USTLG Spring 1996 meeting – Presentation Aids for Information Skills Teaching

Sheffield Hallam University


Clare Bainbridge UWE, Bristol

Report by Diana Mercer

About 30 of us met at Sheffield Hallam University on 21 November 1996 to discuss the usefulness (or otherwise) of Presentation Aids for Information Skills Teaching.

Our Chairman, Ian Winship, appeared to initiate the meeting by triggering the fire alarm. Once we had spent half an hour or so networking in the street outside, he began by reminding us of the recent discussion, which he instigated on lis-infoskills, concerning the somewhat broader theme of the usefulness (or otherwise) of teaching infoskills. This had led to a lively discussion, with contributors responding either to the whole list or to Ian personally.

Among the latter was Clare Bainbridge, Engineering Subject Librarian at UWE, who rashly expressed the view that learning all about presentation skills and how to use the accompanying props such as PowerPoint merely serves to obscure our educational aims (should we have actually got round to thinking about these …). Her reward was to be invited to develop this theme in front of us. Indeed, Clare, who qualified as a teacher before becoming a librarian, has gone further and largely rejected the stand-and-deliver approach which many of us who mistakenly thought that librarianship involved sitting unobtrusively in a corner going “Shhh” from time to time have recently felt compelled to adopt.

Instead of using fancy pieces of technological wizardry just because they are there, we should be thinking about what students need to know about the Library, starting with such basics as the difference between a book and a periodical / just what can you look up on the catalogue / what the class mark actually means. A lecture has to be exceptionally interesting if the recipients are not to lose concentration after 10 minutes, a demonstration of LIBERTAS screens has nothing to recommend it at all. Lectures and demonstrations are no substitute for a hands-on approach, and this can be delivered in a structured way, with students working through a programme of exercises.

Clare introduced such a programme two years ago as part of an assessed study skills module at UWE, which involves first year undergraduates spending three hours going through a workbook answering questions ranging from the factual [how many references are cited in this paper?] through to the reflective [what is the significance of citing this number of references?]. The initial, subjective response has been very encouraging, with 80% of the participants in favour; a more objective measure of the success or otherwise of this approach will come next year when the first batch will be undertaking final year projects.

Clare hopes to be able to develop the critical thinking approach still further by emulating the methods developed by Chris Atton at Napier University. Chris takes the view that we should not be teaching information skills at all, in the sense of delivering dollops of information to passive recipients; instead, we should be endeavouring to develop their critical thinking by means of problem solving.

This is achieved by getting small groups of students to analyse a paragraph which describes a scientific discovery, looking at how the information it contains is organised and addressing such questions as what is relevant. In order to do this, they have to develop a strategy, making use of resources [not necessarily of the IT variety] which they must find out about for themselves. At the end of the allotted time, a written record of the sources used has to be handed in, and the group has to do a presentation to the other students.

This active learning process apparently has a very high success rate, one of the major advantages being that students are much more inclined to pay attention to one of their peers than they are to a librarian who, for example, recommends persevering with Chemical Abstracts. Among the questions raised about this approach were : just how is this success measured? / is there a danger of encroaching on territory that is really the preserve of the academic staff?

Among the more general topics raised during the discussion was the fundamental question : do students really need all this teaching anyway? And just how effective as information seekers do they need to be?

Perhaps even more fundamental : how do librarians overcome their boring image?

There was a feeling that we probably do overprepare, but this is due in part to the fact that we generally only get one go whereas teachers have the opportunity of recapping at a later date on those areas which need further explanation.

The advantages of co-operating with academic colleagues – including running infoskills modules linked to the topics being studied at the same time – were stressed.

Measuring how effective we have been remains problematic. Evaluation sheets are all very well, but they tend only to give a [subjective] view immediately after a training session and do not indicate whether the recipients will be able to apply what they have learned at a later stage. UNN has tried follow-up a term later, but the results appear to be inconclusive.

Coming back to the principal theme of the meeting, the question of whether information aids were overused was raised. The danger is that we can become obsessed with the bells and whistles rather than the content and, even worse, look foolish if we have problems setting up and using the equipment.

Among the general points raised at the end of the main meeting were:

  • The appalling lack of currency of British Standards on CD-ROM/microfiche.
  • The very considerable problems associated with accessing Beilstein, which were not immediately obvious from the contract.
  • The large increase in subscription price [over 100%] of the Annual Review titles.
  • MCB journals pricing policy.
  • The high subscription rates being asked for INSPEC.

Our thanks to Clare for putting forward her case; and to Roger Hines, and his colleague Suzanne Ridgeway, of Sheffield Hallam for organising things in Sheffield, including deferring the fire drill [ah, the best-laid plans …] and showing us round their splendid new Learning Centre. Roger also demonstrated their networked collection of information – photographs, plans, reports, minutes – on the building of the Adsetts Centre: a good case study for construction and project management students.

Finally, as ever, very many thanks to Ian Winship for organising and chairing the meeting.

Diana Mercer
Life Sciences Librarian
University College London
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
Tel : 0171 387 7050, ext 2625
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