Instruction at Point of Need

I get the impression that, within academia, there is a constant, low-level (and sometimes not-so-low-level) anxiety about whether or not students are learning what they need to about information, information literacy, and how to effectively use the information that they do find.    This essay is an example of some of the strategies academic libraries and librarians engage in to attempt to inform students in effective ways about their information possibilities. 

Instruction at the point of need is not a concept that is unique to academic libraries.  Faculty struggle with when is the best time to give students information about coursework, paper assignments, and exams.  Many go over their syllabi at the beginning of the semester, but then encounter students throughout the semester who were not in class that day, who got the syllabus but didn’t read it, or who have the syllabus but forgot what it said after they read it.  Having syllabi on course management systems such as Moodle or Blackboard Vista can help with this some, because you are not relying on student access to a paper copy, but can expect that students who need the information can go find it online.

Design specialists think about instruction at the point of need in all sorts of contexts.  The website of Edward Tufte contains an entire message board discussing examples of instruction, and whether or not those examples are effective (and why they might or might not be).  Signs that assist with urban wayfinding, package instructions, safety cautions are all examples of things that need clear and obvious design elements to catch attention as well as convey information.

People who need to find their way around a city, who need to open a newly purchased item, or who need to know how to be safe when their airplane is crashing are also highly motivated to receive the information contained in those instructions.  And that is where it can all get hung up in the academic context:  faculty and other instructors (including librarians) traditionally gave instruction when it worked for their own schedule, or for when they thought students *should* have the information (e.g., at the beginning of the semester).  That time is not necessarily when students are most receptive to that information.  Finding the intersection of student need and student receptivity is a tricky prospect, and requires flexibilty.

For instance, there are faculty members who have online office hours the night before homework assignments are due, because that is when students both need and are willing to listen to the relevant information.  Students who are writing papers often do so in the week (or day) before the assignment is due–that is when they are most receptive to information about how to structure their paper, how to find information to use in the body of their paper, how to configure their bibliography.  Short of reference librarians giving middle-of-the-night library instruction, how can we get that information into the hands of students when they both need it and are listening to what we have to say?

This is something we are actively thinking about in Atkins, and there are already a few possible solutions that we are working towards.  I’d be interested in hearing what you think are really effective ways of reaching people with the information they need to have to be successful.  What has worked for you?

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