How can you help Tom? A school librarian's guide to preparing students for University - Jo Alcock Consulting
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How can you help Tom? A school librarian’s guide to preparing students for University

How can you help Tom? A school librarian’s guide to preparing students for University

Last week, I was invited to give a presentation to a school librarian conference from the perspective of a university librarian. As the conference theme was digital natives, I decided to focus on the transition between school and university and how school librarians can prepare students for university life.

I took a different approach to the presentation, and decided to take a journey with a typical student through the first month or so of university, and at each milestone consider what he needs to do and how school librarians could help him prepare for that. I had initially hoped to try using Prezi to illustrate the journey, but my artistic/creative skills are somewhat lacking (as is my experience of using Prezi) so I didn’t manage to find time to do this.

I know there were both school and university librarians interested in this whilst I was preparing the presentation, so I have embedded my slides below, and have also included the rough script. NB: I didn’t stick to the script when I presented (I prefer the presentation to involve the participants in discussion), but I used it to help me contextualise the presentation before the event.

All the resources mentioned are on Delicious using the sch2uni tag; if you know of any other useful resources that I didn’t mention, please add them to Delicious using the sch2uni tag.

I really enjoyed preparing for this event, and the actual day was fantastic (see my earlier blog post). I think there is a lot that can be learnt by bringing together school and university librarians, it’s definitely given me food for thought about how we can work together to improve digital literacy and help the transition between school and university. If you have any thoughts on this, please let me know (either by email or in the comments).

Slide 1: Opening slide

My background – traditional subject librarian role in a University library until recently, now working at Evidence Base at Birmingham City University which is a research department within the university library. We provide consultancy, research and evaluation services for library and information community, as well as organising events to train and share good practice amongst the community.

My first experience of working in a library was during high school; I was a library assistant during lunchtimes, though at that time I had never considered becoming a librarian. I had always wanted to be a teacher but once I finished university, I decided that teaching wasn’t right for me at that time, but I wanted to stay within education. I started looking at librarianship, and my first experience was some voluntary work at a school in the area I had moved to. I spent a wonderful few weeks there before starting a job as a graduate trainee at the local university library. That experience shaped me, and I try to keep up-to-date on developments within school librarianship as it’s something I think is so key.

Always been interested in teaching and learning – one of my favourite parts of being a subject librarian were the information literacy teaching sessions. Interested in the use of technology to support learning – e-learning, VLE etc., and different pedagogical models to support this.

Much of my teaching experience was with first year students, both during their induction period and throughout their first modules. Support from librarians is embedded into some of the modules, taking the students through the research process and supporting them in their early assignments. A solid grounding of the basics beforehand can definitely be advantageous for students to ease the transition from school to university.

This presentation aims to focus on Tom, a student who has successfully gained a place at university. We will go on a journey with Tom of the first few weeks of University life and see how we can help prepare him for this.

Slide 2: Vision of Students Today video

First of all we need to get into the mindset of Tom, a new student starting university. This video will give us some insight into the life of a university student today.

Play video up to 3:39 – some say technology can save us

Any particular statistics that stuck out for you?

Things that stood out for me were:

– Need to multitask

– May have a job on graduation that currently doesn’t exist

– Much of their time is spent online

– The methods for learning need to change to be fit for purpose in today’s society.

It is already evident that some changes are being made. During the 5 years that I was at my last institution, there was a huge shift from a majority of traditional lecture to more technology supported learning and e-learning. We even had an institutional initiative to support blended learning across the curriculum. Use of the VLE increased and is now a requirement for each module, and many lectures include hands on segments or online collaborative assignments – either with peers or with their tutor. A number of departments also encourage use of an e-portfolio system for students to record their progress throughout University.

Slide 3: How can you help Tom?

So, how can we help prepare Tom for this sort of learning environment? The main thing librarians can do is help develop digital literacy skills.

5 minutes in groups – what does digital literacy mean to you? How can you, as librarians, support digital literacy?

Slide 4: What is digital literacy?

Let’s take a look at what the literature says. This Wordle has been created by combining a number of different definitions of digital literacy. You can see which aspects are common by examining the larger words.

You will notice many of the terms mentioned are those which have always been used in information literacy literature – the fundamental aspects of both are very similar. It is important to note the digital literacy is not just another term for information literacy however, it is the whole concept which includes information literacy, digital media and internet connectivity.

It is very significant in the context of Web 2.0 – many of these tools are now being used in education. It’s not just about using the technologies though, a key quote for me is from a recent Becta report:

“The heart of digital literacy skills relate to ideas (critical thinking), not keystrokes (using a computer)” Tabetha Newman (2009) for Becta.

Slide 5: Tom’s Freshers Week

Let’s start at the beginning of Tom’s journey – during Fresher’s Week.

Tom has so much to learn and is trying to settle into a whole new chapter of his life, but the focus of the first week is his social life. He has a packed social calendar organised by the university and there are buddies who are existing students helping the new students settle in. He was put in touch with his buddy before he started and has been emailing him and chatting on Facebook. There are university groups on Facebook so Tom has begun to build a network of contacts. When he’s not out socialising, he is spending a lot of time on social networking sites getting to know people at his new university more and keeping in touch with his family and his friends from school.

Slide 6: How can you help Tom (for Freshers Week)

How can we help him prepare for this crucial stage of university life?

Tom is likely to have already been using social networking sites whilst he was at school, but does he know about how to use them responsibly? Is he aware of the privacy issues?

How many of you have a school policy banning the use of social networks? Is this something the library enforces? Should be restricting access to these sites or perhaps instead teaching about responsible use? Phil Bradley certainly thinks so, and he has blogged about why social networking sites shouldn’t be blocked in schools. He also runs training courses to demonstrate how this can be achieved – for example ensuring your private data remains private (or just not including it online). Appropriate use of social networking will help students make the most of the advantages of social networking sites, whilst minimising the risk of the dangers.

It is also important for students to be aware of their digital identity. What happens when you Google your name? What information can people find out about you from the web? Websites are storing more and more data about us and we need to be aware of what effect that has on our digital identity. This Is Me is a great resource from the University of Reading that has activities and worksheets about these issues, and the materials are available for re-use or adaptation. It may be useful to incorporate some of these issues into the curriculum at your school.

Linked to digital identity, CommonCraft have a great video about protecting your reputation online. It demonstrates the dangers of posting embarrassing photos online – they might be funny now but would you want a potential employer stumbling across them? More and more employers are using search engines to discover more about applicants and this video is really easy to understand and gets the point across well.

Slide 7: Tom’s first lecture

So, Tom is all clued up on social networking and is settling into university life away from home, but now the real hard work starts. He is introduced to each of his modules and presented with numerous module guides available in both paper and online. These are long documents that contain a whole host of information about the modules he is studying; learning outcomes; dates and content of lectures; assignments, deadlines, and required grades; and a reading list.

The reading list itself has numerous resources listed and it is separated into different sections; required and recommended reading. It contains books, articles, reports and websites.

Slide 8: How can you help Tom (for his first lecture)

The best way to help prepare students for this is for the school to use similar systems. Some schools may be better geared up for this but if your school currently doesn’t do any of these things, maybe it is something that you can suggest and support?

How many of you have a VLE or school intranet? What sort of information is on there? Do you have module guides and resource lists that could be included? Getting students familiar with navigating an online system to get resources for their assignments will stand them in good stead for university.

Some school subjects will also be taught by module, in which case the modules are likely to already have guides. Do you have copies of these to refer to in the library? Do the teachers recommend certain resources for their topics? Resource lists can be a really useful tool for school students when they are working on a project, and getting them used to having a list of resources would be excellent preparation for their reading lists. Try to include some online resources as well as the resources in the library, to get them used to working out what type of resource it is (from the information in the reference), and understanding how print and electronic resources can complement each other.

Slide 9: Tom’s first visit to the library

Tom is now ready to visit the library and find some of those resources from his reading list.

He needs to use the catalogue to find the resources that he knows about, and then locate them on the shelves. He also needs to be able to look for resources on certain topics and browse for similar items which might also be relevant to his studies.

It’s not just books that he needs to find, he’s also got to find online reports, websites, and electronic books and journal articles.

Slide 10: How can you help Tom (for his first visit to the library)

This is perhaps one of the easiest areas to help students with, as experience of the school library will help them navigate the university library.

There are some great ideas for engaging students in the library, such as quizzes (either general knowledge questions using the library resources to find the answers, or quizzes about the library itself), or rewards and certificates. Whilst I was volunteering at my local school library, there was a scheme whereby students helped out in the library (which helped the librarian), and completed certain tasks such as shelving or using the circulation system to gain rewards. There was a bronze, silver and gold level and had multiple advantages; not only did it help the student develop skills in using a library, it also helped the librarian to successfully run the library.

One of the most frequent questions I was asked on the enquiry desk at the university library was about how to use the catalogue. As with many library catalogues, it wasn’t as easy as using Google, and many students struggled to find what they were looking for. Experience of different searching environments such as different search engines and library catalogues (if your library doesn’t have one you can access many others online) would help develop these skills and you can turn it into an activity like a treasure hunt to make it more interesting.

Another thing many new students struggle with is understanding the classification scheme, particularly when the number is long or there are a lots of books at the same number. You can get students to do activities within the library to help develop their skills, or you can use a number of online games such as the Order in the Library game which has levels of increasing difficulty in sorting items.

Slide 11: Tom’s first assignment

Tom has now been set his first assignment. He knows he will need to find some research on the topic that he has chosen to write about. He’s spent a long time in the library and has found loads of resources, but now he needs to narrow it down to those that are of most relevance.

Allen (2007) in Becta report found that 14-18yr olds struggle to find relevant information and judge/evaluate the information they find.

Once Tom has narrowed the resources down, he will need to pick out the relevant sections to include in his assignment.

Slide 12: How can you help Tom (for his first assignment)

To help with time management, Staffordshire University have developed an Assignment Survival Kit which can be used to help plan the process from initial research to submission of the assignment. The software enables you to specify a deadline and the type of assignment, and gives you rough guidance of the stages necessary and when they will need to be completed by.

To help Tom narrow down his resources, he might benefit from knowledge of some more advanced search techniques. A simple task I used to use with first year students was to use one of their assignment titles, and get them to break it down into the different elements. Once they had done that they could come up with synonyms and alternative phrases relating to each of the broad areas, and finally put it back together in different search combinations.

Even if he had used these search techniques, there may have been some dubious results, particularly on a web search. De Montford University have devised an Information Source Evaluation Matrix which gets students to look in more detail and ask the 5 Ws – Who? What? Where? When? Why? – about each source. This matrix is available for adaptation so may be something to use in school. When it comes to evaluating web resources, there are some great tools to help out. Phil Bradley has put together a list of spoof websites which look amazingly realistic; my personal favourite is the male pregnancy website. The Internet Detective is another great online resource which could be used within the curriculum. It is aimed at undergraduate students but many sections could be used in school.

An understanding of referencing (i.e. Why it is necessary to reference sources), and what it means to plagiarise would be something that students may benefit from during their school education. It’s one of the areas students struggle with at university and causes them to lose crucial marks. You can help here by introducing your students to the fundamentals of referencing (e.g. by ensuring use of a standard referencing system on any resource lists in the school), and helping them understand why they need to reference their work. Popular examples in the news may make this more interesting – for example Madonna’s music plagiarism case and celebrity psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud who plagiarised other’s work in a book he published and was suspended for practising for three months.

Slide 13: Your homework

Now it’s over to you. I’ve given you just a few ideas of the sorts of things you could do, as school librarians, to support students in their transition from school to university. I’m sure you have probably thought of more as I’ve been talking. I’d now like to you spend a few minutes writing down 3 things that you are going to investigate or implement in your school to help improve digital literacy skills. They don’t have to be major changes, just things that you think could improve the situation and help your students. You can take these away with you, stick them on your pinboard or share them with your colleagues, and think about how you could help Tom.

Slide 14: Foundations for success

I believe core information skills and digital literacy can help prepare students not just for further or higher education, but also for their future working life. These skills are transferable to almost every career, and probably even those that might not currently exist. The skills will continue to develop throughout university, but the earlier the foundations are laid, the easier students will find the transition to both university and the workplace.

Slide 15: Links to further resources

All of the resources I have mentioned today (and some that I didn’t manage to fit in!) are available at If you find any more useful resources which could help the transition, please feel free to add more using the same tag to build a useful library of resources.


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