A little while back, I wrote a post about the role of narratives in our lives. The stories we tell about our lives that inform the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Those stories impact everything. Including our willingness to persist when challenged in an academic environment. And in a time where retention initiatives exist on just about every college campus, looking at ways to get students to persist in their studies is critical.

Lots of universities look at factors they can easily measure. Grades. Financial aid load. Visits to academic advising. But I believe that self-efficacy plays a huge psychological role in retention. Self-efficacy, that sense that one can succeed at their task. Believing in oneself. I find it surprising that in searching the literature on the role of self-efficacy in retention, it seems to be a topic that has only recently started to be explored. And in studies, researchers have found that self-efficacy has a significant impact on persistence and retention. Students with high self-efficacy are more likely to be retained. Students with low self-efficacy are not.

Context, one’s history, plays a huge role in self-efficacy. One study I read found that first-generation college students tended to have lower levels of academic self-efficacy than those with parents who went to college. Having been a social worker, it makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think too many of us realize how much the way we grew up figures into whether and how we believe in ourselves. I had two college-educated parents. Not completing college was not even something I ever thought was an option. But as a child and family therapist, I saw many bright young people whose vision of what they could become was limited by the horrible circumstances in which they were growing up. I remember one client of mine in particular and every time I think of him I always cry.

He was 12 when I met him and he was having major trouble in school. He was very angry and that anger was spilling out into his interactions with everyone from his classmates to his teachers. He was put in a class for emotionally disturbed children, which was a shame because he was learning next to nothing in it. He was a smart-ass, but he was also smart. Extremely smart. We had most of our therapy sessions at his school, and I’d often buy him books or take him over to the school library to get books. He was a voracious reader, but reading and academic achievement weren’t encouraged at home. He was living in low-income housing in a high-crime area. He was the victim of physical abuse. His mom only paid attention to him when he misbehaved. And all of that conspired to limit his sense of self-efficacy. Constrained what he thought he was capable of. Some people overcome horrible childhoods to achieve great things, but many don’t. I remember thinking at the time, if I could adopt this boy, he would have a very different future. And that thought broke my heart. It still does.

There’s not a lot we can do about what our students come in with, but there are things we can do to help them be successful once they get here. I have always been an advocate for a strong library role in first-year instruction because I think it’s a critical time for students to build self-efficacy and thus be retained. I don’t believe that one-shot information literacy sessions work well with a population that is already convinced they are expert researchers, but I do believe that being present and being a support to first-year students is critical. And I also believe that we can play an important role in helping instructors design research assignments that build self-efficacy rather than tear it down.

Imagine you’re a college Freshman. Your experience with research papers is minimal and mostly consists of finding books in your high school library and summarizing what you’ve read. Suddenly, in your third week of college classes ever, you are asked to do a major research project where you have to find five peer-reviewed sources. Your professor explains what peer-reviewed means, but not how or where to find sources. You have to not only find five peer-reviewed articles, but read them, understand them, and synthesize them into a paper with a cogent argument. Do you come out of this experience feeling –

A. Frustrated, but realize that your professor’s gave you a crappy assignment
B. Frustrated, but grateful for the kick in the pants by your professor because you’re learning so much
C. Proud of yourself for completing it at all
D. Frustrated and wondering if you’re really cut out for this

Probably different people will conclude different things from this assignment, but for those who already have a low sense of self-efficacy, this crappy experience just confirms their fears that maybe they’re not ready for college.

Clearly, instructors can tear someone down. But they can also build a student up. And this is where I think teachers can learn a lot from video game design. In video games, you don’t go up against the big boss bad guy right off the bat. You do things that give you practice; that build your confidence. You develop skills and a sense of self-efficacy that then help you persist when the game gets tough and your character dies 20 times in the same place. If you played a game where you got that kind of a smackdown from the start, you’d quit. Game designers know how to scaffold skill acquisition in a game through tasks that increase in difficulty so you’ll keep playing.

Imagine you’re that same college Freshman who is essentially green when it comes to college-level research. Imagine that your instructor teaches the research process step-by-step, giving you small assignments along the way that allow you to practice each step in the process. You learn how to brainstorm keywords, search effectively in a library database, evaluate sources, etc. and with each small assignment, you move towards a full research paper. Your final assignment in the class is to write that research paper (let’s also assume that writing skills are similarly taught in a scaffolded way). By that point, you’ve developed the skills necessary to complete the task successfully. Your instructor set you up to succeed. She built your skills and sense of self-efficacy through scaffolded instruction and small assignments leading toward a research paper. This may lead to a positive feedback loop; building student self-efficacy through information literacy instruction may result in greater student interest in developing information literacy skills. One study showed that students with higher self-efficacy were more likely to be interested in learning about library resources.

I have seen way too many first-year assignments that set students up to fail and I believe that the library can and should play a role in supporting faculty in designing assignments that teach and assess research skills, and increase student self-efficacy. I don’t think most instructors are intentionally trying to torture first-year students. I think in many cases they are used to working with upper-division students or graduate students who can handle a different sort of assignment. Teaching first-year students is an art. That’s why so many people don’t want to do it.

I’m going to start offering faculty workshops on research assignment design in Winter term. I had the opportunity to do this over the summer with some of the faculty in my liaison areas who were taking their classes online and the conversations and collaborations that came from the workshop were amazing. It’s great to support student information literacy at the course design level, because it’s likely to have more impact than any one-shot could.

I’ve come to believe that our success in creating information literate students will not come from our teaching alone, though our work as teachers is valuable. It will come from influencing faculty teaching and assignment design. It will come from injecting information literacy into courses at a molecular level so that we can help students become not only information literate, but confident in their own research skills. It’s no an easy fix and it requires a heck of a lot more collaboration and trust between librarians and faculty than it takes to get into a class for a one-shot. But it’s so very worth the effort.