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…

Background
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.

Issue
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

 

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“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.

Stop Thinking So Much Like a Damn Librarian (or how I started liking discovery layers)

Search@UW

My library just implemented a discovery layer – Primo from Ex Libris (branded as Search@UW since most campuses in the University of Wisconsin System are using it) – to combine catalog records, plus articles and other resources from our databases. Frankly, I wasn’t excited about it at first. It had nothing to do with the product itself. It just seemed like we were getting something that we weren’t asking for.

As an instruction librarian, I approach things from a pedagogical standpoint: How will students use it? What will it do for them? I ask a lot of “what ifs.”

While the discovery layer was being tested, I happened to be teaching a semester-long senior-level information science class. As one of our projects, we did some usability testing on Primo. Guess what? The students loved the discovery layer.

We compared finding information it in versus searching the online catalog and databases separately. The discovery layer won hands down in terms of speed and ease of use. My biggest worry: “Were students finding relevant information?” was assuaged.

And this is when I had to teach myself to STOP THINKING SO MUCH LIKE A DAMN LIBRARIAN!

The discovery layer makes perfect sense to students:

  • A seamless experience for finding information.
  • A simple search interface, a la Google.
  • Start with a broad search and then narrow it to particular types of items (books, articles, etc.).
  • An element of exploration.

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Don’t Box Me In!

Silo-ing information – which libraries are REALLY good at (…and which is NOT a compliment by the way) – does not make sense to students. A catalog to search for books? The databases to search for articles? It’s a holdover from the olden days of libraries: “real” card catalogs with endless drawers of records to locate books in the stacks, and volume after volume of print indexes to find articles in a periodical.

While we were testing the discovery layer, there were a few things I didn’t like. Case in point: In our “old” catalog, I had a drop down box to limit my searching to our Reference Collection. The discovery layer did not have that option from the main menu. But there I went again: thinking like a librarian! Stop. Examine what your users need to do with the tool at hand. Do my students need an option on the main menu to search for reference books? The answer is a resounding NO! Searching for reference books is simply NOT a priority. It’s OK to re-evaluate those sacred cows.

At the same time, I recognize that if you’re doing heavy duty research in a particular subject area, then a subject-specific database is your best bet. So, I created a guide for students: What Tool Should I Use to Find Information? to direct them to the appropriate tools.

Permanent Beta is OK

We rolled out our discovery layer in a not-quite-perfected state. Each class and group I’ve shown it to has loved it. Librarians get too pre-occupied with perfecting everything before rolling it out. This causes delays for your users and dwindling interest as well. Seize your patrons’ needs and desires and then deliver in a timely manner. Get feedback, re-tool, adapt, and grow from there.

The User is #1

So I came around on the discovery layer. While I always like to think I have my patrons’ needs in mind, you really need to step out of those librarian loafers and examine them. There are services that patrons would like, and probably some that they couldn’t even imagine. Harness this information and then deliver it for your patrons.