In September, I went to a lecture given by Allison Head of Project Information Literacy fame at a local university. During the lecture, she offered a preview of the research report that would be coming out soon on first-year students. I hadn’t realized until then that none of the other PIL research had examined this population and I was eager to hear what she learned. You can see my tweets from the lecture under the hashtag #sherrerlecture. I came out of the lecture feeling validated in the approaches we have taken with library instruction for the Freshman Inquiry (FRINQ) classes at Portland State. We try to offer a warmth session (a brief visit in thier classroom focused on library awareness and putting a friendly face on the library) to every FRINQ class in addition to any information literacy instruction we might provide. We also take a train-the-trainer approach so that information literacy instruction doesn’t only happen during our time with the students. We focus a lot of our instruction on what I call pre-search, which is focused on topic development, keyword brainstorming, determining what evidence you need, where to search, etc. And what I heard from Alison’s summary of the research was that our focus is in exactly the right place: 74% of Freshmen have trouble with brainstorming keywords, making it the most widespread problem found in the study.

Now the report is out and you can see for yourself. The results from this study are particularly compelling and there have  been terrific posts summarizing the results from Karen Schneider (who brought up the elephant in the room, namely the importance of high school information literacy instruction at a time when so many K-12 librarians are losing their jobs) and Barbara Fister (who like me was pleasantly surprised to see the percentage of students who found librarians a useful resource).

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but Portland State has some unusual student demographics. A full 2/3 of our undergraduates come in as transfers — mostly from Portland-area community colleges, but also from other 4-year schools. So, only around 1/3 of our students ever go through the Freshman Inquiry program, a terrific full-academic-year cohort-based program that includes peer mentor support as well as the same instructor for the whole year. Because of these demographics, we have had many discussions at our library about how much emphasis we should place on teaching in FRINQ. Some have argued that we should focus the majority of our efforts on reaching students in the upper-division courses in their majors. As we are seeing our budget cut and our staff shrink, I fear that Freshman instruction is going to be an area where we are going to be asked to further cut back in. But I think it’s wrong. And I always have a list of arguments in my back pocket ready to advocate for the importance of Freshman instruction; arguments that have just been bolstered by the Project Information Literacy report:

1. They need us – Freshmen come into college having had experience with libraries that on average had 19 times fewer databases and with research that usually required reading stuff and summarizing it. In our Freshman Inquiry classes, the students are confronted with some pretty sophisticated research assignments that, for the most part, they are ill-equipped to handle. We can make all the arguments we want about how faculty shouldn’t be assigning full research papers in the first year, but the reality is that they are and we owe it to these students to support them. How could we wait two years, letting them struggle on their own that whole time?

2. We have a retention problem – Like many large, public, urban universities, Portland State has a big retention problem, especially among first year students. We have a lot of first-generation students, academically unprepared students, and students under significant financial strain. We also have a big commuter population and not enough of a campus  culture or co-curricular activities. One of the big issues students have is that they feel disconnected and lost at such a large school and don’t get the individual attention/support they need. The more we can put a friendly face on the library and encourage them to seek help from us, the more likely they are to feel supported within the institution. I’ve seen research in the past that has shown that students who connect with supporters on campus (like tutors, advisors, librarians, etc.) are more likely to be retained. If that’s the case, then we should absolutely be focusing on Freshman as our contribution to the retention effort. And not just by providing a bunch of tutorials. I was happy to see in the PIL report that “Freshmen said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research.” We do make a difference.

3. Freshman DO get a lot out of library instruction – An argument I’ve commonly heard against instruction for first-year students is that they don’t realize they need help so they don’t get anything out of our instruction. Yes, I know that engaging Freshman is a lot more difficult than engaging upper-division students. I’ve had instruction sections with Freshman where I wonder if anyone listened to anything I said. The key with Freshman is to make the instruction section as active as possible. Do as little lecturing as you can. I do a lot of group activities, pair and shares, and jigsaw exercises. Last Spring I also tried having students do an online research worksheet (that included instructional videos and required them to do research on their topic) before they came to class. Because they’d already had the experience of struggling with research on their topics, they were much more engaged during the instruction session than I’ve noticed in the past. A side benefit was that I got to see specifically where they were struggling with their research before the session. It may take more effort, but Freshman can get a lot out of library instruction.

4. Freshman do not realize they can (and often should) get help with their research – College students think that they should be self-sufficient and independent when they go to college and that extends to research. It doesn’t occur to many students that they can get help from a reference librarian. One student said “I just found out when the librarian visited our class that talking to her in the library was an option — I had no idea. I went to the reference desk and… she gave me different ways of thinking about going and using the databases. … I went and saw a librarian at the end of my research process, but honestly, what would really be good though is go to them in the beginning.” Insights like that are only gained when librarians are present in the classroom. Disciplinary faculty can promote the library, but for those who see the library as a scary place or asking for help as admitting failure, it takes meeting a librarian to change their thinking. There is value to “putting a friendly face on the library,” even if your visit to their class is only meant to achieve that goal.

5. If you want to create library users, get ’em in early – Students are creatures of habit. The PIL report supports the idea that the research tools and strategies students learn about early on are those that they continue using. If a librarian tells them once to use JSTOR, they will use that for every assignment henceforth, whether it’s the ideal database or not. So if you want to get students to use that library and its databases, you need to sell them on it as soon as they get to your institution. Get them using it for their first research assignment and help them use it successfully, and you’re golden.

I have to say that the last two paragraphs of the Project Information Literacy report made me giddy:

Based on our studies, we believe that the greatest gains may occur by focusing on teaching freshmen. This is a time when students are new to higher learning and most excited about discovering more about topics that interest them. Moreover, there needs to be coordinated efforts between librarians and educators, so that information literacy is taught in a progressive and contextual manner.

If instruction efforts are not stepped up early many freshmen run the very real risk of ‘flatlining.’ By this we mean that the research styles students develop during their ever-important first year could become static as they progress as sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Neglecting this will greatly impede their ability to solve information problems once they graduate, join the workplace, and continue as lifelong learners.

I’m not going to argue that first-year instruction is more important than instruction in the major. I think they’re both important for different reasons. I don’t think it needs to be an either/or; we have to find a healthy balance between the two where no area feels short-changed.

I know most of you probably aren’t in the position of having to advocate for the existence of your library instruction program for first-year students, but what other reasons do you have for thinking first-year instruction is important? What steps have you taken in your teaching to make it more valuable for this group? How might the results from the PIL study change your instructional approach?


Image credit: Campus Life – Freshman Orientation by Lafayette, on Flickr.