Ask A Librarian: Personalize Student Research with the Reference Interview

By Jennifer Jones

Defining the Problem
Whole class instruction concerns me. As I scan my students’ faces for signs of comprehension or confusion, I worry if I am speaking too slowly or quickly. Have I made the research process transparent enough? Have I provided the right sources and strategies?
I know that the research foundation I help build in high school will carry students into college. In fact, according to Project Information Literacy, college freshmen primarily rely on research strategies and the narrow range of databases they used in high school. They struggle to pin down a topic, utilize the expansive resources of their college library, and select the right keywords. The study also reports that 80 percent of freshmen surveyed did not seek help from a librarian. Knowing that whole class instruction fails to address every research need, or model the expectation for college research, I sought another tactic.
Defining the Solution
My inspiration came from Andrew Lopez, librarian at Connecticut College. In the Researchscapes blog, Lopez writes about his collaborative work with an undergraduate student to track down unusual sources for an introductory politics course. Lopez notes that this type of assignment creates a unique opportunity for librarians to work with students to explore a discrete area of inquiry shaped by the research question-the reference interview.
The reference interview involves meeting individually with students to identify search strategies, subtopics, and potential sources. A librarian and student discuss specific research questions and what information would best answer those questions. I’ve conducted reference interviews with more than 200 students, ranging in discipline from robotics to literature, and one observation continually presents itself: students pursue their research with greater personal engagement when they realize they are assembling a unique data set specific to their research question. The result is that students begin to recognize research as a skill that improves with practice.
Reference Interview Strategies
  • Incentivize: Many students are willing to work for extra credit. Consider asking colleagues to offer points for a reference interview as part of their rubrics.
  • Personalize: Ask students why they chose their topics, where they see the research leading them, what connections to contemporary issues they can make, and what information they wish they could discover.
  • Dramatize: I’m never shy about my enthusiasm when we find a great source or a student uncovers a new angle on a topic. Thorough research is rarely straightforward and providing abundant encouragement keeps students motivated to continue.
  • Publicize: Encourage students to recommend the reference interview to their peers. Let colleagues know you are eager to offer this support for students.
It is impossible to explore every nuance or potential resource in a 50-minute class. In collaboration with a librarian, reference interviews give students a chance to unpack a research question and practice finding and evaluating information to answer it.
Jennifer Jones holds a degree from Smith College and Salem State University. She is a librarian at St. John’s Preparatory School, a Xaverian Brothers-sponsored 6-12 school for boys in Danvers, Massachusetts. Additionally, she serves as an academic coach for a cohort of athletes and students on academic probation at a local college. Prior to becoming a librarian, Jennifer worked in grant writing and managed a community service-learning program. Find her on Twitter @sjplibrary or contact her by email.

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