Grant Research Provides Insight Into First Year Students’ Library Experience

“Honestly, I was scared to go into the library because I felt like such a freshman. I had no idea of how it worked.” This comment from a DePaul University first-year student resonates with the results of a number of recent studies of information literacy among undergraduate students. Research by Brinkman, Gibson, & Presnell (2013) notes that first generation students in particular perceive themselves as outsiders and reported that this feeling created stress and a feeling of “cluelessness.”  First generation students made up 33% of DePaul’s 2013 freshman class, but it’s not just first generation students who feel uneasy. Project Information Literacy(2013) reports that in general, first year students feel overwhelmed by college level research assignments. Students are intimidated by the amount of information they are dealing with for the first time.  Finally, recent research by the University of Minnesota (2013) indicates that students who make use of library resources and services have higher retention rates and grade point averages, so it’s important to understand how we might turn these “library outsiders” into academic insiders.

Working as an “Assessment in Action” team, the Library, along with our partners in the University Center for Writing-based Learning, Academic Advising, New Student and Family Engagement and the Center for Students with Disabilities designed an assignment and lesson plan for Chicago Quarter Peer Student Leaders to deliver and grade as part of the Discover/ Explore Chicago curriculum. In addition to introducing students to the physical library and its resources, this assignment aimed to cultivate curiosity, flexibility, engagement, and a willingness to seek expertise when needed—all habits of mind which contribute to student engagement and success. These habits also contribute to a person’s ability to find and use information: flexibility and persistence aid students in developing successful strategies for using a range of resources to gather data and information.

After examining ninety seven reflective essays using a rubric, we noted that the lesson’s independent learning activity appeared to be an effective intervention in providing an orientation to the library in particular and “academic life” in general.  Many of the students in this study had never used an academic library before, and a few of them noted that it was their first time searching for materials without assistance.  Sixty four students demonstrated evidence of an initial struggle or some difficulty in using available library resources. This was exciting to us; we intentionally left out any instructions with regard to searching (or even locating) the online library catalog. We wanted to provide students with a safe, but somewhat destabilizing experience. Learning is, after all, a process, and reflecting on mistakes can lead to new insights and discoveries. We hoped students would experiment, try searching on their own, and in floundering, begin to understand the value of persistence and experimentation when it comes to seeking information.  Having succeeded, we anticipate students will use the library more easily and confidently the second time, when the stakes might be higher. As part of this project, we noted that some students view asking for assistance as failing to be an independent learner, instead of seeing it as part of what successful students (and researchers) do as a matter of practice. After completing the experience, one student said, “If only I had the courage to ask for help when I didn’t know how to find what I need. I contacted one of the librarians at the front desk and was helped right away. It’s funny when what seems like a complicated system becomes convenient and [simple] when someone explains the whole process.”

After this activity, most students in our study had a better understanding of how to utilize our library resources. Students also reported an affective change towards library use, e.g., from anxiety to pride. One student described it this way, “As I was walking towards the library, I was actually nervous, because I had never been in there before and had no idea where to go or even start in order to look for my book…” but after completing the experience, noted that “when I found the book I was so proud of myself because it is such a huge library, and I found what I was searching for.”

Please contact Heather Jagman,Coordinator of Reference, Instruction and Academic Engagement to learn more about the findings of this study and other information literacy initiatives at DePaul University. DePaul University Library is grateful for the support of the Association for College and Research Libraries through the Assessment in Action initiative. DePaul University Library was part of the first cohort of libraries to participate in this initiative,which was aimed at helping academic libraries articulate how they contribute to student learning and success.

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