What you get when you ask

In my last post, I suggested that one of the great things about teaching FYS is a captive freshmen audience. The thing is, when you ask questions of students, very often the answer is different than you thought. Their answers sometimes confirm what you suspect from observation but their reasoning may not align with your assumptions. Understanding why something is happening that way, not just that it is happening, is crucial to accurately meet a need. Here are three ways we’ve asked questions of our library community, with answers that both confirm our observations and open new avenues for services and effective learning.

EXHIBIT A: Extra hours poll. For various reasons, extended hours at the end of the semester have always been a bit fraught in our library. With Capstones due at varying times, Capstone presentations happening the weekend before finals, and “finals” themselves being less formal than the name suggests, answering the question “when would extended hours be most helpful?” has never been clear for us. We tried a number of approaches, but never felt that participation met our expectations. Last spring after midterm, I conducted a quick and dirty poll (slips of paper in a box at the front desk) to see if students had a preference for when extended hours would take place. They had three options: Week before Capstones, weekend before finals, week of finals. Results: Students would prefer that the library be open all the time, always. With a near three-way tie, the results weren’t as helpful as we wanted, but we did modify our usual extended hours to include extended weekend hours for the first time and were able to use the semi-magic words “in response to your feedback, we are now offering more extended hours than ever before” in our marketing. Outcome: Students felt heard, we confirmed that there was no objectively “best” time for extended hours, and student participation in extended hours increased.

noise level 1

 

noise level 2

EXHIBIT B: Where is it noisy? Our library is a beautiful space. Though small by most academic library standards, it is wonderfully useful, with different types of working spaces to accommodate all kinds of student learning from individual to group study. It is also one of the only spaces on campus where students can do work outside of their dorms. While the library is rarely noisy by our standards, noise can be difficult to contain due to the open design and lofted second floor. In addition, our efforts to reserve space within the library as “silent study” during midterms and finals had been ineffective for years owing to ongoing misunderstanding and miscommunication between the library, Conference Services, and parties interested in reserving library space. We received a few complaints about noise in the library this fall that lead us to believe that the students’ definition of “noisy” was different from our own. Our wonderful new Student Outreach Librarian, Amy Pajewski, created this brilliant pinboard to allow students to indicate their perceived noise levels throughout the library. Results: Indeed, student perception of noise is different from the library staff’s perception. In fact, students themselves differ in noise perception. (It cracks me up that they rated the noise levels in the bathrooms, and that the men’s room is perceived to be much louder than the women’s room.) Outcome: We’re working with Conference Services and our Provost to regain access to silent study space in the library (the Adirondack Room on the map) for midterms and finals. Amy is working developing a plan for communicating the results to students so they can more effectively choose spaces that match their noise preferences.

EXHIBIT C: Why didn’t you reference sources in your presentation? As I mentioned in my last post, my FYS students engaged in a problem-based learning unit with embedded library instruction. The idea was that they would find sources to support their problems or solutions. When it came to their presentations, however, the sources were largely absent from the work, present only on a works cited slide and mentioned nowhere else. I was curious to know why this was, since the rubric required the use of sources in the presentation, which we had gone over together in class. In the class following the presentations, I asked the students to do a minute paper addressing the following questions: 1. Why didn’t you make use of your sources in your presentation? and 2. What can I do to help you do this better next time? Results (summarized):

  • Why didn’t you make use of your sources in your presentation?
    • We thought the project was about our opinions and therefore didn’t understand the need for citations.
    • We didn’t know how to use the sources in our presentations.
    • The sources were too broad or didn’t provide any new information.
    • We thought that including the sources on a works cited slide was enough.
    • We asked peers for their opinions. They were our sources.
  • What can I do to help you do this better next time?
    • Give us more time to prepare.
    • Maybe we could practice in front of you for feedback before the presentation.
    • Be clearer.
    • Show us how.
    • Require citations on each slide.
    • (Plus many responses of “I don’t know.”)

There are many instructional opportunities here, mostly indicated in their response to the first question, and none of which point to the informal rhetoric “kids these days,” “they just don’t want to, that’s why,” and “plagiarism.” Outcome: In order to overcome student tendency to believe that their opinions are formulated in a vacuum, prior to the final presentation for class related to a different assignment we talked about the nature of ideas, standing on the shoulders of giants, showing your work, and otherwise acknowledging the ideation process. I also told them that I hadn’t created their final project assignment in a vacuum either, and publicly noted the faculty member whose work I had used as a springboard as an example of both practicing what I preach and showing them how someone might incorporate “citations” into speech. In their final presentation, citation and verbal recognition were much more present than in their previous presentation, if still clunky in execution. Had I not run out of time, two more lessons could have been constructed around finding useful information and citing informal conversations.

Asking for information is not without its pitfalls. Here are some important pieces to understand and think through before asking for information at all:

  • Be sure you want to know the outcome, because they will be honest, often brutally. Separate your own feelings about your work and your library from survey results. I have never administered a survey without feeling at least one sting. You have two choices in these circumstances: 1. Feel hurt and respond ad hominem 2. Feel hurt and find a more constructive way to voice the same response in order to understand the underlying issue. You’re human. Feel hurt. Acknowledge the hurt, then get to work.
  • Be prepared to make actual changes in response, because otherwise there is no point in asking in the first place. If you aren’t prepared to do anything with the information, or the information gathering isn’t structured in such a way as to point to an actionable solution, save your time and theirs for something else. For instance, rather than asking students how they felt about noise levels in the library in general, Amy asked students to populate a map, because one of the desired products of this information gathering is to construct a “noise map” of the library. Information that states “50% of students feel the library is too loud” would not have had an actionable outcome.
  • Understand the role of student expectations versus your library’s priorities and ability/desire to meet those expectations. We are not able to have the library open all the time, always. We are also not able to control noise levels with an iron fist to meet everyone’s needs all the time, always. We can, however, take steps to give the students information and more of what they want within our own constraints in such a way that they understand their own role in making the best decisions for themselves.
  • And finally, always acknowledge that opinions have been heard. We can increase credibility with our community by communicating the outcomes of the information they provided us. Feeling heard is often more important than being right. When we respond to our community’s needs, our community is more likely to communicate those needs to us.

What are some ways that you take your community’s opinions into account? Have you fallen into any information gathering pitfalls?

 

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