November 19, 2017

Avoiding the Literacy Sophomore Slump | From the Bell Tower

It is widely accepted that the hardest year in almost any endeavor is the second one. Things often get off to a gangbusters start, accompanied by a great deal of enthusiasm and energy. Following up that initial success with equal or greater levels of achievement is a challenge that confronts individuals and organizations across many fields. In fact, there is actually a name for this phenomenon – the “sophomore slump.” The slump routinely manifests itself, in a public way, in sports and music, among others, I’m sure, but I never would have thought higher education would be one place where it shows up. It turns out there is a sophomore slump – and it happens to…sophomores.

A special convocation
It may be news to academic librarians, but quite a few college students struggle once they get past the first year. As new arrivals our students receive considerable attention, from orientation extravaganzas to first-year learning experience programs. Then the students go from loads of attention to has-been status as sophomores. Some experience a psychological letdown that leaves them less engaged with their studies. Others wither without the special support they received as freshman. An article in the New York Times brought this problem to my attention. Duke University focuses on this problem with a unique activity – a special convocation for second-year students. The goal is to remind the students they are still special and important to the institution. Duke’s convocation kicks off a series of events to keep the sophomores engaged and out of the slump.

Many don’t make it to the junior year
An article in Inside Higher Ed also reported on the sophomore slump. The reason it’s a concern is simple: dropouts. According to the article, “about 20 to 25 percent of second-year students experience the slump.” Laurie Schreiner, a professor and chair of doctoral programs in higher education at Azusa Pacific University, conducts annual spring surveys of sophomores at nearly 100 colleges. Her data indicates that the students who report dissatisfaction or disillusionment, often prompted by [is this overclaiming impact? What about other factors-more remote from home support, more complex relationships at school, more reality setting in?] the shock of losing the intense institutional attention and support they received as freshmen, drop out prior to their junior year.

Most of the efforts targeted at sophomores are designed to improve retention. However, despite an increase in the number of institutions trying sophomore convocations, there’s no evidence yet that these strategies actually meet the goal. Part of the problem is that the experts are challenged to fully understand what causes the sophomore slump, and why it’s so hard to overcome.

You may argue that Schreiner overstates the impact of the decline of attention paid to sophomores. Factors such as a cut in financial aid, a change in a personal situation, a better job opportunity and other situations can all contribute to a premature exit. When you think about it though, if more attention was being paid to sophomores and retaining them, might it not be possible for colleges and universities to provide the additional support needed to help sophomores overcome these challenges-or at least think them through with care. If the end goal is retention and persistence to graduation, the sophomore year is where things might really be make-or-break for many students.

Our own version of the sophomore slump
Reading about this phenomenon got me thinking about one that occurs in the academic library: the information literacy sophomore slump. Many academic libraries have programs with a wide reach and considerable success in the freshman year, but that can be difficult to extend to the sophomores and beyond. Why does this happen? Let’s start with the structure of the curriculum. Most of our institutions have a course all freshman are required to take – think English 101. That course provides a vehicle for reaching all the freshmen with some sort of ground level research skill-building instruction session.

After year one the curriculum ratchets up in complexity. Students branch off into different colleges and departments. Classes are more mixed with sophomores, juniors, and seniors, so that identifying a “sophomore only” course is challenging. Take for example, a business student. As a freshman she’s required to take English 101. Great. She gets to participate in a first-year library learning experience. But then she’s off to a course in marketing, while another sophomore business major is over in accounting. Even with a required core of general education courses, the students start to have far more options that make it truly difficult to figure out where to hit all the sophomores. Efforts to graphically map the curriculum start looking like Pentagon organization charts.

Less collaboration, more slump
A successful information literacy initiative that works across the curriculum and throughout the span of a four-year education depends on faculty collaboration. It’s needed in the Curriculum Committee that can push forward the initiative and create an institutional outcome, and it’s needed at the individual course level.

Faculty who fail to see the need to continue the initiative beyond the freshmen year contribute to the slump. In my experience, the faculty reaction to exposing all first-year students to library research instruction is largely positive, but it leads to a “that’s all folks” mentality. The faculty line of thinking-that because freshmen acquired some initial library instruction there’s no need to spend more time on it in following years so they can devote all class time to focusing on the discipline-must change.

Developing good research skills, along with the critical thought process required of successful researchers, happens over time-not in one class or one semester. Freshmen can gain some knowledge of the library website or what database to pick, but it takes much longer to affect attitudes about information retrieval. The first year is but a start on that longer journey. In the absence of building on prior learning and reinforcement in the disciplines, whatever freshmen learn from librarians surely fades away.

Can we beat the slump?
Even if the curriculum presented few barriers and the faculty were willing partners, we are often limited by our own staff constraints. It’s no easy task to maintain a comprehensive freshmen effort while branching out into all the courses where sophomores are found. No academic library will ever have enough staff to reach all the students at each level that would benefit from research instruction. The targeted approach to the curriculum likely remains the best way to meet the need. By carefully mapping and studying the curriculum we should be able to at least pinpoint courses with the most sophomores. If we also distribute our staff resources appropriately we can increase our ability to achieve specific outcomes. Our business sophomore can learn evaluation skills in her marketing course, but learn techniques for the ethical use of information in a course in another discipline where many business students take electives.

One important take away from the experience of those institutions paying more attention to sophomores is that we ignore these second-year students at our own peril. They clearly demonstrate a desire to remain essential to their college. Treating them like forgotten has-beens while we put all our energy into the new freshmen is of little good to either the sophomores or us. I’m sure there are good examples of second efforts that defied the trend. Think Led Zeppelin II. Likewise, I’m sure there are academic librarians who have developed successful strategies for moving the curriculum-wide information literacy initiative to the sophomore year and beyond. I hope we’ll hear more from them about how they beat the slump.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.