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Want to succeed at college? Look for a librarian

July 12, 2010

It’s time to bury that old stereotype of the stern librarian whose only interest is in “shushing” those who would dare make a sound in the library.

Today’s librarians at Arizona State University are collaborating with colleagues across ASU’s four campuses to help freshman students gain the research, information-gathering and analytical skills they need to thrive in a university environment. Librarians also are reaching out to Phoenix-area high schools, so that students understand expectations of university-level research and teachers are better able to prepare students for postsecondary education.

During the 2009/10 academic year, more than 200 students and 40 teachers from five Valley high schools visited ASU’s West campus as part of a grant-funded project to provide training on state-wide electronic databases. The students were juniors from the Cave Creek, Agua Fria Union, Peoria, Deer Valley and Dysart school districts who are enrolled in the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme.

In addition to rigorous interdisciplinary coursework, IB students must complete an Extended Essay, a year-long independent study and thesis. Students typically need to look outside the resources of their school libraries to conduct research for the Extended Essay. By attending a training session in Fletcher Library on the West campus, students learned how to access databases available through the Arizona State Library and the Maricopa County Library District.

The project was funded in part by a grant from the Arizona State Library through the federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). Additional support came from ASU Libraries; Barrett, the Honors College; the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; and the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

“This initiative was a true partnership,” said Ann Ewbank, education subject librarian at Fletcher Library. “Participating high school students learned about dozens of databases and became familiar with the demands of university-level research. During their visit, they toured the campus and took part in an information fair. We certainly hope that many of these students will choose to attend ASU, but the information-gathering skills they learned will be useful to them no matter where they decide to pursue a university degree.”

Michael Cady, program coordinator for the IB program at Ironwood High School in the Peoria Unified School District, was one of the educators who brought students to the West campus for database training.

“These databases are very useful in a program such as ours, so this training is very important. Good online resources are necessary for our students’ success, and making students aware of them is essential,” Cady said.

An additional LSTA grant is funding a new, expanded project during the upcoming academic year. This one will involve approximately 26 high schools and 180 teachers and librarians. The high school language arts teachers and librarians will work together with ASU librarians and instructors of freshmen to assist students in their transition to university-level writing and research. ASU’s Writing Programs and University Academic Success Programs also are project collaborators.

The decision to target even more high school teachers in the new project was a deliberate one, according to Ewbank.

“We learned from the first grant that for every teacher you work with, you make an impact on all of their students,” she said.

Ewbank and several colleagues are now working to design all-day workshops for teachers and librarians from the Peoria, Higley, Tempe Union and Phoenix Union districts. With assistance from consultant Megan Oakleaf, a faculty member at Syracuse University, the team will create workshops giving high school teachers tools and strategies to help their students bridge the gap from high school to college. Participating teachers also will receive materials to integrate what they learn during the workshop into their classroom curriculum.

“The discovery of information has changed fundamentally since the introduction of the Internet,” said Sherrie Schmidt, ASU’s university librarian. “While all of us have access to vast amounts of information on the Web formerly available only in books, it is also true that students and faculty members at ASU have access to even more information which is licensed from publishers by the University Libraries. These LSTA projects provide an opportunity for librarians to assist in easing the transition to the university and support student success.”

Once students arrive at ASU for their freshman year, the support offered by librarians continues. A collaborative project involving Julie Tharp, ASU’s undergraduate instruction librarian; library specialist Marc Mason; and Kate Frost, program manager and instructor for University Academic Success Programs, led to the redesign of the course UNI 110: Critical Reading and Thinking.

UNI 110’s curriculum now contains sequentially designed resources that support students as they conduct research and write papers throughout the semester. A custom-designed library guide, specific to the course, was added last fall and quickly became one of the most popular guides on the ASU Libraries website.

"We want the course to help students develop critical thinking and reading skills that are transferable not only to their other classes at ASU but to their lives in general,” Frost said. “Students learn strategies for reading critically by interacting with a variety of sources and are encouraged to apply those strategies in their other courses to interpret, analyze and critically evaluate ideas.”

Based on student feedback, UNI 110 is succeeding. Among the student comments during 2009/10 were, “I have made huge, consistent strides throughout the semester because of this class,” and, “This course has opened my eyes and taught me to be more confident and to open my mind to different perspectives.”

Tharp, Frost, Ewbank and librarian Lisa Kammerlocher are now conducting a research study to explore and document the impact of the course redesign.

UNI 110 is offered on all four campuses. “I am extremely pleased that our librarians are working across the campuses of ASU to ensure student success,” Schmidt said.

“One of the goals of a university education is to turn students into critical thinkers,” Tharp said. “Librarians focus on critical thinking skills specifically related to the use of information. By working with students to develop these skills, we can help them not only succeed at the university but become lifelong learners after they graduate.”