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.

Big Data is Watching (or single women who are librarians and like cats)

As Facebook rolled out its Graph Search to users’ accounts, stories in the news media have been popping up about the outrageous things you can find (e.g, “married people who like prostitutes“) and–more importantly–how you can (try to) lock down your privacy settings. Gizmodo has a good overview on how to do this.

So is Facebook’s Graph Search a warm, fuzzy place to find out about other co-workers who might like bicycling and hiking, like I do? Or is it a stalker-ish search engine that uses your precious personal data and likes? Well, it’s a bit of both.

TechNewsDaily points out:

You can run. You can hide. But you still won’t be safe from Facebook’s Graph Search.

Librarians, school media specialists, and information professionals should play a role in educating their users on social media and privacy. But we all need to pay attention to what we post. Case in point, I did an off-the-wall “stereotypical” librarian search for: Single women who are librarians and like cats.

To my surprise, there were actual search results [note: I’m not saying it’s wrong to be a single librarian that likes cats. It’s just amazing to see how narrow I can make the data]:

Facebook Graph Search: single women who are librarians and like cats

I don’t know about you, but I find the search results creepy. I also wonder about some of the negative connotations people might draw from these search results. As an example, I picked my area: Green Bay, Wisconsin. Here’s a search for: People who live in Green Bay, Wisconsin and that like getting drunk.

Facebook Graph Search: people who live in Green Bay, Wisconsin and that like getting drunk

So much of the information that people think is private, is actually not. Now, I’m not part of the tin foil hat brigade, nor am I advocating for a Puritan-ization of social media–but I do think everyone needs to take a second look at the information they share, educate themselves on privacy issues, and keep vigilant in an ever changing information landscape.

“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:

Bringing the Annotated Bibliography into the 21st Century: Using a LibGuide as an Assignment

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I’m a LibGuides aficionado. Students love them. Professors love them. It’s a great way to package only the most relevant library and research-related content and tie it directly to an assignment or course. Professors can then link to it from their course management system (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle, D2L) in an environment where students spend most of their online “academic” time anyway.

This semester I taught a course for my institution’s Information and Computing Sciences department: Information Science 410: Advanced Information Problems. This course takes a problem/solution oriented approach to a complicated issue – in our case, gun control – and examines the maze of information related to it.

As a librarian, I thought the best thing to do was to put together a LibGuide to direct students to good information. But then I thought, “Hey, these are information science students…let’s put them to work!” Because the course spends time on evaluating information, a course LibGuide project was a perfect opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills.

Using our gun control issue, students worked in teams to evaluate the best library databases for the topic, and gathered relevant books, websites, government information, and video. I taught them how to use the LibGuides system and gave an overview of “model” LibGuides. Each group was provided with a LibGuide shell. Students had “collaborator” access to the LibGuide allowing them to add content and edit the design.

After each group submitted their LibGuide, I had a panel of library staff evaluate them. We selected the “winning” LibGuide to be published on our site. The end result?: a non-biased and informational guide on a popular and controversial issue that can be used by all students on our campus to gather academic information.

The project gives students practice at evaluating and curating information. The LibGuide, combined with a written assignment where students explain their information selection brings the time honored annotated bibliography into the 21st century. It’s something that academic librarians should market to professors as an assignment that demonstrates critical thinking and evaluative skills.

LibGuide link: