Assessing Student Learning During Reference Transactions

Last week I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the annual conference for SUNY librarians at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City (yes, FIT is a SUNY school!).

With my exceptional colleague Kim Hoffman, we discussed a small project we did in the Fall 2011 semester to try to assess what students learned at the reference desk.

Our abstract for the presentation and our actual slides are below.  You can also view the slides on to see the speakers notes.

Going Beyond Anecdotes: Assessing Student Learning During Reference Transactions

Reference services comprise one of the most important teaching opportunities within academic libraries.  While we typically assume that students learn from these interactions, we rarely have evidence to demonstrate what students actually learn.  Librarians at many institutions track the skills taught via reference statistics gathering programs, but we rarely ask students what they find most meaningful.

At SUNY Geneseo, we wanted to know what students were learning via reference transactions, beyond typical counts of reference questions or user satisfaction surveys.   These reference transactions occur in several settings, including at the reference desk, during scheduled reference consultations, and through impromptu questions at various locations.  Building on assessment techniques such as the One Minute Paper traditionally used in library instruction settings, students were given a survey after each reference transaction that simply asked “What did you learn today from your meeting with the librarian?”

In order to categorize responses, librarians developed a list of commonly taught concepts, skills, and tasks seen via reference services and library instruction.  Student responses were assigned one or more items from this list of concepts, allowing us to easily evaluate which skills were most frequently reported.

While this survey explores which concepts students report learning, it does not measure their actual mastery of the skills reported and is therefore an incomplete examination of student learning at the reference desk. Despite these limitations, this study offers a useful improvement to standard reference assessment efforts, typically based on assumptions and anecdotes.