April 23, 2018

Could This Experiment Work for Us? | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

As funding tightens and administrators and faculty debate the relative merits of supporting different campus services, the conversation will eventually turn to the academic library and whether all the investment in books, journals, and staff is worth the return.

We know administrators are thinking this can all be done more efficiently and with cost savings. That’s why one of our current challenges is to better document the value we bring to our institutions, and I wrote recently about an initiative ACRL has just launched to provide this exact type of information.

What if we could perform an experiment with our students to test the impact of having access to and interacting more closely with an academic librarian? Would it improve a student’s academic performance? Would he or she be more likely to make it to the next academic year, and possibly perform with greater success on the way to graduation? Such an experiment is not out of the question, and a model could be provided by a new study.

Does more guidance equal better results for students?
If you think that is a question to which the perfect answer is “Yes, if we’re talking about academic librarians,” then you’ve got the right attitude. But the truth is that when it comes to academic librarians and successful student outcomes we have little more to offer than anecdote.

When it comes to academic advisors though, a few colleges wanted to gather some real data in order to answer the question. To improve retention and persistence to graduation, two community colleges in Ohio ran a two-semester experiment (learn more here) in which students were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The control group students received standard advising services. Students in the experimental group were assigned to an advisor serving less than half the number of students of a regular advisor. Students in the “Opening Doors” program, as it was named, also met with advisors two times a semester to discuss academic progress. As an incentive to stay with the program students received $150 per semester. So, did the extra attention help reduce dropout rates?

Results take time
The study tracked student engagement over the four additional semesters beyond the initial two covered by the experimental program. Early on, after the first semester, there’s almost no difference between the groups. But in the second semester there is a noticeable change as a significantly higher number of students in the experimental group register rather than dropping out. 

However, beyond that semester both groups show a significant drop in registration rates, exhibiting poor retention behavior. In the end, the experimental group registered at only a slightly higher rate than the control group, 24.4% compared to 23.2%. The extra effort did help, but I’m sure this outcome was disappointing to the community colleges. Why didn’t the additional support and attention yield better results? More importantly, is there something academic librarians can take away from the outcome?

It takes more
The results of this experiment suggest two takeaways for academic librarians. First, though we might be proud of the help we provide to our students, we need to keep things in perspective. Our assistance alone may not contribute to student retention and persistence to graduation as much as we might think. Second, the type of personal research guidance academic librarians offer to students can help, but to really make a difference it needs to happen over a longer period.

Just a single interaction with students may be too little. A longer period of instruction interactions along with occasional one-on-one consultations would go further toward providing the type of guidance that could make more of a difference for students.

We should also consider a recommendation of the Opening Doors program in which the researchers suggested that more attention in just one area may be insufficient. Rather, enhanced guidance should be part of a comprehensive support package to help student retention. Academic librarians frequently partner with their colleagues in the writing program or the tutoring center, a positive approach, but perhaps we also need to collaborate with colleagues in other areas as well.

A research agenda for academic librarians
We academic librarians like to think that our contribution to higher education results in better academic performance. Anecdotally, I imagine that some of our faculty colleagues would agree. But we need more than anecdotal evidence. The final thing I think we can learn from the Opening Doors program is that we need to conduct more research designed to demonstrate the impact our services have on those we serve, and not just better performance in a single course, but overall impact on retention and academic success.

Could a similar experiment work for us? I think it would, but as this experiment suggests it should involve more than just two institutions, and be connected to some broader campus support strategy. It would no doubt be a complex and challenging endeavor, but one that may ultimately enable academic librarians to more concretely identify the value they add to higher education.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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