Student success, along with the related goals of equity, retention, and degree completion, has been a prominent area of library research and practice in recent years, such as in the ACRL Value of Academic Libraries initiative and the steadily accumulating evidence and critique to be found in the LIS literature. Yet attention to the related higher education findings based in behavioral economics has been surprisingly scarce.
David Kirp’s The College Dropout Scandal (2019) provides a low-key introduction to where this research is leading in a handful of U.S. colleges and universities. The book starts with a rundown of the kinds of interventions that are generally known to improve student success. Per the title, these interventions have, according to Kirp, been scandalously underused. The College Dropout Scandal is a quick read, and so skates over a lot of the detail of how the student success interventions are intended to work, opting instead for chapter-length portraits of schools that are translating social science into practice. Where it shines however is in showing the coordinated institutional change that is required if schools are serious about increasing equality of opportunity.
Some readers will find Kirp’s bird’s eye view suspiciously convenient. The social sciences, and in particular the fields of social psychology and behavioral economics, have been weathering a storm of failed replications, retracted findings, and imploding careers. While noting a few cases where findings did not replicate with different student samples or in different institutions, Kirp does not directly address the elephant in the room that is the replication crisis.
Nonetheless, the approach here is consistent with one post-replication-crisis rule of thumb: be skeptical of attention-grabbing claims about the enormous impacts of individual small-bore interventions (Clearer Thinking, n.d.). In the case of higher education we should look at the overall institutional structure for the effect on student success, rather than looking for a silver bullet in the form of one technology or set of magic words that can supposedly turn a student’s life around. Indeed, as Kirp is careful to describe in the chapter on City University of New York’s CUNY Start and ASAP programs, evidence-based efforts at leveling the playing field tend to require a significant level of resources to reach the necessary critical mass of small classes, carefully crafted first-year timetables, knowledgeable advising, and fully subsidized tuition and living expenses.
Library workers curious about the specifics of how nudge-type interventions can help students may wish to consult Castleman, Schwartz, and Baum’s collection Decision making for student success (2015). The book gives a clear sense of the overall model behind the interventions: students who feel uncertain about their place in a school may adopt counterproductive preferences if they are left to simply pick up cues from their peers and an environment that does not have their success at the centre of its design. A straightforward example of this is the phenomenon of first-generation students who qualify for better schools, with generous funding and more inspiring programs, but simply do not consider this path due to a lack of information and advising, as well as other barriers they may face, such as geography.
Suggestive for library services are a number of other insights stemming from this basic model of how marginalized students navigate college life. Social norming strategies nudge students toward using services by conveying that these services are there for all students, and by undercutting the belief that asking for assistance amounts to an admission that you do not deserve to be in college. According to this model, telling students that library collections or research consultation services are being under-used is likely to backfire since it unintentionally conveys a social norm of getting by without using the library. Instead it may be more effective to model how even experts regularly consult librarians for research support. Information literacy instruction could do this, for example, by incorporating activities that involve examining an acknowledgments page from an academic book or by having students from later years speak to first-year students about their experience using library services and collections.
Another relevant finding described in Castleman, Schwartz, and Baum (2015) centers on implementation intentions. An implementation intention ties a daunting task to an easy-to-recognize cue to make it easier for one to begin tackling it. Since the student success research shows the decision of when to seek help to be quite loaded for many students, simply telling them to ask for help when they need it might be more demanding than library workers realize. Rather, staff could scaffold the decision by saying something like, “Try what I’ve suggested for 20 minutes and if you don’t have a breakthrough, come show me what you tried.” Similarly, when students need to be referred to their instructor to work out their research topic, there are opportunities to scaffold this decision by explaining how to ask for help and what to generally expect in response.
So why have library professionals been slow to engage with this research? Kirp describes some of the pushback student success thinking has received from instructors. One predictable allegation is that these reforms lower academic standards by coddling students. Kirp, however, interviews instructors tasked with helping students catch up in Math or stay the course in required first-year courses like Chemistry who say the shifts in how they approach their students have helped them get significantly more effort from them.
As for libraries, one impediment may be the tendency to distrust knowledge from outside the field. Kirp describes instructors who believe that social scientists are merely putting a name to teaching practices that professors have used for ages. Likewise, in the library field, we have our own models of information seeking behavior, such as Kuhlthau’s painstakingly refined Information Search Process and her Vygotskian concept of “zones of intervention,” where just the right amount of scaffolding needs to be supplied in moments of research uncertainty. And with a legacy of intellectual work in cataloguing, classification, and controlled vocabularies, it is certainly true that library professionals were among the original experts in the “choice architecture” associated with nudges.
But whatever the ultimate reason for this lack of attention in the field, it seems like a good idea to combine broader, behavioral-economics-informed research with library-specific findings. Demonstrating the logic of library practices in a way that fits the behavioral model from student success research outside the profession could make for compelling advocacy in line with institutions’ overall efforts to improve student outcomes.
The fact is, college enrollment has grown dramatically in recent decades. Canada is very different from the U.S. in not having such a highly stratified postsecondary education landscape. But the broad lessons about student success apply nonetheless, since it is not enough to simply increase access when inequality dramatically affects students’ prospects well before they enter university. The many intractable problems our society currently faces mean we cannot afford to expect a diverse student body to simply assimilate or fail. To do so would not only mean letting down students who, whatever barriers they face or doubts they may carry, want to succeed; it would mean standing by while valuable intellectual contributions continue to be squandered.
Castleman, B. L., Schwartz, S., & Baum, S., (Eds.). (2015). Decision making for student success: Behavioral insights to improve college access and persistence. New York, NY: Routledge.
Clearer Thinking. (n.d.). Psychology experiments in top journals – are they true? [Mini-course]. Retrieved from https://80000hours.org/psychology-replication-quiz/?fromClearerThinking=1
Kirp, David. (2019). The College Dropout Scandal. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kuhlthau, C. C. (2008). From information to meaning: Confronting challenges of the twenty-first century. Libri: International Journal of Libraries & Information Services, 58(2), 66–73. https://doi.org/10.1515/libr.2008.008
Joseph Haigh is an auxiliary librarian at Langara College and New Westminster Public Library.