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There’s a new report out from the Association of College and Research Libraries summarizing the findings of the second year of a project called Assessment in Action, an ambitious attempt involving over 200 institutions to see how libraries contribute to student learning and how we can measure that contribution. (A report on findings from the first year of this project is also available. I’m just late catching up on my reading.) The librarians involved in this massive project offer a trove of ideas about how we can assess a library’s contributions to learning, and it’s all available online, including survey instruments, rubrics, and more. Each team devised their own question to focus on, one that reflected institutional goals, and summaries of what they learned are available in a searchable database. If you’re a librarian doing assessment of learning, this is an amazing resource.

The cumulative findings of these projects are these:

  • Libraries play an important role in helping students survive their first year at college. A number of projects showed that students who received some kind of instruction from librarians in their first year do better in their courses than those who don’t.
  • Students who use libraries tend to stay in college and get better grades than those who don’t. (Of course, these findings tend to be correlation rather than causation. Still, good to know.)
  • Many of the institutions participating found that students benefited when libraries partnered with other offices that support students such as writing centers and academic enrichment programs.
  • Some of the participating libraries looked at specific general education learning outcomes such as critical thinking, problem solving, and civic engagement, finding that information literacy programs in libraries can positively affect those goals.  

Additionally, some libraries were able to demonstrate a connection between library instruction and retention, engagement, and overall academic experience, though these issues were less studied and the findings are less conclusive.

All of the participants learned about conducting assessments and doing so in a team environment rather than the library going it alone. The projects that didn’t work out as hoped are as enlightening as those that did because participants reflected honestly on what went wrong. That’s incredibly valuable (and brave).

One thing that struck me is the number of projects focused on students taking first year or general education courses and the large number of partnerships with academic support units. While faculty in the disciplines were involved in a majority of these projects, only eight specifically looked at how the library contributes to learning in majors. Far more of the projects looked at first year programs and general education outcomes (or, in some cases, specific graduate programs). The report from the first year of this project provides a reason for that:

To reach a high number of students and to establish a foundation of information literacy competencies for students as they progress through their academic careers, many academic libraries put a priority on instruction for students in general education, core curriculum, and required writing or English composition courses.

This interests me because I’ve often wondered whether we’re nibbling around the edges of where students learn how to inquire, whether the place in the curriculum where students develop a strong understanding (or not) of how information works and the role they can play in making knowledge is actually in the major. While it’s important to help students get an introduction to using sources for academic work in their first year, there are serious limits to how much they can learn when so much is new and overwhelming, when they have so little context for the sources they’re looking at.

Of course it’s important for students to survive that first year, and we know from these assessment reports (and from Project Information Literacy’s report on the first year experience) that librarians can play an important role in helping students get started and stay on track. That’s valuable work. But what about the more complex concepts that we hope students will grasp for the long term? Are we leaving those up to faculty in the disciplines almost entirely and hoping, somehow, that deep dive into a discipline prepares them for whatever comes next in their lives? Or is there a role for librarians to work more intentionally with students and their faculty in their majors?

Perhaps our perspective – connected to all disciplines but beholden to none in particular, with a different perspective on students and how they manage their patchwork academic lives – can help our colleagues remember that we’re teaching students as well as subjects. In some programs, students will go on to work in the discipline they studied as undergraduates, but many don’t, and even if they do things will change quickly. The content knowledge they’re tested on and the readings they do will fade away or become obsolete, but the experience of having posed questions and proposing possible answers of their own may have lasting value.

I’m worried about that because Project Information Literacy’s report on how recent graduates fare had some good news but also this disturbing finding: 

The large majority [of the more than 1,500 students surveyed or interviewed] believed that formulating and asking their own questions was the one skill that they had not developed in college but found they needed in their post-college lives.

The findings of this report on Assessment in Action are encouraging and the way that all the material is gathered together so the rest of us can learn from it is terrific. I'm emboldened to think: “great! Libraries have value. They help students be successful as students. But does what librarians do for students have lasting value for those students once they graduate?”

That's not where our collective efforts seem to be right now. Maybe that’s our next big assessment challenge.   


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