Friday, May 02, 2008

Why don't our students ask for help?

Today, at the college where I work, we held a conference on general education programs that featured a panel discussion at which four students (two first-year students and two sophomores) discussed how they do research. Prodded by questions by the moderator (my colleague, Jerry Bornstein), the students spoke about how they often use Wikipedia for background research; how they all rely on databases (Academic Search Premier, LexisNexis, ebrary, the library catalog, and our federated search tool were all named by them); and how often they get research paper assignments (in the first few years, they typically only had one or two).

What really caught the attention of every librarian in the room was the agreement among all four students they had never asked a question at our reference desk or via our email and chat services. The most explanation they were able to offer as to why they had not asked for help was that they felt they did not need to. It's possible that since the students have only had few research assignments, they haven't really been pushed yet to research difficult topics or tackle large projects that require the use of many different kinds of resources.

Last fall, we had a similar panel discussion with students held just for the benefit of library staff. That panel also consisted of four students, all of whom were juniors and seniors. They all reported regular use of our reference services in all its incarnations. So it may be that the first-year students and sophomores in today's panel may find that by their junior and senior years they are asking reference questions. Clearly, a rigorous survey of all students would be an interesting project to purse. As far I know, there has not been a whole lot of research into how often college students ask reference questions at a college library, but I suspect it would yield a power law distribution (FYI: Clay Shirky has nice section on power law distributions and social systems in chapter five of Here Comes Everybody, which I'm reading now).

I wonder which combination of these reasons might be behind the reluctance of student to ask for help:
  • They don't want to ask a "dumb question" or appear incapable of doing the research themselves.
  • Libraries and research make them anxious.
  • They don't know they need help.
  • They're overconfident.
  • They really don't need our help.
  • They forget that reference services exist.
  • They don't know that reference services exist.
  • They had a bad reference experience elsewhere that turned them off the service.
Will an increase in marketing our reference services dramatically improve the number of questions we get asked? Of course any promotion is going to help boost the count of questions we get in reference, but will it ever make a dramatic effect or is there something more fundamental going on inhibiting our students from asking for help. (I should note that our library's reference statistics have been pretty stable over the past ten years and have not shown the declines seen at many other academic libraries.)

I guess a good place for me to get started understanding this problem is by reading a 1972 article by Swope and Katzer, "Why Don't They Ask Questions?" (and, of course, reading more from the Seeking Synchronicity project).

4 Comments:

At 11:56 AM , Blogger Dan said...

My comments ont the possible reasons, based on supporting students both in reference and technology.

They don't want to ask a "dumb question" or appear incapable of doing the research themselves.
Number one reason, whether they'll admit it or not (and most won't).

Libraries and research make them anxious.
In some cases

They don't know they need help.
Frequent reason.

They're overconfident.
This is true in the sense that they think they can google all the information in the world.

They really don't need our help.
True for some, but not many.

They forget that reference services exist.
No.

They don't know that reference services exist.
Not in many cases.

They had a bad reference experience elsewhere that turned them off the service.
In a few cases. Of course this should be never, but those of us at the desk are still human and imperfect. Also, some have unrealistic expectations, such as wanting us to do the work for them.

dan

 
At 4:25 PM , Blogger Meredith said...

This is a tough one, because each of those factors would require a different response.

@Dan, I don't know that students realize that reference services exist or at least that they understand what we can do for them. I never used reference services when I was in college and the main reason was that I didn't understand what they could do for me. I thought doing research was my job as a student and I didn't think anyone could help me with that other than my professor. Of course I'm just one person, but I do think that many students don't understand what we can do for them.

I do agree that a lot of people are embarassed to ask a reference question, and I think we need to look at what we can do to make ourselves more approachable and to take the stigma away from asking for help.

 
At 12:41 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As far I know, there has not been a whole lot of research into how often college students ask reference questions at a college library . . ."

There has been one survey, reported in at least one study. The College Student Experiences Questionnaire (CSEQ) included one question, "Asked a librarian or staff member for help finding information on some topic."

Kuh & Gonyea report on results. About 23% of students said they asked for help often or very often. About 27% never asked for help.

Kuh, George D. and Robert M. Gonyea. 2003. The Role of the Academic Library in Promoting Student Engagement in Learning. College and Research Libraries. 64(4):256-282 (July 2003).
Also see http://cseq.iub.edu/

--John

 
At 3:54 PM , Anonymous katherine.shelfer@att.net said...

My experience indicates undergrads will learn and use the resources of a research library once they have discovered its value for themselves, but they need to see it in comparison with what they would normally do. IMHO, we should forget all about economies of scale and focus on the value chain. I am still 'teaching' undergrads from my library classes at Baruch, although I've been somewhere else for almost 2 years.
Congratulations on tenure, BTW!

 

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