March 22, 2018

Knowing What Leads to Student Success | From the Bell Tower

It’s hard enough for academic librarians to keep up with research in their own profession, so we sometimes miss research about our students and how they learn that could enable us to help them to be more successful.

Go back a few years and you may recall millennial generation students as the topic that captured the attention of academic librarians. We needed to know who these students were, their technology behavior, how they socialized, and whatever else we could learn, all with the goal of better meeting their needs and expectations. Around the same time, we discovered the findings of the early enthnographic studies of college students and their research behaviors. Later yet, we were exposed to the first Project Information Literacy study, and from it we gained additional insight into our students’ work ethic and their perceptions of college-level research. Together, these projects helped academic librarians build a better knowledgebase about our user community, and the more we know the better we can serve them. As informative as these studies were, we need to keep pushing ourselves to learn more about our students. Which leads to the question, what are the latest research studies telling us about our students and how they live and learn?

Factors for success

What if we knew even more about the factors that foster academic success among our students, and what enables them to achieve great things beyond their college years? If we want to provide value to our academic community, we must position the library so that it’s evident our work contributes to student success. We also need more than anecdotal evidence. Consider an instructor’s recent Chronicle essay, in which she observed that her students increasingly lack not only the motivation to learn but the capacity to think for themselves. When asked to identify a topic for a research paper, many students found it difficult to do so, and asked the instructor to tell them what subject to choose. Frustrating indeed, and quite possibly the outcome of a secondary education system that fails to instill critical thinking skills, but we need research that helps us understand why we encounter these behaviors and strategies that would help these students succeed. Learning what makes some students succeed while others fail could provide us with resources and techniques to make a significant difference. The good news is that a growing area of research focuses on this exact topic.

Can academic librarians help?

The time academic librarians spend with students is quite limited, and ultimately that leads to challenges in any effort to make a difference. But even small bits of interaction can matter. When I spend time at the reference desk, I encounter students who ask me to tell them if we have the book they need. I could easily do that, but that really does them a disservice. They need to understand how much more productive it is to find out before they get to the library if we have a certain book, and what other books we have on that subject—and what to do if the book isn’t available. If they have no idea how to do this on their own, they are at a disadvantage. When I take students to a computer and say, “You’re going to find the book, and I’ll help you do it,” some do seem taken aback that I’m not just going to do it for them—and perhaps they’ve grown up accustomed to having adults jump to get them what they need to avoid any possibility of failure. Two new research reports may shed some light on how the way our college students are being parented and schooled impacts on their interpersonal and academic behavior.

The Same But Different

In a new book titled Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, professors Arthur Levine and Diane Dean report that our students are in many ways similar to the generations of students preceding them. What makes them distinct is that they are simultaneously connected and disconnected. They are constantly engaged in online social networks, yet they have poor one-on-one communication skills. They prefer impersonal communication. It’s no joke that roommates will be together and text each other instead of talking. Owing to parents who coddled them, our students are “an immature generation, inexperienced in dealing with adversity, and expecting applause for all it does.” Levine and Dean call for higher education to help students develop communication skills, and an understanding that as adults they need to become resilient and independent. Something as simple as being able to answer the question, “Does the library have the book I want?” on your own, and knowing what to do when the answer is “no,” can lead students to develop those qualities.

In another book titled How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, we learn that academic success is thought to mostly depend on cognitive skill, the kind that can be measured by IQ tests. Real academic and life success, the research tells us, depends on developing persistence, self-control, curiosity, grit, and self-confidence. These non-cognitive skills, or what we call character traits, help students to deal with adversity and setbacks, while enabling them to develop skills for lifelong success. Given the many ways in which academic librarians interact with college students, there is significant potential to help students gain these qualities.

Back off

Research studies make for good reading, but how can this information help us to help our students succeed? Academic librarians have only limited time with individual students, so how might they help students to improve their communication or gain confidence as researchers? According to the research Tough shares in his book, the best strategy might be to do nothing at all. The experts suggest letting students experience some adversity or even fail in order to learn how to be resilient. While I’m willing to steer students to a terminal so they can do their own catalog search, I’m less likely to abandon them. Seeking to avoid them getting frustrated, I’ll jump in if it looks like the search is about to go badly. Perhaps what I should be doing is letting them experience a small failure, and then support their effort to recover—especially by encouraging them to think through what went wrong and how to make the correction. If academic librarians want to help today’s students be successful, then we may want to pay closer attention to the research that helps us understand how they think, the impact of their parenting and schooling, and what we can do to make a difference for them.

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.

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  1. Sherry Rhodes says:

    When I’m working with students at the Reference Desk or in a scheduled research consultation, I ask the students what they’re tried before so that the first database we look at isn’t one they tried already. I’ll ask the student to come up w/some terms to search on, then show him/her (if s/he doesn’t know already) how AND & OR work, what asterisks & quotes do, how to find the peer review checkbox, how to limit the dates, etc., then run the search. If the results aren’t what they’re looking for, we brainstorm for more terms (including checking the thesaurus, if that’s an option) & then I have them run the search. Once the results list looks manageable I push the keyboard & mouse over to the student & have them start checking out the results, pointing out how to use references & citations to get more sources. Along the way I usually tell them about the services the library offers (ILL, e.g.) & show them where to find various helpful links on the library’s homepage. Generally I see students becoming more confident about how to use the databases themselves as we go along, but I’m still there to answer questions if they need me to.

  2. Hi Sherry. Thanks for sharing your approach to how you help students to succeed with library research. I see where you are putting the responsibility on them at certain points, but do you allow them to fail – to get bad results…and then leave them for a bit to try to figure out where things went wrong. It’s not an easy thing to do, but perhaps there is something to the research.

    • Sherry Rhodes says:

      Hi Steve—Thanks for the response. Yes, I do let them come up w/bad results & then ask them what they’d like to change to rerun the search. Sometimes students need more handholding on my part to come up w/alternate terms & sometimes they’re good at coming up w/things themselves. If I’ve had to help them more, I step back after that & let them work on their own. Rinse & repeat, as the expression goes, until I see them figuring it out on their own. I want them to be able to fish for themselves. : )

  3. Jennifer Calvo says:

    I am currently a high school librarian and a former academic reference librarian. When I worked at the university, I faced the same issues with students- the inability to select and develop a topic on their own, difficulty in locating and evaluating sources, etc. My colleagues and I always wondered what students were learning in high school.

    Now that I work in a high school, I see students that lack curiosity. They are terrific young people, but much of their inquiry is very surface based. Assignments to write papers include lists of topics (they are not required to come up with a topic on their own). The rubric spells out exactly what should be included in the paper. Even the most motivated students follow the assignment like a recipe rather than a suggested path for inquiry.

    I would suggest developing a relationship with a high school librarian. Visit a high school library on a day when students are writing papers. Talk to the students (if the librarian will allow you to) and review the assignment. I think it will be an real eye opener.

    -Now I find myself wondering what in the world students are learning in the middle school!