The Key to Information Literacy? Help-Seeking

As librarians, I think we have all made the observation that the most successful students are those who use the library regularly. And not only that, they are the students who have no problem asking for help. Believe it or not, help-seeking is considered a self-regulated learning strategy. Makes sense, right?

So where does information searching fit into this? Is that also help-seeking? I recently read an interesting article that differentiates between help-seeking and information searching. The authors view help-seeking on a continuum. Take a look at their graph below:


(Puustinen & Rouet, 2009)

Essentially help-seeking strategies that utilize human experts (e.g. librarians) are far more adaptive to learners’ needs. Search engines, etc…, not so much. No surprise there, especially considering that students tend to have really poor search skills – which of course is why we spend so much time on IL instruction.

But, ask yourself this: how “expert” do students really become at information searching with the limited amount of time they get with IL instruction? Even a credit-course in IL is not sufficient enough for creating expert searchers. How long did it take you, as a librarian, to become an expert searcher?

My take-away from this article is that we need to expend more effort at getting more students to spend more one-on-one time with librarians. We are the human experts that can facilitate the process of turning students into more self-regulated learners better than any search engine or database ever could alone. And no amount of IL instruction is going to substitute for that kind of help. In fact, we should be viewing help-seeking as the most important part of the information literacy process.

Of course, that’s not to say that IL instruction should be abandoned completely. But, one of the trends I have personally experienced in working with some fellow academic librarians is this sudden disdain for reference desk work, like they are wasting their time when they should be prepping for classes and teaching. That was just my experience, but I suspect it wasn’t unique.

The biggest hurdle here is how to get more students to actually ask for help – and there are a multitude of reasons why students do not ask for help (e.g. embarrassment, lack of self-awareness of their needs, negative past experiences). My solution is pretty simple: have classroom instructors require students to meet one-on-one with a librarian at least once (preferably more) during a semester course. The beauty of that is that it doesn’t cut any time out of their own teaching schedule, which may entice more instructors to actually take advantage of it. I believe librarian face time in the classroom is important too, but I think it is vitally important to not forget that the reference desk help we provide is the most effective form of IL instruction that we can possibly give to students. After all, that is where our greatest expertise lies.


13 thoughts on “The Key to Information Literacy? Help-Seeking

  1. I like this idea and stress as one of the key parts of every instruction session that we are there to help, happy to help. I even created a text-to-speech video as evidence of why I needed more students to “interupt” me at the reference desk. I do think the personal librarian trend and scheduling time with librarians is great –however with so many students and only 3 librarians on staff–it just isn’t possible to meet one-on-one with every student in a class. My guess is this lack of staffing and time is what necessitated library sessions in the beginning.

    • I totally agree Kelly! I like the idea of personal librarian programs too, but I know they tend to be underutilized because of the fact that so many students are “help-avoiders.” Requiring students to consult with a librarian may seem overwhelming, but there are ways to alleviate the burden. Small group meetings (of 4 or less) can be effective in lieu of the one-on-ones. And peer tutoring is another method that can be very effective when there’s a strong tutor training program in place. One thing for sure, help-seeking would be a very useful research area for librarians to be involved in.

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