Getting Students To Ask For Help Is A Higher Education Challenge

When we hear about or read research or surveys that gives us bad news about library services we may assume that we’re doing something wrong. It may be that we are. Or it may be that the academic library is but one service unit in a much larger higher education enterprise that suffers from a systemic problem. If there is a problem that causes our services to suffer we need to fix it no matter why it’s happening, but I think getting a better understanding of the larger issues that generate the problem across the institution – and then working with colleagues on a systemic solution – may be a better way to approach a challenge.

Back in December 2008 Ricklibrarian wrote a post about an article in the journal Reference & User Services Quarterly that had some research to which librarians should pay attention. What caused Ricklibrarian’s consternation was a finding that when college students had unsuccessful subject searches using library resources they had some counter strategies such as “use google” or “browse for books”, but not a single student indicated he or she would ask for help from a librarian. What librarian wouldn’t be alarmed by that finding?

But is there something unique about the library or librarians that causes students to avoid asking for help? We should ask ourselves why students would not even consider the possibility that there is someone designated to provide help. Another higher education survey I came across suggests that the problem isn’t the library or even librarians. Rather, it may be the students who exhibit a general reluctance to seek out help in academic environments. More significantly, the reason why students may not ask for help can point to larger problems in higher education organizations that may have nothing to do with the library.

A recent survey of online learners discovered that many dropout without finishing even a single course. But of greater interest is the study’s finding that despite the availability of a support network, the majority of these students quit without ever asking anyone for help – not financial help, not personal help from a faculty member, not help from campus health providers, not help from librarians. Now admittedly there are some differences between a remote learner and an on-campus student with respect to access to a help/support system, but the findings suggest that despite the abundant availability of help in higher education organizations students have a tendency to try to go it alone. Or, given the popularity of social networks, it may be they solely seek out help in these networks. Librarians have shared evidence of students using facebook and twitter to send out a “who knows how to research this assignment” message to their network. But one piece of data suggests a potential strategy for doing better. The study found that:

“53 percent craved more online student services and Web-based academic advising. Self-help, time management, and organizational advice also ranked as coveted offerings among students who dropped out (46 percent)”.

If we want students to ask for help we need to establish a more personal level of relationship that creates the bridge to interaction. We need to do more than just stand behind desks waiting for students to walk up and ask for help. The desk, with its anonymous and impersonal structure for providing help, appears out of touch with today’s students and their desire for personalized, network-style connections. These research studies and surveys are telling us we’ll miss huge numbers of students if that’s all we do. To be approachable, a librarian has to gain credibility as a member of a student’s network. Ask any librarian who gets out to classes and speaks to students, who goes to their school events, who does a good job of outreach, and he or she will tell you more students are coming directly to their office – bypassing the reference desk – to get help.

The next time we hear about students completely ignoring the library as a source of research help, perhaps we need to take a step back and think about the questions we need to ask, of ourselves and our campus colleagues, to learn more about our students and their help networks – and how we best get linked in. I suspect that the answer – and possible solution – will have something to do with meeting that craving for personalized, relationship-based help.

9 thoughts on “Getting Students To Ask For Help Is A Higher Education Challenge”

  1. Thanks for this perspective Steven. Your piece makes me think about the need to have a consistent message of of “helpfulness” across University services. If the student is really aided the first time they ask for help (if they ask), they may be more likely to ask for help again. So efforts at “designing the library experience” may also re-inforce the creation of a “university experience” and vice-versa.
    One very valuable f2f social-network-link we have is the student-worker population. Students can be staunch advocates for campus service — as long as they really believe that the service rendered is helpful. It may be a good place to start, and the rewards immediate . (that said, “props” to all our student workers at our library, and to the student-worker committee who keeps them “engaged”)

  2. With all due respect — I couldn’t agree less with Olivia. Not only from practical considerations, but also as a matter of principle. And the evidence that I, at least, have encountered ( mostly anecdotal but some empirical ), suggests that such a manoeuvre is, barring isolated cases, ineffective ; not to say contra-productive. Interestingly, that just reinforces what I would think to be an intuitive view of the matter.

    ‘Reluctance or aversion to ask for help from a librarian’ ( _qua_ librarian ) is not a problem one can solve — or in my opinion should even *want* to solve. It’s a perfectly natural human discourse situation ( in the sociology of knowledge sense, roughly what Rorty meant by “vocabulary” distinctions ).

    The problem for us — and the historical, epic failing of our profession ( if that’s what it in fact is ) — is then that we still haven’t been able to make asking a librarian a superfluous procedure. If there’s really a problem here for the educational enterprise ( and that’s the real, broader context in which one should speak of problems and possible solutions ) then that certainly isn’t going to be solved ( or even defined or effectively identified ) by using as a basis the world-view of librarians, as opposed to those of the respective communities of practice the supporting of whose endeavors provides our only legitimation.

    I’m reminded of a faculty member’s statement from the 2007 University of Minnesota study on research behaviors and information resource and service needs : “The library has become successful by becoming invisible.” *That’s* what we should be working on, I’d say. That should be our great goal and inspiration. Only then have we got our heads on right.

  3. Actually, my experience tallies with what Steve said:

    “Ask any librarian who gets out to classes and speaks to students, who goes to their school events, who does a good job of outreach, and he or she will tell you more students are coming directly to their office – bypassing the reference desk – to get help.”

    I can’t recall where I obtained the list of 8 characteristics of NetGen (or NextGen) students (usually I include that information in what I write down! — it may have been from this blog, actually…. an Educause article?), but one of them was the desire to customize and personalize things. Now, one could interpret this to mean Personal Portal Access To All Things, but I also sense in this a desire to have personalized service *in person*. And now I understand why I’ve been getting people coming into my office lately when there has been someone else sitting at the Reference Desk! I do eat in the dining halls, go to plays, work with student groups (Posse, etc.), and teach classes, both IL session and entire courses. I’m even on Facebook, though at this point I’ve only been “friended” by recent alums with whom I had close connections while they were on campus.

    Perhaps at large universities like Minnesota becoming invisible has been a successful library strategy. At a small liberal arts college like Colby, it would be a grave mistake.

  4. This is why I start every library instruction session with “how to contact a librarian,” and make jokes about how librarians have low self-esteem and welcome student questions as an affirmation of us having purpose in life, and are obsessive and so welcome student questions as an opportunity to indulge our research obsessiveness. Campus culture and personal temperament are considerations here–but for me, I find that I get startled looks, then laughs, and the students are more open to asking me questions during the instruction, and some find their way into the library to talk to me later.

  5. Thank you for that insight on starting sessions with contact information instead of just ending them that way, Mark! I also like the description of librarians for gaining questions!

  6. In my experience, students ask for a lot of help, but they ask one another instead of a librarian (adult). They’ll even ask our library student assistants before they’ll come to us.

    I don’t think this is anything new; I very rarely asked a librarian anything before I became one. Why? First, I thought I already knew everything when I didn’t, and second, I was put off by them. I was scared that they would judge me for the fool I thought myself to be.

    In my IL classes now, I try to put it this way: learning how to use all of these tools isn’t magic. It’s like driving a car. Nobody is born knowing how to drive a car, and you have to learn from others who know. You aren’t born knowing how to use these tools. I’m like the guy showing you how to drive the car. But if you don’t learn how to use these tools, you’ll waste lots of time and sometimes you’ll find that you do the equivalent of crash and burn!

    I don’t now if it works, but I do tend to get their attention.

  7. “You aren’t born knowing how to use these tools. I’m like the guy showing you how to drive the car.”

    OK, most anybody can buy into that way of looking at it, probably. Even I can. You’ve put it very nicely, Jim. So much having been granted, i.e. “how to use all of these tools”, I’m with you. Your point is entirely valid, as long as you stop more or less right there. But how many of us do that, and how many of us don’t ? Left and right, all over the place, you read ( even in respectable LIS journals ) all kinds of self-glorifying c**p about teaching library users ( students, and even professors and scholars ) “how to do research” ( as though that’s a matter of “how to use all of these tools” ), and — even more bizarre — “critical thinking”. Talk about good ways to make yourself and your occupation look ridiculous !

    I’m happy to see you’re not resorting to that kind of rhetoric, far from it. But your last sentence ( “But if you don’t learn how to use these tools, you’ll waste lots of time and sometimes [ … ] !” ), and the apparent mode of thinking behind it, does edge ominously in such a direction. I would refer again, as I often do, to an observation made long ago in one of his articles by James Rettig ( current ALA President, I believe ), a quote that in my opinion should hang prominently on the wall of ( at least ) every academic librarian : that “every information seeker should be free of the librarian’s expectations … and free from an intermediary’s judgments of the value of a bit of information to that individual’s purposes”.

    I am myself a subject specialist who has a PhD in the field concerned in addition to seven years of undergraduate and graduate teaching and research in that field ( and thereafter many years of work for a major academic publisher ), but you won’t find me — I hope 🙂 — presuming to know better than any given user how that person ought to be going about using the ( gigantic variety of ) resources we offer.

    And thinking still, incidentally, of Olivia’s point about “libraries’ use of online social networking tools” : Haven’t I more than once read and heard librarians admitting that adopting such tools has indeed led to meaningful new contacts and interactions in the virtual environment — but for the most part with . . ., right, with other librarians.

    ( Preaching to the choir ? )

  8. I just wanted ( but forgot ) to add a clause to Jim’s excellent analogy of the librarian ( or the BI/IL instructor ) to the person showing you how to drive a car [ and note : not necessarily a ‘professional’ driving instructor — just somebody who already knows how to do it ].

    Sure, show her or him how it’s done — show ‘m where the clutch is and how it works ( where I live, most cars still have a standard transmission and a clutch ), show ‘r how to make a good left turn and even how to parallel park — but don’t think it’s really your role to tell him or her where to drive to, or even just how to get there.

    My two cents, anyway. Thanks for listening.

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