Library Instruction Nirvana vs. Library Instruction Reality: Balancing & Prioritizing Instruction Strategies, Reflections by a New Librarian–Hanna Schmillen

“I just realized this week that I cannot do it all, so I will do what I can fabulously.”

– Clinton Kelly, 2013

Yes, I just quoted a fashion expert and media personality, but it’s insanely relatable. As a fairly new professional (not quite two years in) who consistently fills her plate too full, likes to experiment, and has high expectations, I have to remind myself that doing it all does not imply that I am doing it all well. Sometimes…let’s be realistic, most of the time we have to choose and prioritize our ‘To Do’ lists and balance our capabilities. And our ‘To Do’ lists continue to grow.

This same principle carries over into instruction methodology. Most of us have one-shot sessions in order to teach our students how to be information literate and effective searchers. Not only that, but we are trying to balance the expectations of the course instructors, the students, our library, and ourselves. Oh, and don’t forget about the ACRL Frameworks, active learning strategies, and session assessment. Again, our lists continue to grow. So how do we prioritize? How can we ensure that our sessions are active, and relevant, and meet not only our expectations, the expectations of others while addressing our elusive Frameworks? I don’t have the answer, so don’t get too excited, but I would like to share what I have learned so far that is bringing me one step closer to that answer (Library Instruction Nirvana?)

A wise, seasoned colleague of mine, Sherri Saines, once shared her golden rule of instruction when it comes to selecting her session content: one learning outcome/concept per 15 minutes of your session. What this means is that within an average, 50-minute session, you may teach three concepts. (Perhaps three Frameworks.) Three. Why? It’s estimated that the average student can focus and absorb a new concept for about 15 minutes at a time. In theory, if you spend less time, they may not understand or remember what you taught them. However, if you trail on forever, you could lose their interest. So 15 minutes is a guideline for time spent per concept, but assuming this guideline applies to everyone and every concept may not be accurate.

I myself tend to think of ‘concept’ more as a theme. For example, I should not teach search strategy without ensuring the students know where to access the library databases. Or I cannot discuss searching for a specific level of evidence in healthcare and medicine if the students are unfamiliar with the different levels of evidence. So depending on the experience of the students, I may make the assumption that reminding them where to click on the library’s website will not take a huge amount of brainwork. So I might wrap these together as one theme and not two individual concepts that will independently take 15 minutes to make concrete.

Including active-learning strategies and engaging activities is very important to my instruction methodology. There are two reasons for this: the first is I really enjoy interacting with the students and experiencing their engagement with me, the content, and each other. The second, and more important, is that active-learning strategies have proven to be the most effective method when working with diverse learners. For example, lecture is more ideal for those learners who prefer to listen and absorb. I tend to include PowerPoints, reflection time, and self-paced activities for those self-learners. And for those learners who need an example or need to activity try something, I plan an activity where they perform a task or discuss with their peers.

My goal is to create a learning space that is flexible and adaptable to different kinds of learners. Balance, variety, and natural flow are important to me when I build lesson plans. I begin by dividing my more traditional lecture content into smaller tidbits, or themes. Then add an appropriate active-learning strategy per theme. While doing so, I remind myself that the active-learning strategy, if done well, should lean more towards replacing my lecture or demo time; not simply reiterating my concept.

Side note: you can integrate a simple assessment into an active-learning activity, so two birds, one stone. That being said, you can’t do every, creative active-learning strategy invented in one session, and you shouldn’t try. I mean, technically this is possible, but I do not see how successful it would be. You still have to guide and create a learning space that jives with different kinds of learning styles.

So let’s look back to the math. For a 50-minute session I can teach three concepts, one through a well-designed, more intense, active-learning strategy. This builds my base of prioritizing my content because it’s a formula. Adding this method to the madness works for me, providing a solid foundation on which to place my creativity and expectations.

Not everything you do in a session needs to be ground-breakingly brilliant and meet very instruction criteria out there, another pressure we put on ourselves. What we should do is focus on steadily working towards that “perfect” instruction session with the understanding that we will probably never get to Library Instruction Nirvana- if it exists. I’m not asking you to lower your expectations but rather strategize your pace and methods. By intentionally choosing to experiment with active-learning you make slow, more accurate progress toward Library Instruction Nirvana; which is the goal, right? Trying to do everything does not ensure you are doing it well. Choose what is most important, most valuable, and most exciting right now– and do it fabulously.


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Burkhardt, J. (2016). Teaching information literacy reframed: 50+ framework-based exercises for creating information-literate learners. Chicago: Neal-Schuman, an imprint of the American Library Association.

Cardiff University. (2015). Handbook for information literacy teaching. Available at:      

Concordia University. (2016). Interactive teaching styles used in the classroom. Retrieved from

Kelly, C. (2013, August 26). Clinton Kelly’s official Facebook page. Retrieved from       


Hanna Schmillen is a new professional who started her first post-MLIS position July 2015 as the Health Sciences and Professions Subject Librarian at Ohio University. She’s engaged in Academic Library Association of Ohio (ALAO), the Music Library Association (MLA), the Midwest chapter of MLA, and the Ohio Health Sciences Library Association (OHSLA). Her research interests include instruction strategies, the training and education of new and soon-to-be librarians, as well as data management and eScience. Hanna also has the cutest mutt named Mosby, who is a German Shepard, Corgi, Basset Hound mix; likes to kayak, hike, and hammock whenever possible; and loves to cook and bake.

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