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Want to Improve Student Retention? Enlist Some Librarians

A national, multi-institutional study finds that academic library instruction helps keep undergraduates in school.

Research  |  Oct 5, 2018  |  By Sean Kennedy
Librarian and student in an instructional session

UNLV teaching and learning librarian Chelsea Heinbach (right) provides an instruction consultation to undergraduate Graciel “Angie” Obena. A multi-institutional research study led by UNLV recently found that interactions like these between librarians and undergraduates contribute to higher student retention rates. (Josh Hawkins / UNLV Creative Services)

What comes to mind when you think of how university librarians help undergraduate students?

Research would be top of the list for most. And while that’s true, a new multi-institutional study led by Melissa Bowles-Terry, head of educational initiatives at UNLV University Libraries, revealed that academic libraries contribute in another critical way: They help students stay in school.

Previous studies demonstrated that undergraduate research experiences and developing a sense of belonging have a major impact on student success, Bowles-Terry said, while others have shown that library instruction fosters both. But Bowles-Terry’s initial findings linking university libraries and librarians directly to student retention are a compelling addition to the story of impact these spaces and professionals have on student success.

The study identified three major findings:

  • Retention rates for students who participated in library instruction courses were significantly higher than for those students who did not attend a library instruction class.
  • First-year students who took classes that included information literacy instruction had higher grade point averages than students whose courses did not.
  • Students who participated in library instruction successfully completed 1.8 more credit hours per year than students who did not.

“As librarians, we feel good about helping individual students, and there was a lot of qualitative data detailing how library instruction helps students develop literacy skills, but now we have some data that supports what we are doing is having a broad impact on students,” Bowles-Terry said. “The most exciting thing we’ve noted in this research is that library instruction is playing such an important role in helping students graduate.”

The Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA), a consortium of libraries from large research universities, commissioned the longitudinal study. Bowles-Terry was tapped to lead GWLA’s Student Learning Task Force, which has spent the past several years investigating the subject. The task force collected data from more than 42,000 students at 12 universities, including UNLV, and examined library instruction interventions for first-year students during the 2014-15 academic year. More than 1,700 distinct courses that included librarian partners were covered, including one-shot instruction sessions taught by librarians, courses where interaction with librarians was embedded in the curriculum, online tutorials created for a class, and instructional interventions developed for particular classes. The courses represented different teaching models, including traditional lectures, classes where librarians co-designed the major research assignment, interactive instruction with refined online searching, and active learning experiences with in-depth hands-on activities.

“The results from the study show promise for highlighting how impactful librarians are in tackling issues related to college retention and student success,” said Maggie Farrell, dean of the UNLV University Libraries, which was recently ranked the 15th most productive academic library for academic research in the nation by the American Library Association’s Association of College and Research Libraries, based on the total number of peer-reviewed academic research articles published by library faculty between 2003 and 2012.

The results from the first year of the information literacy impact study were published in summer 2017. The task force will continue to collect data from this initial cohort of students during the next several years. The second year of data, covering the 2015-16 academic year, is currently being analyzed.

“This multiyear study will give us more information about the long-term impact of library instruction,” Bowles-Terry said. “Our goal is to measure what impact these sessions have on students two to four years later and see what overall impact that has on four- and six-year graduation rates.”

The group also intends to collect data from institutions not included in the first year of the study. The researchers hope to see their initial results mirrored in the results collected from newly participating academic libraries.

Two Boosts to UNLV’s Collection Efforts

Library collections play an important role in the research experience for students and faculty alike. The UNLV University Libraries recently received two grants in support of its collections efforts.

UNLV Special Collections and Archives was awarded a $100,000 Humanities Access Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for “Latino Voices in Southern Nevada,” an oral history and community engagement project aimed at documenting the contributions of Latino communities to the development of Southern Nevada and expanding the diversity of voices preserved.

Thomas Padilla, UNLV’s visiting digital research services librarian, will lead “Collections as Data: Part to Whole,” a three-year national collections-as-data effort supported by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that brings the question of how to implement cultural heritage collections as data together with the question of how to develop roles and services that optimally support their scholarly use.