Reframing Instruction: Get Messy

By Tasha Maddison
Librarian, Saskatchewan Polytechnic

As an instructor, I endeavour to incorporate active learning techniques and rely on the constructivist theory for my pedagogy; yet inevitably I find myself devoting the first 5-10 minutes of any class period to live demonstrations. Before class, I spend a significant amount of time carefully developing search strategies. These perfect search strings are then used to illustrate how databases work or the features and benefits of a particular tool.  I am careful to include points from the students’ upcoming class assignment, along with the advanced search techniques that I feel are appropriate for their level.  Developing and trialing these searches provides me an opportunity to prep as I develop knowledge of my subject area and discover how the tools for that discipline work. Yet this seamless, rehearsed demonstration of search tools fails to acknowledge to students that library research is an interactive process, one that involves many stops and starts, and which may result in unsuccessful searches.  Sure, I always throw in a joke about librarians being magicians, but is this enough?

I recently came across a powerful article that has challenged the way that I think about information literacy instruction and, in particular, demonstration vs. the development of critical thinking skills.  The article suggests that instead of performing a perfectly crafted search, librarians should demonstrate the “messy process of research as exploration” which reveals to the student “some of the key dispositions required of novice (and experienced) researchers: resilience, curiosity, and persistence” (p. 4).  This idea is based upon the new ACRL Framework which reinforces the principles of lifelong learning and reiterates that successful information literacy instruction cannot be accomplished in a single transaction with students.  Burgess’ ‘messy research process’ and the Framework tie together well, but what happens when librarians only have one opportunity to work with a class and feel pressured to ‘cover it all’?

Recently, I had an opportunity to test out this process of exploration.  I had a structured lesson plan with a search example in mind, but I let my students decide what we were going to search for and how we were going to conduct the search.  Together we built a search string with multiple concepts and a variety of potential synonyms.  We decided on a database and which limiters we would apply.  The result: success through failure?  We found nothing.  This failure provided me with a great opportunity to discuss the research process, as well as the necessity of tweaking ideas and concepts to ensure that search results are meaningful and relevant.  I even mentioned Burgess’ theory.  One of my students piped up, “nice save”—and indeed it was!  More, it helped me to communicate that everyone—even advanced searchers—need to process information and adjust our methodology to accomplish a successful search.

When discussing the Framework, Burgess (2015) encourages librarians to “evolv[e] instruction from a point-and-click database demo style to an engaged and interactive IL discussion with students. The instructor occupies the role of coach, animator, or advisor leading the discussion, while encouraging students to become active agents in their own learning” (p, 2).  Librarians can integrate the principles of the Framework into their teaching by fostering open dialogue within their classrooms.  We can create safe environments that allow for questions but also nurture peer learning.  One great example that comes to mind is when a student presents a challenging question to the class.  The instructor can respond with, “that is an interesting situation, has anyone else come across that?” and “how did you resolve that issue?”  Rather than inspiring panic in the library instructor, such questions can instead offer rich opportunities for experiential learning experiences!


Burgess, C. (2015). Teaching students, not standards: The new ACRL information literacy framework and threshold crossings for instructors. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 10(1), 1-6.  doi:10.21083/partnership.v10i1.3440

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.