My institution has set up a group to bring together colleagues who support students' study skills. The members come mostly from the four faculties of the University (including student support workers - with their varying titles - and senior staff with responsibilities for enhancing the student experience) as well as representatives from Library Services.
The group has run two events, the most recent called 'Literacy Matters: where are we now in supporting students’ academic literacy skills?' One of the aims of the group is to share best practice with each other and therefore the event included several short sessions on existing services and projects, such as the new Android referencing app which creates a reference from the data provided (including being able to start the process by scanning a book's barcode)*. Groupwork questions encouraged delegates to consider which resources or services could be or should be centrally located or delivered and which required a more local or tailored (e.g. faculty or department-specific) approach.
The session also included hearing from current students. A series of filmed interviews were conducted before the event and edited into a 5 minute film (by a willing Journalism student) to be shown at the event. A panel of three students also attended in person and elaborated on some of the themes which were discussed on film.
I was the interviewer for the filmed sessions and found them both fascinating and sometimes depressing. I work in an art, media and design library and wanted the views of these students to be represented at the event, so several of the students I interviewed were studying practice courses such as Fine Art. The views they expressed confirmed many of the assumptions I had (based on experience, of course!) about some students on creative courses, such as preferring face to face support over online support, experiencing learning difficulties such as dyslexia which made essay writing challenging for them, as well as the ways in which they use the library and other services. At the event, we had two international students and a home student who were studying subjects including business and law at the largest campus.
I imagine my reflections won't surprise many librarians (unless you work in the most amazingly perfect institution!) but here's what I took away from these discussions:
Many of our services are completely invisible to students
My institution provides study support across all faculties, but not all students know about it. The Library also provides face to face as well as online support in using its resources and getting the best out of them, but again not all students access this support. Why is this?
This is one area that I'd like to pursue at my campus as I think this could be helped by promoting the services (e.g. academic support advisers) at the right time. Several of the students suggested study support staff could come into a lecture to highlight what is available, but they did acknowledge that the timing would have to be right. Too early and it becomes part of all the other information which they're bombarded with, too late and students don't know about it early enough. Could these study support services be highlighted along with library sessions? The line between information and academic literacy skills is not always easily understood by students.
Students can be reticent about asking for help
The students we interviewed often expressed reluctance to ask for help and only asked for it when things had got bad (e.g. feedback on written work). Several of the students had discovered the study support at the campus through word of mouth, mostly from friends and occasionally from lecturers.
There is a preconception that support services are there for when you perceive yourself to be failing vs getting support to improve, whatever level you are
This came through again and again in the interviews: the students we spoke to mostly hadn't sought help to improve their academic skills until they found they were struggling. Can we improve how the support we provide is described? Can we demystify it for students? Also, could we cope if demand suddenly increased due to successful marketing?
Are international students more focused on getting all the support they can?
This was certainly the message we got from the two international students at the event, as well as a separately filmed interview (not shown at the event for technical reasons). The pressure from their families to succeed, as well as their high expectations for themselves, seemed to motivate these students to access all the support available to them. They were also positive about the support available, having no complaints about the services they accessed.
A one stop shop for student services
Denise Turner, Assistant Director, Learning and Research Support at Teeside University, talked at the event about Teeside's Learning Hub which offers guidance on a variety of academic skills as well as referring students on to relevant services across the University. This frontline one stop shop idea came up as a recommendation from one student in the interviews too - interestingly, she linked it in with not wanting to bother her tutor for one small question, when she felt she might be able to get help in a different way - and there was agreement at the event that this would be ideal, although problematic across a multi-site institution.
I'm aware that other institutions are further down the line with centralised student services - how are they working? How can they work across multi-site universities and how does this fit in with student study support across your institutions?
* Interestingly, the group gave a spontaneous round of applause when shown this demo but one academic commented that it's yet another example of students being spoonfed...