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Reference Coaching for the Short Attention Span Patron

November 13, 2012

I blame Sesame Street. That is where it all began in the late 1960s. Short, bright, colorful, interesting presentations on numbers and letters for children.  Then there was MTV and VH1.  Short, bright colorful, interesting music for teenagers.  Then there was Google, everybody loved it. Finally, there were mobile devices.  Colorful, instantaneous, interesting information and connections available at just a touch-anywhere, anytime.

These building blocks have built the students we often see now – the short attention span, instant gratification student.  NPR has talked about it.  Louis CK has a take on it (my personal favorite – search for “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy”).  The media often discusses the issues it creates for education.

But what about reference?  How does it change our customer service?   We should think differently about what our students (and soon, our professors) need from a reference desk.

I became concerned because of a reference question I recently received.  I had a student working on a research problem. I directed the student to the United States Code and helped her with the index.  It was a heavily litigated area and I pointed out the annotations.  She looked at them.  She looked at me.  She asked “How would I know the answer?  Would I need to read this?”

This made me think about the approach to take when answering a reference question.  As an academic librarian with few public patrons, my approach to a reference question is to make the students help themselves.  We teach them research when we answer reference questions by giving them one step at a time.  But I admit that I have assumed that if I give them a push to find the information – I ask if they have looked at the index or the annotations, for example – that they know enough to read the information. I have assumed that the students know to look through the resource to find the answer.

But instant gratification, short attention span, and the scanning of information instead of deep reading (especially with e-readers) means that we must be more explicit with our reference answers.  Not by giving the answers, but in giving direction, in coaching the students as to the importance of time and attention.  This clearly impacts teaching as well.  As mentioned in the article linked above, there is a push to be more entertaining, to provide short, bright, colorful, interesting presentations.  The adaption to our instruction needs to take a different form with reference service.

Librarians need to craft reference interviews not to be more entertaining, but to coach the researcher to understand that the answer will not be easy, will not appear on the screen or immediately stand out to them in the book.  Students need to be explicitly told that research will take hours, not minutes.  That they should embrace this.  At my library we have found an approach that can help.

When the student asked about having to read to find the answer, I used that approach.  I told her that she would need to read the annotations.  And when she found helpful ones, she needed to read the cases.  Then, she would need to make sure the cases were good law.  I told her that the research she was doing might take at least four to five hours.  She made a face.  But I had an answer to that face:  I told her no one would pay her as an attorney if it was easy to find a legal answer.  Her face brightened.  I also told her that, depending on the payment model, she would get paid for each hour spent researching.  Her face split in a grin. “Four hours, legal research, billed to the client?” she asked as she walked toward a table to sit down and read the book, embracing the time and effort the research would take.

The coaching does not stop when students are competent researchers.  A student with a summer job did not have access to Westlaw or Lexis.  He came to research a complex issue involving bankruptcy, tax, and securities.  He panicked the first day and asked “It might take me two or three days to read this stuff.  Won’t my firm be upset at the time I am taking?”  I asked if he made more than the partner he was doing research for. “Of course not!” he responded.  I told him that his time would be well worth it for the firm if it freed up the partner for other work that only the partner could do.  After a second he got it and smiled: “By spending my time, I am helping them make more money.”  If we can convince each student of the value of the time and effort spent in legal research, we will have really supplied valuable information to them.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2013 5:33 pm

    This is a great idea, Shawn. It’s very much in keeping with adult learning theory which discusses that adult learners need to know why they are doing something. Providing them with this kind of practical background information on the financial value of their research is a great way to motivate students to take the time to do thorough research. Many students believe that research is something you do to get to an answer as quickly as possible. They are used to Googling their questions and getting an answer within the first page of results.

    Instead, I think we need to impress upon them that research is a process with a beginning, middle and end and they cannot just cut and paste the first thing they find that looks relevant and then move onto the next item on their to do list.

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