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Thinking About Deficit Thinking and First-Year Seminar

June 28, 2018

I was able to attend the LOEX Conference in Houston in May and I saw a lot of great presentations. The one that has stayed with me was Eamon Tewell’s lecture, “The Problem with Grit: Dismantling Deficit Models in Information Literacy Instruction”. You can view the slides & handouts from his presentation here.

After listening to the talk, my interpretation of deficit thinking is the idea that a student is lacking something and if they just try hard enough they can overcome that deficit. We see this type of thinking in the library when we assume that students are empty vessels just waiting for us to fill them up with the skills they need to succeed. Eamon gave the example of one of the traditional one-shot requests for database demonstrations as an example of deficit thinking. In this situation we think that when the session goes well it’s because we were great but when it doesn’t it’s because the students weren’t prepared enough.

Using my new understanding of deficit thinking I started to review how our library has interacted with First Year Seminar (FYS) in the three years that I’ve worked there. The first two years we definitely approached these interactions with a deficit mindset, assuming that students were empty vessels and we could tell them everything they needed in a 90 minute session. We knew these sessions were not resonating with students so last year we created a new session on source identification & evaluation. We showed two short videos and gave a mini-lecture but the majority of class time was spent on a source evaluation activity. We gave groups of students different types of sources and asked them to sort them into one of three categories using a provided set of criteria. Each group then shared their decision with the class. We felt like this activity worked much better for the students than our previous attempts and looking at it through my lens of deficit thinking I think it had something to do with the fact that we allowed students to use skills they already had. I can also see how we could have eliminated even more of our deficit thinking if we had not given them criteria for evaluation but let the students show us the criteria they use for source evaluation. 

In addition to Eamon’s talk at LOEX another presentation that has influenced my approach to FYS is a Credo webinar I watched in the fall, “Predictable Misunderstandings in Information Literacy: Research Findings”, by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe. In this webinar, Lisa presents the results of a survey of academic librarians she completed asking them to identify first-year students’ misconceptions about research. She identified 11 misconceptions about research that students bring with them to college. These misconceptions reinforce that students are not empty vessels, they are come to college with ideas and strategies for research that have been successful for them to this point. Thinking about how to identify and overcome these misconceptions in our first-year students has been great food for thought. 

Thinking about deficit thinking and predictable misunderstandings and the way that FYS is structured at our school made the librarians realize that there isn’t a way to create a one-size-fits-all session that we can deploy in each FYS section. So this year we decided to share Lisa’s list of misconceptions with the FYS faculty to get them thinking about areas where we can team up with them to try to help our students be more successful. I’m looking forward to seeing how this approach works in the fall.  Have any of you tried something like this or reflected on your teaching practices through the lens of deficit thinking? If so I’d love to hear about it.

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