Some observations on incoming freshmen and library instruction

A new experience in my job at Wheaton College is to assist with library instruction for incoming freshmen for a required course that all of them must take (BITH 111). My role is pretty minor; I am just there to support a colleague who coordinates everything as part of my library’s teaching and outreach group. My role is to simply help students with questions they may have about the research assignment we’ve given them after my colleague has oriented them to the assignment and given them tips about how to complete it. The setup of this instructional session is a computer lab in the library, where we spend about 10-15 minutes orienting students to the assignment, then provide them with the rest of the class time to begin doing their research work.

Even though my role is minor and I’ve only participated in a few such sessions so far, some interesting patterns have emerged. I doubt these are unique to our setting.

  • Every freshman student seems to have a smartphone and many have a tablet, and they use them. A simple example I remember observing is a student taking a snapshot of the computer screen in the lab we use to record the call number of a book rather than jotting it down. Another example is checking their email when they’ve scanned an entry in a reference work from one of the photocopier/scanners available to them, and they want to verify that they received the scan while they are standing in front of the photocopier/scanner.
  • Incoming students do not readily navigate the physical or virtual spaces of the library without guidance and experience. I remember many students asking me, when they had searched our discovery layer interface (WorldCat Local) and found a relevant book or journal with the call number and location listed, where to find it. Every single person who asked me this kind of question was really puzzled by the information presented to them and at a loss to know where to go. Sometimes we who work in libraries take for granted that everything is obvious, including the organization of our collections, and yet it isn’t at all, especially to new users. It seems like we should do a lot more to simplify display of information to our users in our various interfaces. Another frustrating example for students was our new, full-featured photocopier/scanners, which frankly are a pain to use with a non-intuitive interface. Many students left, frustrated by that experience alone.
  • Students are impatient and don’t want to spend a lot of time finding or evaluating resources. This may be natural especially for incoming freshmen, who are already somewhat overwhelmed with lots of new things to learn, and new experiences. They are not into deep reflection or consideration of a resource; most of them just want to check things off as quickly as possible. “Scholarly article: check; scholarly book: check; reference work: check” — and so on.
  • Freshmen genuinely appreciate help and guidance once they work up the courage to ask for it. I am really impressed by the kindness, intelligence, and overall “niceness” (for lack of a better term) of incoming students. The corollary to this is that we who work in libraries must work extra hard to be approachable and welcoming to them, because most people don’t like asking for help.
Out of all of these observations, the one that strikes me the most is how confusing our physical and virtual spaces still are for new users, in spite of all our labors to try to make them more welcoming and less confusing. Libraries are still daunting places and they shouldn’t be. It’s no wonder that our users so frequently start their research with Google.

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