On Shamelessly Using my Sister for Insight on Freshmen & Library Instruction

Let me begin by saying that I have an awesome sister. Her name is Whitney, she’s 18, and she is currently a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. About a month ago I received a text from her that said something along the lines of, hey, thinking of you, I’m about to go to a library instruction session, isn’t it funny that you could have been teaching this??? Alluding, of course, to the fact that I almost went to UW-Madison. This text was sent right around the time I got the evaluations from my first instruction session, so my brain was in lesson design/assessment/freshman-brain-confusion overdrive. I immediately texted her back (with an enthusiasm that I’m sure totally slayed my chances of establishing a cool factor/mysterious grad student vibe with her): that’s great! would you mind maybe sending me a short email afterward letting me know what you learned? it would really help me with my lesson planning here in bloomington! Happily, she obliged and this is the email I got:

So, what we learned in my library class today was about the database system, how to find/reserve/search for books, took a short tour of the first floor, talked over the difference between scholarly and popular articles, and just went over some basic facts about the library system (how many libraries/books there are, the different types of libraries on campus, who uses them and what for, etc).We started out by answering questions using those clicker things. (I’m assuming that you probably know what I’m talking about..) The questions were trivia-ish like “How many visits does the UW library system get per year?” (the answer is 4,000,000 in case you’re wondering) and other questions along those lines. It was actually kind of fun. Like a game show. 

Then we started going through the library website. The instructor did everything on the big screen in the front of the room but we were all sitting at computers too so we had the option to follow along on our computers or just watch her. (This actually made it really easy not to pay attention at all since with exams happening this week and next, we all had many other things to get done using the internet.) She showed us a bunch of different useful things using the website like how to get the best results from a search, how to reserve books from another UW school library, and a lot of other things things that I can’t remember. I can’t exactly remember how to do much of the online stuff since it all went so quickly and there wasn’t any method to help us remember it. It would have helped me a lot if she just quickly went through all the basics again at the end. It’s like I can remember what many of the individual screens looked like, but I have no clue how to get there. I learned a lot of important tips, I just wish I had retained them all. This isn’t exactly the fault of the instructor, Wednesday is just my longest day of classes. By the end of the lesson I was literally falling asleep. But that’s my own problem. The instructor (a grad student, by the way) was really nice and energetic and I enjoyed the quick tour. I know I would have eventually figured out the library on my own, but it’s nice that now I can skip all the confusion, frustration, and embarrassment of getting lost trying to find a book.

An awesome response! So helpful. It’s always good to remember that every student (myself included) has times that we just aren’t engaged, despite the best efforts of an instructor. That’s life. And her comment about not paying attention because she wasn’t necessarily required to pay attention by the instructor also re-instilled my belief in torturing students using group work, yes indeed.

Well, Whitney gives me a few inches via her email and what do I do? I politely wheedle a mile out of her. Her email made me realize, HEY, I have a sister…who is a freshman…which is the same age I’ll usually be teaching. Remember all those times I’ve wanted to interrogate freshmen about their searching techniques, research processes, and not receive a blank stare? I can do that through her! She became a magic muse to me and I pondered questions to ask her that would give me insight into the new student perspective. Well, three questions turned into seven which turned into ten, oops. I sent her an entire Word document with my inquiries and let her know there was no rush, just to get back to me when she could. Here are a few of the Q&As that seemed most germane.

You mentioned that your recall wasn’t that great because the instructor went through things quickly. Can you tell me what you would feel comfortable doing on your own that you learned today? (retrieving a book from the stacks, etc.)

The things that were most easily forgotten were all online. If I had a handout that listed all of the steps (for searching, reserving, locating books, etc), I could look at that when I need to. It would make me feel a lot more comfortable about doing those things on my own.

Do you think if the instructor had told you that you needed to follow along on your computer that you would remember more?

I definitely would have, but it would have been better had she “strongly recommended” it. (Otherwise I may have just rolled my eyes and not done it just to be spiteful. I was tired and hence pretty cranky if I remember correctly.)

Did your peers seem to be paying attention at all? What does their attitude seem to be about the libraries?

As far as I know they were paying attention, although not exactly hanging on her every word. I think the overall attitude toward libraries is a pretty good one considering they know how much libraries will help them over the next few years. Also, we have a research project coming up in that class so it’s important that they know how to use the library’s resources.

What sort of method would have been useful for you to remember what you went through during the session, besides her doing a recap at the end–a handout given to you after the session, maybe? Or can you think of something else?

Yes, a handout would have helped. Or to save paper, maybe a page on the library site just for instructing students how do do certain things on the site? I’m not sure how practical that is, but it’s an idea.

Did you fill out any sort of survey that asked for students’ opinion about the session?


When preparing to write a paper where you need to cite sources, what is your research process? Please let me know the basic steps, and be honest–include Google and Wikipedia if they apply. 

I’ve never really thought much about my research process, but I guess it all comes down to searching the basics of my topic in Google, keeping track of what sites I get useful information from (if it’s Wikipedia, then so be it), and when I’m all done I use Citation Machine to put together a bibliography. 

I then proceeded to ask her to define a few library terms for me, requesting extreme honesty in that she would plead ignorance if she didn’t know and give her best guess. Here are the terms and her responses:

peer reviewed 
I believe this is referring to how a scholarly article must be reviewed by many people before it can be considered valid and therefore published. 

I know the term abstract in reference to abstract art or abstract ideas, but I’m not sure if there is a definition specifically for something library related.

A fancy list of sources at the end of an article. There are specific rules for putting it together such as correct formatting, must be in alphabetical order. I may be thinking of something else, but I think there are 2 kinds: APA and MLA..?

Boolean logic

interlibrary loan
Loaning out a book but it must stay in the library? This is just a guess, but I say this because I know some of our libraries only loan out highly sought after books for 3 hours at a time.

When I saw the all-caps NO IDEA! for Boolean logic, I had a virtual bonding moment with my sister. Who hasn’t mentally leapt back upon hearing the term “Boolean logic”??? It needs instant translation because it sounds hoity-toity, complex, and the more I considered it, like a communicable disease. The reality of it is that Boolean logic is easy to understand and will save you tons of time. It does makes sense, but unfortunately for those of us who are introducing it, it doesn’t exactly sound like it should. When I learned the term as an undergrad, it was just thrown at me without any regard to what Boolean means and why it is capitalized. There’s all this mystery, which lends itself to intimidation. Even in library school, for crying out loud, I’d never heard a peep about the origins of Boolean. Now that I just looked it up I know all about George Boole, but that was of my own intrepid searching. When I talk about Boolean logic in the future, I’m planning on demystifying it right away.

Abstract was a word I threw in there because I wondered if Whitney had come across it yet; I’ve misled you a little by claiming that she is your average freshman. She’s not. She entered UW-Madison with 18 credits due to the massive number of AP classes she had taken and excelled at, so she’s pretty bright. The fact that she hadn’t been exposed to abstracts further shows me that it’s a term that definitely needs to be explained when talking with undergrads about scholarly journals.

As for peer review and bibliography, she got the gist of those–atta girl. Interlibrary loan was a good guess… reserve materials, recall, interlibrary loan, WorldCat: they get a little exhausting to sift through, don’t they? It just further goes to show that incoming students have a fair idea of some of these concepts, but often it is only the vaguest guess.

Many thanks to my sister for answering my (let’s face it) not very interesting questions. She obviously rocks, and her responses have given me plenty to think about and possibly apply to my two upcoming library instruction sessions.


  1. Bri- I have the outline/scripts for the exact class your sister took. I taught 5 sections of that same class, although I don’t think I had your sister. I can also send you the outline I am using for a two session library instruction for ESL 117 classes (Academic Writing I)
    Let me know a good email address to send them to

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