By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
Clif Stratton knows the difference library instruction makes for his students. For more than five years, he has brought students in his “Roots of Contemporary Issues” class to Terrell Library to meet with Corey Johnson, WSU’s instruction and assessment librarian. Johnson teaches the students how to find suitable primary and secondary sources for their research assignments, a skill the students will need for the remainder of their academic careers at WSU.
“Corey deals in concrete examples in his demonstrations of how to use databases,” said Stratton, assistant clinical professor in the Department of History and assistant director of the “Roots of Contemporary Issues” program. “This approach has been instrumental in helping model for students when to place limits and what kinds of limits to place on their searches in order to return the most relevant materials.”
“The demos have also been critical in helping students to realize the value of good search term combinations, to understand the differences in types of sources, to avoid the pitfall of assuming that everything in the catalog called a book is actually a scholarly study of their topic, and to embrace trial and error in the search process as a way to hone one’s skills,” he said.
After the demonstrations, Stratton and Johnson allow for work time in the library, where students can immediately apply what Johnson has taught to their specific research topics. They can pull the sources they’ve just located, as well as any other subject-relevant sources.
“The proximity of the demos to work time allows students to leave the class session with a sense that they’ve not simply received information and instructions but have had the chance to successfully apply that information to their projects,” Stratton said. “They tend to be much more confident in their ability to repeat the steps ahead of the research assignment due dates.”
Benefits backed by study
The Greater Western Library Alliance conducted a study in the 2014‑15 school year of 1,725 freshman‑level courses and 25,327 students at 12 research universities, including WSU. The study sought to determine what effect library instruction participation and specific library instruction teaching methods have on student retention and other measures of academic success.
The study revealed that for eight of the 12 universities, attendance in library training classes is highly associated with student retention. In terms of academic success, students who receive library instruction can be expected to complete 1.8 more credit hours per academic year and earn 0.02 points higher in their first‑year GPA than those who did not attend training.
At WSU, there was a positive correlation between having participated in library instruction and a higher retention rate, as well as earning 1.4 more first‑year credit hours.
“Librarians understand there are many factors that are at play in facilitating academic success, but it is also clear that participating in library instruction is one of the central ways students develop the information literacy skills needed to have a successful undergraduate experience,” Johnson said.
Helping students overcome library anxiety
Erica England, first‑year experience librarian, noted that many first‑year students, whether traditional freshmen or transfer students, lack the necessary skills that are imperative to successfully perform the level of research required in higher education.
“Unfortunately many of these same students are also coming to us with library anxiety — a fear of not only the library itself, but also of librarians, and this is one hurdle that we must overcome as soon as possible,” England said.
All library instruction programming should be fun as well as informative and educational, England said. To this end, she has incorporated such tools as escape rooms and sensationalized sample search topics to make the library instruction sessions more engaging.
“Library instruction should also be designed to meet students where their needs are,” England said. Students receive necessary foundational research skills that subject-specific librarians can then build on when they are in their core discipline classes.
“It’s also extremely important for students to see the strong partnerships that have been developed with teaching faculty across campus,” she said. “This helps students see the value in the library and makes forming connections with them so much easier.”
Extension of classwork
English instructor Megan Hall is one of the teaching faculty who has partnered with England for library instruction sessions. Hall schedules two or three sessions each semester for her English 101 students and said they have had a very positive experience.
“I view the instruction sessions at the library as an extension of our classwork, so I try to scaffold my coursework in a way that students are at a place in their current writing projects where the sessions are immediately relevant and productive for them,” she said.
During England’s sessions, students engage with research tools and concepts in hands‑on activities designed to help students identify, find and evaluate credible sources and effective search terms.
“These are invaluable skills not only for English 101, but also for the academic writing and research that students will complete during the rest of their degree work,” Hall said.
Hall has also witnessed how students move from being reserved at first to being more at ease and confident in their research skills.
“I think that scheduling several library sessions during the semester helps students learn how to take advantage of the resources they have available to them on campus,” she said. “Many students have not spent time in the library beyond campus tours, so getting them into the library and talking with librarians is such a valuable experience. I’ve had many students tell me that after our library sessions, they felt comfortable returning to the library on their own and asking for help with their research projects.”