College & Research Libraries News

Student pre-surveys as bibliographic instruction tools


By Tony Amodeo

Bibliographic Instruction Coordinator Loyola Marymount University

It happens again and again to every BI librarianlecturer: “Who is my audience? To whom am I talking?” You are called in on relatively short notice—yes, policy says “two weeks advance notice,” but when your mission is to reach as many students as possible, you almost always give in. You know you will be faced with a jumble of lower and upper division students, some of whom have had the orientation tour, the freshman library lecture, and perhaps one or two presentations in their other classes, some of whom have not known there was a library on campus—or so it seems. You try to pump the teacher for information, but this one is the type that is almost never reachable on campus, and who sends a student assistant with a scribbled note that they want a library lecture on the day they will be in Fredericton, N.B., for a conference.

At such moments, a good solution may be to hand to the student assistant a stack of short but well thought-out survey forms to be given to the class, filled out, collected and sent to you by the teacher or the assistant. Such a form can be of help in a number of ways.

With a little thought, the survey can warm up the class to a library lecture. It can let them identify some of the issues you will address, and some aspects of the library to begin thinking about. A survey can request feedback on problems encountered in the library, employing a list of possible problems to be ticked off, plus room for comments and suggestions. It can also solicit their expectations and their “wish-lists” regarding the material to be covered, which can be very helpful in designing the lecture for this specific audience.

Answers from the survey can tell you a lot about the level of library understanding in the class, e. g., whether or not the students have had previous lectures, a tour, or no presentation at all; what level of library experience/understanding the students have, as well as the major areas of insecurity or concern for individual students.

Survey answers can also tell you, directly or indirectly, some useful things about your library. For example, if students can’t find the reference desk, is signage adequate? Should there be a better map of the library? If students feel ignored even if they ask for help, is overall service what it should be? Are student assistants misdirecting people? Are there some personnel who are less than helpful? Should instructions for automated equipment, the catalog, individual service locations be more clear?

In an anonymous survey, students often tell you more than you asked to know; comments often come more from personal feelings and individual experiences than as a direct answer to your survey questions. You may also begin to identify faculty who give the library short shrift or bad press, since students often absorb teachers’ peeves and biases by osmosis. Such evidence can be useful in spurring some action on the part of the library to address faculty problems—or problem faculty. Sometimes a simple update will do; sometimes re-education may be necessary, especially for some who have not gotten any of your library’s dust on their feet since the last revision of their lecture notes twenty years ago.

Careful writing of the survey can give forth statistics useful to the BI program, and to the library as a whole. If a computer program were written to correlate elements of the individual survey forms, good statistical evidence supporting a BI program might emerge. For example, the number and type of problems encountered could be correlated to the number, level, or absence of previous BI lectures or tours; student level might be correlated with attitude, evaluation of lectures, or type of problems encountered. [If anyone has, and is willing to share such a computer program, please let me—and the editor of C&RL News—know!]

Of course, anonymous surveys and evaluations have their drawbacks; some students will tell things on an anonymous written form that they would never tell in person—which obviously has its repercussions in the form of spurious, comic, or deviant comments. But sometimes students have creative insights that can cut through academic insulation—and that fog of professional prejudiceby-habit.

Best of all, using a survey’s results at the beginning of your lecture is a good way to gain confidence (you’re not coming at them cold); to get attention; to give the class the feeling (one would hope, based in reality) that you care about their individual problems; and to keep them listening for the solution to the problem they wrote about— which your talk probably would have addressed in any case, but which now is perceptively tailored to your audience as individuals.

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