

By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist


When visiting courses, I try to add at least a few elements of humor to a visit, even if just very brief. I find it helps make my visits a bit livelier.

Here are a few things I have done that seem to get a good response from the audience:


  • Sesame Street: Cookie Monster In the Library: I use this when visiting survey courses. It usually gets laughs (sometimes even from the instructor). It serves as a bridge to dispel the idea that libraries are just a storehouse of books.  I go on to show we have all sorts of materials, spaces, services and – in some cases – cookies.  Although I am guessing Cookie Monster would not like the idea of paying for cookies.
  • Being Lazy: I point out some of the ways in which students can be lazy when I visit some classes. First is paging books from other locations. Do not walk across campus – have the book sent somewhere closer.  Also, citation management software (RefWorks, Endnote, etc.) allow people to be lazy – you do not have to key every citation by hand (although I emphasize they should still verify correctness!). In other words, make these things do more of the work for you. I also ask how many people get joy in life from creating bibliographies – I do not usually see many hands raised!
  • Working Late I sometimes ask how many people in the class – on rare occasions, of course – do work late at night / early morning. This segues into using limit options (particularly in the catalog) to get items that would be available immediately – particularly ebooks and streaming videos.  Of course I also emphasize the selection is much bigger if one works ahead of time!


Anyone else want to share ideas of how they use humor?

Fighting the Forgetting Process

By Cheryl Lowry, Training & Education Specialist

Many students start forgetting what we’re teaching about 10 minutes after we start.  And by 15 minutes in, there’s a good chance we’ve lost about half of them, no matter how attentive they look. It’s just too hard for their (and our) brains to concentrate on anything for long while being passive (Middendorf and Kalish, 1996; Fedder and Brent, 2016).

OSU University Relations Photographer

In my view, fighting the forgetting process is an integral part of teaching.  What we have do is use active learning activities–anything except a lecture or demonstration during which students are supposed to just watch and listen.

Active learning activities interrupt the forgetting process by engaging our students’ brains at the moment and also strengthen the paths in students’ brains through which they can later recall what we’ve taught them.

I’m making a list of such activities—what I’ve read research about and then had luck with myself–and thought I’d share some with you in exchange for some of yours.  I hope you’ll post descriptions of ones you’ve used to this blog and help us all.

I’ve grouped the activities below by the terms psychologists associate with them. As you’ll see, many of the examples provide students the opportunity to recall and organize what they’ve learned.

Generation: Students learn more if they are answering questions, solving problems, and testing theories on their own, rather than being given the information. Being on their own seems to introduce “desirable difficulties” that help students generate their own grasp of the material.  Remember to let students know we expect mistakes and that making mistakes is important and okay.

Example: If we’re going to teach how to use a particular database in someone else’s class, we can ask him or her to assign students to locate that database the night before.  Even students who are unsuccessful will learn more.  Once there, we can use a handout to help those who were unsuccessful quickly find the database.

Example: Are there places where students can predict what will happen?  If we ask them to, they’ll have to recall what they’ve learned so far. We can ask, for example, after showing them the limiters or filters for a search in a database, “Now in the next search, will we have found more or fewer sources?”  And “How many fewer sources are we likely to turn up?”

Example: Getting blank looks when you ask, “Do you have any questions?” or even the better “What are your questions?”?  In our A+ Research presentations we instead ask them to quickly pair up and give them 3 minutes to come up with two questions. Then my student assistant answers them.  It works every time.  Next year we’ll have each student e-mail me with one of their questions. Research indicates that once they do it, it will be easier for them to email me for help later on.

Example: When teaching face-to-face with a class, I casually tell students there will be a quiz, even when all I plan is a review at the end during which I’ll ask them questions orally.  Research shows that thinking there will be a quiz increases their motivation to pay attention.  It also helps students remember what they learned, perhaps by as much as 30 percent.  It’s even better to ask students to write down their answers before I take any oral answers so everybody gets a chance to mentally answer. But I don’t always remember to do that.

Example: It’s better to use handouts that give directions in both text and graphics because students learn better when the explanation is in both channels.


Elaboration: Student learning is strengthened by their making a mental map, or schema, of what they’re learning, including how it relates to their lives.  Anything we can do to help students put layers of meaning on their mental map is helpful.

Example: At the beginning of presentations, I ask them questions such as “We’re going to be talking about XYZ today.  How do you think that could be helpful to you?”

Example:  Because digital skills are psychomotor skills, I show or tell students the “executive routine” for the largest task before I teach details of any individual steps or tasks (Gagne, 1985). Having seen the executive routine even briefly, students will be better able to learn the individual steps or tasks. Let’s say one of your learning objectives (or all of them together) amounted to “Students will be able to find appropriate sources in the XYZ database.”  You would think about all the steps they have to do in order to find those sources. Then you would show those steps to students as a numbered list before you’d teach the individual steps and their details.

Example:  In an effort to try to connect what I’m teaching to what students already know, I show students the executive routine and then give them one minute to note which steps they have done before.  Then I ask for volunteers to tell the group.

Example:  I try to use their prior knowledge any way I can.  For instance, I once had to teach students at 12 community colleges which nine states, all east of the Mississippi,   had reciprocal agreements with Ohio for handing child support cases. Giving them a list to memorize seemed boring. To take advantage of the fact students already knew where the nine states are located, I imagined that my handout paper was the eastern half of the U.S. and typed the names where the states would be on such a map. For instance, North Carolina was toward the lower right, close to the edge of the paper.  They all learned the nine state names in just a few moments.

Example: If possible, teach a mnemonic for something you’re teaching.  In our A+ Research presentations, we always start by showing our mnemonic F-I-R-S-T to explain the steps to a research project and then tell students which steps we’ll talk about in that particular presentation. Students regularly tell us that learning F-I-R-S-T is a valuable thing they learned.  Mnemonics can be graphic images, instead of words.  So ask students to help themselves remember a difficult concept by thinking of a graphic image for it. Next year, we’ll ask FYSS and STEP students to think of a graphic image for “iteration.”

Example: I use verbal markers such as “This is important” or “This is a crucial step” or “The tricky thing about this is….” to help students pay attention right then and to also contribute to their mental maps.


So that’s my list that fits here. But you must have activities that have worked for you, too, which I hope you’ll post.  Thank you in advance!   And let me know if I can be of any help when you’re designing instruction.




Felder, Richard, and Rebecca Brent. Teaching and Learning STEM.  San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2016.

Gagne, Robert M. The Conditions of Learning. Fourth edition.  San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.

Middendorf, Joan, and Alan Kalish. “The Change-Up in Lectures.” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 5 (2), 1-5.

You Want Me to Teach What?: Responding to Troublesome Instruction Requests

By Jane Hammons, Teaching and Learning Engagement Librarian

It has likely already happened to you at least once, perhaps more than once. You receive an instruction request from a faculty member, along with information on the topics or resources that they would like you to cover. As you review the information provided, your reaction ranges from concern to outright incredulity: They can’t really want me to teach them that!

For me, it was the Dewey Decimal System. A faculty member who was teaching a required introductory course in his major was having his students complete a worksheet on available library resources. As part of the instruction, he wanted me to teach them about Dewey. Of course, the library where I was working at the time did not use Dewey. But even if we had, I would not have wanted to spend a significant amount of class time on the topic. While classification systems can be appropriate for instruction sessions in some cases, I knew that the chances that any of the students would be using books for the course was low. The students did not have a research assignment at that time, and it was a field that was heavily oriented toward journals, not books. I connected with the professor and explained that teaching Dewey would not work, gave my reasons, and made other recommendations for content that I thought would be more helpful to the students at that specific time in that particular program.

Has this ever happened to you? Maybe you are asked to show students certain databases, when you think that others are more appropriate for the course or subject area. Perhaps you are asked to cover content that you think is inappropriate for students at the specific level. Maybe you know from past experience that the instruction session, as envisioned by the faculty member, does not engage the students in any meaningful way.

What do you do in this situation? We all want to form good relationships with disciplinary faculty, and for many of us, the first instinct is to accept any request and try to do what the faculty member requests. But this does not mean that you have to accept all requests, or to teach topics that you know are, for whatever reason, not appropriate. As Meulemans and Carr (2013) have argued, “in order to be an effective teacher, the instruction librarian cannot take such a service‐centered orientation.”

When you do get an inappropriate or misguided request, don’t be afraid to push back. Use your professional experience and expertise to support your argument. Keep in mind that faculty often have only a “vague idea” of how librarians can help their students, and in many cases, “their understanding of the teacher‐librarian’s role is far different than ours.” (Meulemans & Carr, 2013). Although it can be uncomfortable, educating faculty on how the library, and librarians, can best support their students is better for all involved in the long run.


Here are a few recommendations for how you can communicate with faculty about inappropriate requests. First, explain what you think is problematic about the request. If you really want to be polite about it, you can put it in the form of a request for clarification on your part. A few examples:

Professor X,
Thank you for contacting me about a possible instruction section for your ABCD 1000 course. Before I can schedule your session, I was hoping to clarify your goals. You mentioned that you wanted me to focus on the Dewey Decimal System. At OSUL, we do not use the Dewey System, but if you would like the students to know about library classification systems, I could spend a small amount of time briefly reviewing the Library of Congress Classification system. However…

Professor Z,
Thank you for contacting me about a possible instruction section for your ABCD 1000 course. Before I can prepare, I had a few questions. You indicated that you wanted me to show students how to use Tool A. In my past experience, I have found that students at this level struggle to use that tool effectively. It was designed for advanced researchers and has a steep learning curve…


Second, offer alternatives for content that you think is more appropriate. Explain why you think your proposed content will work better and will support the students in achieving the overall goals of the assignment or course.

However, based on the assignment you have described, I think that class time could be better spent by focusing on the following content…This will likely be more helpful for the students, since it will give them a chance to practice skills that will be directly applicable for the assignment they are completing.

In place of tool A, I think it more appropriate to show them tool B. The overall focus of the two tools is similar, but in my experience, students at this level often find tool B to be more accessible. If your goal is for them to learn how to locate a few data sources for their assignment, I think that tool B will be effective and more manageable for the students.


In many cases, this initial communication will likely be all that is needed. Most faculty members will be reasonable. The “Dewey” faculty member accepted my explanation, and alternative content, without hesitation. In my experience, in fact, faculty are often grateful for the recommendations. They make their requests based on their own knowledge of what the library can and does provide, and may be unaware of the range of options that are actually available. There have been several times in the past where I have recommended giving the students instruction on how to use Zotero, and after class found the faculty member was even more excited to learn about the tool than the students.

If the faculty member does continue to insist, don’t be afraid to just say no. We don’t like to turn down instruction requests, but if it is something that you really don’t think is appropriate to teach, or simply can’t teach for whatever reason, there is justification for refusing the request.

Negotiating the content of an instruction session can be tricky. But you shouldn’t let your desire to be helpful override your knowledge of appropriate content for a session. A poorly conceived instruction session will not help anyone. It may get you more time with students, but at what cost? You will have to struggle through a session that you know is not in the best interest of the students. The students will likely think it is a waste of time, and as a result will be more reluctant to engage if they are required to attend additional sessions in the future. And, the faculty member will leave with the same misconceptions about the library that they had coming in. As Meulemans and Carr note, “When a problematic request is fulfilled, it only ensures that librarians will receive more requests like it.”



Yvonne Nalani Meulemans, Allison Carr, (2013) “Not at your service: building genuine faculty‐librarian partnerships”, Reference Services Review, Vol. 41 Issue: 1, pp.80-90,