Friday, 10 March 2017

The Challenges of Obtaining Student Feedback in a Single-Staffed, Silent Setting

Below is a copy of the article which I have just had published in COLRIC's Quality Impact journal.

'Effective management is only possible with effective evaluation.' So says The CILIP guidelines for secondary school libraries. (Shaper, 2014, p.80) and The innovative school librarian (Markless, 2016, p.84) highlights the importance of learning from students. This is especially true in my setting. We are a sixth-form college of around 360+ students with one silent study Library - which I single-staff - and a couple of other study areas available around the site. These are open-access and unstaffed. I get very few enquiries in the Library (something which I am working to improve) and those students that do speak to me tend to do so quickly so as to keep the space silent. I therefore have little opportunity to engage in lots of meaningful conversations and judge how effective the service is, and almost no opportunity to speak to non-Library users. But without their input, how do I know the level of impact that I am having? How do I know what services and resources they prioritise? How can I ensure that I am meeting their educational and personal needs?

The Library at Dereham Sixth Form College

In November 2015, during my first year in post, I implemented the first of a new, annual Library questionnaire. My solution to the problem of not having much opportunity to speak to students was to devise a paper and online questionnaire that could be completed independently of me by all students, whether Library-space users or not. This still left issues, however. If students were completing the questionnaire on their own, how could I ensure that enough were filled out? Furthermore, not being present meant that there was no chance for me to explain and promote resources and services that students may have been unaware of, or be able to ask clarifying or follow-up questions. In spite of this I knew that alternative methods of feedback, such as focus groups, was going to be unachievable in terms of the numbers of responses I wanted to the questionnaire was my best option.

I ran the questionnaire over two weeks towards the end of November. I timed it so that Year 12 hadn't yet left for study leave for their internal December exams, but that there had been enough time for them to get to know the services and resources. During the two weeks I left a paper questionnaire at every desk and computer space in the Library and in the two main other study areas. I also sent all students a link to the online version via their College email and promoted it through the College's Twitter and Facebook account. I emphasised that even those who didn't use the Library could provide valuable input and feedback.

I included COLRIC-recommended questions and asked about Library use, the effectiveness of the space and environment, borrowing, relevance of print resources, awareness of journals and online subscription resources, the potential helpfulness of an online catalogue, new resources, whether we should introduce overdue fines, customer service and Library welcome and information literacy inductions. At the end I also asked respondents to say whether they were Year 12 or Year 13 and which courses they were studying to enable me to analyse responses based on year group and subject.

The 2016 questionnaires
I received a good number of responses in that first year - 208 overall with 121 of those being paper questionnaires and 87 being online. On analysing the results I did find some issues, however. Not all the paper questionnaires were fully completed and a couple of issues with the online software I used meant that some questions had to be adapted slightly and some students managed to skip questions that should have required an answer. Furthermore, my concerns about not being able to ask follow-up questions or clarify answers turned out to be quite frustrating! On the up side my non-involvement did give the students the opportunity to be completely honest and I know that some responses would not have been the same had I asked the question myself. (This did also lead to some very stupid answers as well!)

The overall outcome of the questionnaire was positive. I received valuable statistics and insights into usage and opinions of the service. I was also able to create an action plan for the rest of the year which included purchasing a new Library Management System with Online Catalogue, raising awareness and visibility of journals, introducing welcome inductions for new Year 12s, updating signage with regards to behaviour expectations, re-arranging desks to promote more individual study, dealing more promptly with those students who were not working appropriately, and developing in-depth information literacy sessions for classes along with bookable 1-to-1 sessions.

To try and improve responses this year I made a couple of changes. First, I solved the issues with the online software and second, I re-deigned the print version so that it had 16 questions which took up two A4 sides, instead of the 19 questions taking up three sides from the previous year. I also changed some of the questions allowing me to focus on different aspects of the service.

Last year I must have had some very eager students because this year I found I was really struggling with numbers! By the end of the first week this year I had only received 74 paper and 16 online questionnaires, compared to 118 paper and 68 online questionnaires during the same period last academic year. I wasn't promoting it any less but something had clearly changed. Perhaps those who had completed one in Year 12 didn't want to do so again in Year 13? Or maybe students just aren't checking their College email or are getting too many emails and the message got lost in their inbox. It's impossible to say. Luckily, during the second week, the College held the first of its two Flexible Learning Days so I took the opportunity to ask every tutor to give the questionnaire out to their tutor groups. During the second week I also stopped putting a questionnaire at every workspace and just handed them out to students I spoke to and left a few in the other study spaces. This meant that I finished with a total of 208 paper questionnaires, although I didn't receive any further online responses, giving me 224 overall - an increase of 16 from 2015.

The questionnaire has still proved a very useful feedback method. Again I have gained valuable insights and been able to draw up an action plan that includes targets around;
  • Changing the emphasis on raising awareness of resources to why and how they can really help, with relevant, practical examples
  • Looking into the possibility of reader development with high school students
  • Starting a Library blog or similar to cover subjects such as how to use specific journals and online resources, how to evaluate content, etc. to reach those who don't receive an induction
  • Contacting teachers and speaking to College leadership to embed research skills inductions into first term tutorials and to embed subject-specific inductions into subjects
  • Develop ways to effectively promote the Library around College
Next year I shall definitely use Flexible Learning Day again during the second week to 'mop up' any non-respondents. I shall continue with the online version in order to give students the opportunity to complete it online. However, I don't think that leaving it to be completely independent is the most effective way so I will speak to students more and dedicate some time during each day to talk to students in the Library, and in the other study spaces, and complete the questionnaire with them. That should help to not only increase my response rate but also allow me to explain and promote resources and services and build on answers to create those all-important meaningful conversations.
Markless, S. (ed.) (2016) The innovative school librarian. 2nd edn. London: Facet Publishing.

Shaper, S. (ed.) (2014) The CILIP guidelines for secondary school libraries. 3rd edn. London: Facet Publishing.