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.
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).