Working with Students on the Autism Spectrum in an Academic Library

I don’t want to give away too much information on this situation, so I’m changing a few of the things to protect privacy, but here goes…

I was facilitating an information literacy session for a class–a typical first-year gen ed course. My usual plan incorporates a hands-on activity (research worksheet) where students, working in groups, find different information sources on their class topic (books, ebooks, streaming films, newspapers/magazines, scholarly articles). After searching, each group shares how they found the information with their classmates. In total, the session incorporates multiple learning styles (visual, aural, and tactile).

Instead of me doing the talking, I outline what we want to accomplish during the session and point out a couple of things on the library website. Then I let the groups start their work. I walk around and visit each group to make sure they are headed in the right direction.

A group was struggling in interactions with one of their classmates.

  • A student kept asking me question after question. I love when students ask questions in info lit sessions (yes!), but the student was bogged down in technical minutiae — missing the forest through the trees — that sort of thing.
  • The student fixated on answering each question on the research worksheet and was taking very little input from other group members.
  • The student argued with the other students about the answers. The student was concerned that there were multiple avenues for determining a “correct” answer.
  • The student was verbally critical in a raised voice when help was offered to the group (e.g., “Why didn’t you show us how to do this AT THE BEGINNING!”).
  • The student also seemed sidetracked with the settings on the library laptops that were being used by the students.

I realized I *likely* (granted, just an inference on my part) had a student on the autism spectrum in class. No formal indication was communicated to me–nor should it–that is up to the individual. In typical “pro” librarian style, you just need to roll with the situation and be flexible.

My Reaction
As this was happening, I made a mental note to remain calm and supportive. The last thing I want to do to any student is be dismissive, curt, or yell back.

I focused on providing a little more in-depth step-by-step instruction with the student (e.g., “Let’s take a look at your question and see what we can find out.”). However, I did feel like I got behind schedule and the rest of the students were waiting for us to catch up–some were noticeably annoyed. It’s a difficult balancing act that we will see more of at the higher ed level.

I wish I could have facilitated the session more smoothly. I’d be interested in hearing tips and techniques from other librarians. 

Things to Keep in Mind
Individuals on the autism spectrum are all unique, but there are a few general tips to be aware of in regards to the library and information literacy:

  1. Meeting in a new location (like the Library Classroom) may disrupt the student’s routine.
  2. My “there are many ways to find the answer” research worksheet may not be structured enough for someone on the autism spectrum. I could have supplemented it by outlining a step-by-step research strategy on the chalkboard/whiteboard.
  3. Technology in the Library Classroom could be distracting or contribute to sensory overload (I typically use both laptops and touchscreen technology with students).
  4. I usually require students to work in pairs or groups for the research worksheet activity, but should recognize that if a student wishes to work independently, that is an OK option.
  5. Emphasize additional services:
    • Appointments to meet with a librarian if that’s what the student is interested in.
    • Online tutorials and the library’s online chat box that can be accessed from the comfort of home/dorm room, etc… if a face-to-face interaction is not preferred.
    • Quiet spaces are available in the library if that’s the type of space that the student is interested in utilizing.
  6. As a librarian/higher ed professional, I will readily admit to not having a lot of training in the area of working with students on the autism spectrum. Contact your university’s office of disability services to see what further support the library could provide, or to arrange for staff training opportunities.
  7. Remember, *all* students learn differently. Keep in mind the principles of Universal Design for Learning.

Further Reading


Buzzfeed & Facebook in Infolit Sessions: Connecting What Students Use to Library Research

I try to do all the right information literacy “stuff”: active learning, hands-on work, positive attitude, etc… I also make sure I’m prepped for class at least a day before. Yesterday, I decided to throw my lesson plan in the garbage.

The professor emailed me late: Students have been gathering sources from Facebook and blogs and not evaluating what they find. Probably not a big shock to most librarians, but the professor was concerned.

The assignment:
Two sections of an introductory 100-level psychology course work in groups to gather five scholarly, empirical research articles on a topic. The group writes a review of the articles and posts it on a course website.

A new lesson plan:
Why go right to the databases? Instead, start where students are most comfortable and then transition them to more authoritative sources. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about databases, but most of our students (at this point) don’t see the connection between everyday life and academic research.

I decide to comb Facebook, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post to find articles that had a psychological theme–something students might come across while using social media. I jokingly tweeted:

Luckily, awesome Twitter library folks like @SJLeeman and @dupuisj chimed in with some examples they had:

Now I had a plan!

Dividing the class in to groups, I gave each group a popular topic relating to psychology:

1. Huffington Post article:
Hungry? Maybe Don’t Go Shopping: Academic research shows that people who are hungry purchase both food and non-food items at a higher rate than people who are not hungry.

2. Buzzfeed article:
Watch Six Pairs Stare in to Each Others’ Eyes as Love Experiment (also had a cute video which I showed a portion of in class): Academic research shows that staring into your partner’s eyes can increase intimacy levels.

3. A post that was popular on Facebook, shared by @SJLeeman:
Half of All Children Will Be Autistic by 2025: research by a MIT scientist.

Sharing the links with the class, I asked each group to read over the articles to become acquainted with the topic. Then I told them to see if they could locate the original research, starting with Google–something they are all familiar with. I stopped by each group to ask them questions and point them in the right direction. We concluded by having each group share what they found with the rest of the class.

For the Huffington Post article:
Students found that names of the original researchers mentioned, but they did not have a title of the original study or a link to it. An initial Google search didn’t find anything useful. Good segue into library databases.

For the Buzzfeed article:
Students found that it mentioned a replication of the academic study in The New York Times. The NYT article had the original researcher’s name, plus a link to the scholarly article. Clicking on the link to the article showed the students that access to it was provided by our library.

For the Facebook post on autism:
Students reported that the headline sounded shocking. They also said they were likely to trust an “expert” at an academic institution. Students found the original researcher’s name and Googled the person only to find that she’s controversial in the scientific community and not trained in the biological/medical field. Students also questioned if the organization that had the post about autism might be biased. They noticed other things on the website, including that vaccines may be “ineffective” or unsafe.

The Takeaways
1. Every day we read, see, or hear about things that involve academic research–on almost any topic imaginable. We just have to do a little digging to get to that research.

2. Google and the general web is great as a starting point, but it shouldn’t be your ending point.

3. The blog posts and websites you find generally won’t be considered “academic” by your professors. You’re going to need to track down the original psychological studies.

4. You need to carefully evaluate the information you find on these sites. I mentioned the “CRAAP” test (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, point of view).

5. The library has databases to locate the original studies (e.g., PsycINFO). You can search by keyword, by article title, or by a particular author, etc… if you have that bit of info. In addition, only a couple of students in each section reported using Google Scholar before–so I made sure to mention that as an alternative tool to keep in your research “wheelhouse.”

6. We were able to look at the original empirical research article from the Buzzfeed example. Students were able to identify the basic set-up (e.g., abstract, methods, results, references, etc…). This was important as this is the type of scholarly article that students need to find for their project.

From there, we transitioned to the library’s resources: A quick demo of PsycINFO (and some of the other psychology resources) and how to formulate a search strategy: An active learning whiteboard activity where students take a psychology research question (such as from the examples above) and identity the keywords and brainstorm synonyms.

Following that, there was plenty of time for students to do searching in PsycINFO and other relevant sources to gather citations for their group project.

Further Reading:


Is your mom Mrs. Huxtable? My first information literacy memory

First a little background: I grew up in small town Indiana. My mom is Hispanic; my dad white.

It’s the mid-1980s. I’m in the second grade. I remember this event like it was yesterday: It turned out to be my first inkling of “information literacy” – although too young to know it – and the term itself wasn’t emphasized until 1989.

This is what happened: My mom came to visit me at school. After she left, one of my classmates asked me in all seriousness:

Is your mom Mrs. Huxtable?

Yes, Claire Huxtable. The mom from 1980s hit The Cosby Show.

As a second grader, I couldn’t define the word askance, but that was the look I had on my face.

Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

Me: Where did you hear that?

Him: Nowhere. I just thought that.

[Insert future librarian thinking: Where did he get his information from? Why hasn’t he verified it?]

Me: You know that Mrs. Huxtable is just a character on The Cosby Show, right? She’s not a real person.

[Insert future librarian thinking: Why can’t he distinguish between fiction and real-life?]

Him: Oh.

Me: You also know that Mrs. Huxtable is African-American, right? My mom is Mexican.

[Insert future librarian thinking: I want to go grab the shiny new World Book Encyclopedia off of the shelf. Why isn’t he using prior knowledge as context? After all, I know he’s eaten at my aunt’s taco truck. Everyone in town knows it!]

Him: Oh. Ok.

Another classmate: “I heard your mom was Hawaiian.”

Me: [sigh]

Here’s my mom – mid-1980s (top) and Mrs. Huxtable, aka Phylicia Rashad (bottom). What do you think?


“How Do You Get Students Excited About Searching?”

I was talking with a professor the other day and she asked me:

How do you get students excited about searching?

It reminded me of the old quote:

Librarians like to search. Everyone else likes to find.

I really had to think about this one. Maybe it’s that word: excite? I’m a librarian and I don’t think that searching is exciting. Sure it can occasionally be a fun detective hunt. Yes, it’s sometimes serendipitous…but often it’s just tedious–nothing I would generally categorize as exciting.

As an instruction librarian, am I failure in the classroom if I don’t think it’s my job to get students excited about searching? I don’t think so. You need to be cognizant that sometimes it just boils down to the professor’s assignment. Is the assignment exciting? Or is it just busy work? I’m more than happy to collaborate with faculty on assignment ideas, but at the end of the day, it’s the professor’s job to put the assignment together.

When it comes down to my teaching: I’m passionate about connecting people with information. The act (or art?) of searching is only one small part. My job is to get students pointed in the right direction, to de-mystify the research process a little, and to show them that it CAN be done! Let’s face it: the library is often the most itimidating building on campus. I’m here to make the library and the research process a little bit more relatable to students.

I show them the tools that will be most useful, make the connection in how these tools will help them succeed with their assignment, get them thinking about HOW and WHY they’re using this information, and get them using the tools right away. My mix of teaching is practical, personable, participatory, and slightly humorous.

I’m not here to do a song and dance razzle-dazzle routine on searching for information: “Try this ONE perfect search to find EVERYTHING on your topic. Look, it’s so EASY!” Students see right through that. I don’t do the “perfect” search because that’s not what students will encounter. I’m OK playing “stump the librarian” and having the students work with me on the problem. It makes you more authentic and approachable.

I’m a realist: Will they be excited? Chances are, no. But will they think the research process seems a little more doable and will they be willing to seek help? Yes.

What do you think? Is it our job to make searching exciting? I’d love to hear your thoughts or any tips and techniques that you’ve tried.

Embedded Librarian 101: How to Get Started

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 12.28.07 PM

As librarians, we can’t wait for students to ask us questions. We know that! That’s why we’ve had “virtual” reference services since the early 2000’s. But it’s simply not enough to have an online presence. The key is being online where the students are. For most universities, this means the learning management system (Moodle, Blackboard, D2L, etc…). It’s where students spend their academic time. It’s where librarians need to be. It’s embedded librarianship.

How do you get started?

  • Start small. Identity a library-friendly faculty member that would be open to an embedded librarian and then expand from there.
  • Target writing emphasis courses (many universities will have these courses tagged in their course catalogs with terms such as writing emphasis, writing enhanced, writing intensive, etc…) that will likely have a research component that would require the use of library materials and resources.
  • Send an email to faculty teaching these courses at the beginning of every term (yes, it takes several reminders for it to work!).
  • Provide marketing and informational materials about embedded librarian services. We direct faculty to a LibGuide about our embedded librarian program and have developed a checklist for faculty to consult. We also provide info at faculty workshops and try to get our foot in the door at departmental meetings.
  • Work with the faculty member to identify the level of service needed: ranging from a simple discussion forum, to a tutorial/quiz module, to you as a “guest lecturer,”etc…

How do you gain access to courses in the learning management system?

  • First: get the go-ahead from the faculty member teaching the course.
  • Work with your university’s IT staff. Most can add you into courses with TA access or a “librarian” role can be created in the learning management system. I usually email our IT staff requesting access to the courses I need and I copy the faculty member on the email.
  • Recommendation: request that a secondary account for embedded librarian be added to the course  (for example, your library’s Reference Desk account) so that the courses can be checked if you’re out of the office or on vacation.

How do you set up & post information as the Embedded Librarian?

  • Create your discussion forum and add in any other learning objects that are appropriate (e.g., LibGuides, tutorials, etc.).
  • If you’re embedded for an entire term, you may want to roll out various learning objects by date as assignments/projects approach.
  • Introduce yourself in the discussion forum. Describe what you’re here to do. Add in a video to give a face to a name–creating a much more personal approach (here’s mine).
  • Give students some guidelines: “I’ll check this forum twice per day.” “When you post your question, tell me a little bit about what you’ve already tried to search for.” “If you need immediate help, try our Ask-a-Librarian service.”

How do you encourage students to ask questions?

  • Be welcoming. “If you have a question, it’s likely that some of your other classmates have the exact same question. So post it!”
  • Develop a list of “ready to go” posts. These are posts that you can drop in the forum (say once per week) to help stimulate discussion and questions.
  • Post information in a variety of mediums from PDF handouts to videos.

Where do you go from here?

  • After some initial success, you may want to target all sections of a particular course, or a sequence of courses for embedded librarian.
  • Develop some higher-level activities that can be embedded: self-paced tutorials, quizzes, etc.
  • Assess! Find out how your services were used and how they might be improved or enhanced.

“I Didn’t Know I Could Use the Library!” Meeting the Needs of Students Online

I’m at WILU 2013 – Workshop for Instruction in Library Use – a Canadian information literacy conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick: a great opportunity to network with librarians north of the border – or “south of the border” to them! I presented a session about implementing library services to online students:

“I Didn’t Know I Could Use the Library!” Meeting the Needs of Students Online

Session Description:
What do you do with students you rarely see in the library? University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has a growing online student population. Reaching these students can be challenging. Many still view the library as just a brick-and-mortar building, and not an online 24/7 resource. Librarians conducted an assessment of online students to investigate their needs. This session will focus on the assessment results and the information literacy outreach plan put into place. It will highlight several initiatives, including the embedded librarian program, faculty-librarian collaboration, marketing efforts, and learning tools geared towards online students. Based on feedback from students and faculty, an increase in reference questions, as well as high usage statistics from librarian-created tutorials and discussion boards, the outreach plan is working. Come and learn about these best practices for online learners and share your ideas, as well.

Here are some of the assessment tools, resources, guides, and tips mentioned in my presentation:

Get ‘Embed’ with Your Librarian: Meeting the Needs of Students Online

The online market is a growing field for higher education. How does the academic library fit into all of this? My colleague–Anne Kasuboski–and I gave a presentation at the 2013 Wisconsin Association of Academic Librarians conference, held at Elkhart Lake.

We discuss how our library at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay surveyed our online students and faculty and developed an outreach plan to meet their needs.

It covers our Embedded Librarian program, which started out as a pilot program and expanded successfully across online courses, in addition to some face-to-face courses. It also includes information on the learning tools that we gear towards online learners, such as LibGuides, tutorials, and resources like NoodleTools.

If you have questions about being an “embedded librarian”–let me know! I would like to hear what other librarians are doing with programs such as these.