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.