A sociologist at my institution, Tim Clydesdale, has written a book, The First Year Out, about the mindset of students during their first year out of high school. A main point of the book is that during their first year of college, students are primarily concerned with issues relating to “daily life management,” especially relationships with friends and family. Only after students have the “first year project” behind them will they become more open to the possibility of serious intellectual engagement.
I found this very helpful in explaining some of the complete blank looks I get in some of my instruction sessions with first years. It also fit well with my memory of my own first year of college. Clydesdale suggests changing our expectations for first year students and doing a better job of meeting them where they are. He suggests using any material in classes that has to do with personal relationships or personal conflict.
An example I thought of for library instruction could be that when introducing first year students to the variety of information sources–books, magazines, journal articles, web sites etc. to be also sure to include “people” as information sources. Talk about professors, librarians, and friends as sources of information. From there you could introduce the idea of trust and credibility, and how we trust the word of some people more than others. Then apply that to information, and how some information sources are trusted more than others.
In trying to understand and reach students, it’s useful to not lump them all together as “millennials” and to remember that first years are different. They’ve got a lot going on, and most of it’s not academic.