December 13, 2014

13,000 Kids Can’t Be Wrong

By Debra Lau Whelan

A new Ohio study shows how school libraries help students learn

Whether it’s learning proper research skills, locating quality Web sites, or getting better test scores, an overwhelming number of kids think media specialists are essential to learning, according to a new study by professors Ross Todd and Carol Kuhlthau of Rutgers University’s Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries. Student Learning Through Ohio School Libraries reveals that 99.4 percent of students in grades 3 to 12 believe school libraries and their services help them become better learners. To what extent do kids value the media center? Some 88.5 percent of the 13,123 Ohio students surveyed say the school library helps them get better grades on projects and assignments, 74.7 percent say it helps with homework, and 92.4 percent say computers in the media center help improve their overall academic work. The study, which also surveyed 879 faculty members – including principals, assistant principals, teachers, and media specialists – shows that students and educators alike strongly believe that school libraries are key to learning.

Commissioned by the Ohio Educational Library Media Association (OELMA), the survey is bound to have national repercussions: after all, it’s the first comprehensive study based on students’ evaluation of their media centers. Unlike researcher Keith Curry Lance’s studies, which demonstrate the important correlation between effective school libraries and higher test scores, this study provides a multidimensional view of how school libraries specifically help young people with their learning. (For more information on the Lance studies, see "Dick and Jane Go to the Head of the Class ," April 2000, pp. 44 – 47.)

The Ohio study certainly comes at a crucial time as media centers still suffer from budget cuts and questions continue to rise about the role of school libraries in education. "We expect that other states will want to replicate this study to show the value of school libraries in student learning," says Kuhlthau. Although it’s too soon to tell what impact it will have on Ohio’s schools – the state currently requires only one certified librarian for each district – the hope is that this study will influence educational leaders who make funding and staffing decisions for school libraries. (The complete study can be found at www.oelma.org/studentlearning.htm.)

School Library Journal spoke to Todd, the study’s principal investigator, about the importance of his findings.

What is the most important finding of your study?

Of the 13,123 students that we collected data on, only 73 students indicated that none of the 48 statements on the survey applied to them. This is important because the prevailing view by some that school libraries don’t help kids learn or that they should be eliminated is blown apart. We have unequivocal evidence from these kids that school librarians help them do better.

Were there other significant findings?

The second most important finding is that we got a comprehensive picture of how school libraries help students. We also have qualitative data. We asked students to remember a time when the school library really helped them, to write about the type of help they received, and to describe what they were able to do because of the help. We got 10,000 written responses that talked about help in different ways. The prevailing type that students spoke about was from library-based instruction – what they got in terms of what was taught in the class, in groups, or individually that enabled them to engage effectively with information sources and information technology in the pursuit of their learning – the whole information literacy agenda. Time after time, students talked about various library-based classes that helped them with using and accessing information for their research assignments.

Why is that so important?

This is significant because the school library has been very clearly perceived to be a passive space where students go to get information. But libraries are more than a point of exchange to get books and Web sites. That’s a passive notion. This study shows that school libraries are actively engaged as learning instructional centers to develop intellectual scaffolds for students and to help them engage with information meaningfully to construct their own understanding of the topic they’re [studying].

Obviously a proactive librarian is key to a successful library.

A school librarian is absolutely key – that clearly came through. It’s a school librarian who is committed to effective teaching, a school librarian who is a dynamic teacher. Most important is the notion that a school library is a place where kids are facilitated by the school librarian who is actively engaged in using information to construct knowledge.

Were there any surprises in the study?

Students ranked general reading interests as sixth [in order of importance in a school library]. This raises some interesting questions, because for decades we’ve said that the school library is the place for reading enrichment and encouragement and for helping kids become better writers. It’s clear that libraries still do so, but it’s a challenge for school librarians to do that better. It’s obvious that school libraries help kids with general reading interests, but kids perceive help in other areas, such as computer technology, as more important.

Why did reading rank so low among high school students?

The number-one reason is that high school curriculums are so crowded. Kids are so pressured, particularly in high school, that they have barely enough time to do all the schoolwork, let alone read. When we asked students to list topics they thought were primary for the school library, leisure reading ranked relatively low. If kids wanted books for pleasure reading, they went to the public library. Kids perceive general interest collections in school libraries as not as strong as those found in public libraries.

Do school and public libraries need to collaborate more closely to get older students interested in reading?

School and public libraries are functioning as separate entities and need closer collaboration and dialogue to provide a much more holistic information service. Students should use public libraries in addition to school libraries as part of the information chain. We didn’t work out a solution in the research. The role of the study is not to provide a solution but to begin a dialogue to find a solution.

Were you surprised by how high school students ranked technology?

The role of information technology in an information-age school is critical. We weren’t disappointed that technology ranked so much higher than reading because students’ comments focused on the instructional component of technology. Students not only saw technology in terms of providing access to information, they valued the information-literacy skills that school librarians taught them, such as learning to search the Internet; evaluating Web sites; and things that went beyond the Internet, like using PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and other software programs to make their projects better.

Tell us about how the faculty responded to the survey?

We gave the same statements [we asked the kids] to the faculty. We collected data from 800 teaching faculty – principals, assistant principals, school librarians, classroom teachers, and technology experts. What surprised me was that the ranking of the faculty was almost identical to the students’, apart from reading. Also, the faculty ranked the importance of school libraries with assistance with schoolwork in general as number six and students ranked it number four, but teachers are not going to say that the library does a better job than they do. Such a strong triangulation between students and faculty is a confirmation of the importance of the school library.

How do girls’ responses compare to boys’? And how do minority students’ responses compare to whites’?

Overall, girls consider school libraries as more helpful, but we don’t know why. Also, [students' perceptions of how the library helped them with reading scored] higher for African Americans than whites. While school libraries benefit all students, they afford African Americans particularly meaningful opportunities to learn and achieve. We’re not sure about the reasons why African Americans scored higher in those areas, but overall trends were higher for African-American students. This is important for No Child Left Behind in that school libraries are particularly beneficial for this minority group. African Americans scored higher than mixed race [students] and Hispanics.

What does the study suggest in terms of No Child Left Behind?

At a basic level, without school libraries, my sense is that kids will be left behind. The study shows that kids see a very clear relationship between the help they get from school libraries and doing better on research assignments, class work, and tests. Some 99.4 percent of kids say they cannot do well without a school library. I was so happy to see that only 73 students said the school library didn’t help them. When 10,000-plus students take the time to write how the school library helped them, it’s no longer guesswork.

The Ohio Study’s Top FindingsStudents in grades 3 – 12 were asked to rank the different ways in which school libraries helped them learn.
Most helpful Quite helpful Some help A little help Does not apply
The school library has helped me do my schoolwork better. 21.5% 21.7% 21.1% 20.4% 15.3%
The school library has helped me get better grades on my projects and assignments. 26.1% 26.4% 19.5% 16.5% 11.5%
The school library has helped me know the different steps in finding and using information. 25.7% 38.7% 22.3% 10.1% 3.2%
The school library has helped me work out the main ideas in the information I find. 17.7% 31.9% 25.6% 16.9% 7.9%
The school library has helped me get better at taking notes. 12.8% 16.6% 20.7% 27.8% 22.1%
The information I have found in the school library has helped me become more interested in my topics. 23.1% 25.6% 22.1% 18.4% 10.8%
The school library has helped me be more careful about information I find on the Internet. 24.8% 22.7% 18.9% 19.2% 14.4%
The school library has helped me be a better writer. 15.5% 16.9% 17.9% 24.7% 25%
The school library lessons have helped me solve problems better. 13.3% 17.4% 20.2% 24.5% 24.6%
The school library has helped me know when I find good information. 19.9% 29.1% 26.0% 17.9% 7.1%
The school library has helped me put ideas into my own words. 13.4% 20.2% 22.5% 26.0% 17.9%
The school library has helped me know how to use the different kinds of information sources (books, magazines, CDs, Web sites, and videos). 31.5% 30.4% 19.5% 12.4% 6.2%

About the Study: Based on 48 statements broken down into seven blocks, or categories, Student Learning Through Ohio School Libraries asked 13,123 Ohio students from 39 schools to rank the different ways in which school libraries helped them with learning, from "most helpful," "quite helpful," "some help," and "a little help" to "does not apply at all." Schools that met certain criteria related to effective school libraries – such as having a strong collection and a certified librarian – were chosen by a confidential panel of international and local experts on school libraries. Ohio schools were also asked to nominate schools that met those criteria. The researchers chose an equitable distribution of elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, as well as rural and suburban schools. Each school library was responsible for securing student volunteers to participate in the Web-based survey. The study was conducted from October 2002 to December 2003.


Author Information
Debra Lau Whelan is SLJ‘s senior editor for news and features.

 

What Students Had to Say

"When I had to write a term paper for English class, the school library was vital in helping me at all the different steps in the research and write-up. Because of the school library, I got a pretty good grade on my paper."

"I was having trouble finding any sources, and the librarian showed me how to use some things on the Internet, which got me a lot of good and credible sites for my research."

"The library has helped me understand that not everything I read online is true. The school librarian made me double-check any information I got. Now even at home I check everything I read online from another source. My grades have improved just from this one little technique."

"I really didn’t know how to do reading, and I was getting bad grades. Then we started doing main-idea reading, which we learned in library class. Now I know how to come up with a main idea and put my other ideas together around it."

"The library helped me become more organized, including how to do bibliographies to show where I got my information. This also includes how to set up and take my notes properly."

"When beginning research for a paper on The Odyssey by Homer, I had no idea where to begin looking. I asked my librarian for help, and she discussed my ideas with me without making me feel like a dummy, and showed me many useful books. When I then wrote the paper, I got an A."


Profile of a Successful School Library

Based on their findings, Ross Todd, Carol Kuhlthau, and the Ohio study research team concluded that students perceived the school library as a "dynamic agent of student learning and student achievement." The researchers also developed a more detailed profile of an effective school library. The following eight characteristics can be used as a strategic road map for school librarians who want to place a stronger emphasis on instruction and learning in their programs.

Resource Agents. The school library and librarian provide up-to-date diverse resources to meet the curriculum’s informational needs. The librarian provides instructional interventions by guiding students in their information choices through the effective use of these resources.

Literacy Development Agents. The school librarian engages students in an active and meaningful search process, enabling them to explore, formulate, and focus their searches, and providing a supportive environment (personal, physical, and instructional) for students to be successful in their research. Students understand that doing good research will lead to better knowledge of the curriculum content, as well as to academic success in their research projects.

Knowledge Construction Agents. The school librarian develops information literacy scaffolds for engaging students with information in meaningful ways, enabling them to construct and develop new knowledge and understanding.

Academic Achievement Agents. The school librarian is a dynamic agent of learning who helps students achieve better grades, particularly on research projects and assignments. An agent of academic achievement must be both a credentialed educator and librarian.

Independent Reading and Personal Development Agents. The school library plays a role in fostering independent reading, particularly in lower grades. Reading materials that target personal pursuits, pleasure reading, and reading for knowledge provide students with an important foundation. It is essential to promote and encourage reading literacy, academic achievement, and the development of independent, lifelong readers.

Technological Literacy Agents. The school library plays an important role in information technology by providing students with up-to-date software across multiple media. Lessons must go beyond teaching the effective use of software to include technical troubleshooting (disk, printing, Internet access) and problem-solving skills.

Rescue Agents. Students have many information crises: they need last-minute resources, help with technology, solutions to technical problems, and help developing theses for projects. Indeed, even as a rescue agent, the library is opportunistic, responding to the multiple needs that arise from learning.

Individualized Learning Agents. The personal touch of a professional school librarian matters a great deal to students. Personal engagement with students is a critical component of an effective school library. School librarians who see themselves as information-learning specialists play a vital role in student learning.

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