Teaming Up for College Readiness

High school educators are joining forces with their academic counterparts to make sure students are prepared to ace college research.

Today’s universities expect students to arrive ready to conduct original research and synthesize information effectively. Yet according to a study by Project Information Literacy, “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College,” that’s not necessarily the case. Freshmen are commonly “intimidated by the plethora of print and online sources...and uncertain [of] how to access or use them.”

The solution may be preemptive strikes before entering students arrive, or even apply. Collaborations between high school and college libraries are cropping up nationwide. For example, many academic libraries in Ohio have designated outreach librarians who work with high school librarians to introduce high school seniors to college research. These programs can be a win-win: high schools graduate better-equipped students and universities get a chance to show off their friendly, helpful faces to prospective undergrads. Of course, they also reduce the university’s need to provide remedial instruction in information literacy to already-matriculated students.

Below, LJ looks at three successful programs that engage college librarians in teaching information literacy to high schoolers. Each overcame a variety of unique obstacles to return promising results.


Eliot Finkelstein, instruction coordinator at the College Library at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UWM), is one of several librarians who leads partnerships with nearby high schools. Sessions take place year-round, including during the summer, in one of the UWM library classrooms. The librarians visit the high schools to introduce themselves to students before the sessions begin. “Information literacy instruction is a requirement for incoming freshmen at UWM, so creating a high school–to–college transition that’s as seamless as possible is really a priority for all of us,” Finkelstein tells LJ. For many students, he observes, these sessions are the first time they have drawn their own conclusions from information sources and contributed to the research conversation on a topic.

Finkelstein points to a series of discussions with Madison-area high school library media specialists and classroom teachers in 2011 as the impetus for the program. “It was a fantastic way to get to know local educators,” he notes. “Now we work closely with those classroom teachers and library media specialists to schedule student visits in conjunction with a research assignment requiring students to use a variety of sources, including scholarly sources.”

Regular university responsibilities must come first, however, so it can be difficult for college librarians to coordinate timing that works with high school students’ projects and schedules. “It works particularly well to meet with high school groups in January and May,” suggests Finkelstein. “During college breaks, we have space, staff, and time available to collaborate with high school staff.”

UWM is fortunate to have several libraries to pull into the mix. For example, when high school students were conducting research on the topic of food security, the College Library was able to solicit aid from the Agriculture and Life Sciences Library. “If you’re able, see if there are partners to help manage and balance the work [of a high school instructional collaboration],” advises Finkelstein. “That also can create a more meaningful experience for the students.”

Gearing sessions to the intellectual level of the high schoolers, while still reflecting realistic college requirements, is sometimes challenging yet always rewarding. His biggest thrill, Finkelstein says, is when UWM freshmen who participated in the program stop by to tell him how the resources they learned of from the librarian visits are helping them now.


April Sheppard, assistant library director at Arkansas State University (ASU), Jonesboro, leads the Building Bridges Program in partnership with Credo Reference. The birth of Building Bridges was happenstance, recalls Sheppard. When her library director, Jeff Bailey, was seated with Credo Reference general manager Ian Singer (former VP and group publisher of Library Journals) at a dinner, the two struck up a conversation about the increasing frequency of requests from high schools to visit the university library. The ASU Library began offering the Credo SEEK (Students Exploring & Evaluating Knowledge) research and teaching tool to regional high schools, with the university covering licensing for 12 schools. The partnership evolved into offering instruction sessions first to schools that had concurrent enrollment with ASU and then, as space permitted, to other schools in the county.  

Achieving buy-in was the first step to bringing the tool to local schools. “Before we finalized the deal with Credo, we got the support of campus administration and from within the ASU library,” says Sheppard. This was made easier by explicitly stating the goals of the program: higher GPAs, higher test scores, higher admission rates, and greater retention. Outcomes were measured by both ASU and the high schools; ASU’s Institutional Effectiveness office gathered anonymous overall data on current college students who came from participating schools, and compared to the overall data of students who did not come from those schools. All results were shared.

Building Bridges overcame a few pitfalls to overcome. The first feeler emails sent to schools were too much like a sales pitch and too long. “We learned to ‘sell’ the partnership when we met with the schools in person,” Sheppard tells LJ.

Another misstep proved to be waiting until April to approach the high schools. Between end-of-year tests and the summer break, the process stalled. “Even though we’re open all summer long, the schools aren’t.... We kind of forgot that point,” says Sheppard. Things didn’t simply pick up where they left off when school started back up, either, often owing to seasonal staffing changes. “In these cases, the new person was completely unaware of the project,” says Sheppard, who suggests starting outreach to high schools no later than ­January.

Perhaps the biggest lesson Sheppard and her team learned was to make the high school principals the first point of contact. They found out the hard way that principals often don’t like their educators being contacted directly. Last, “Stress that you are merely offering to support their curriculum, that you’re in no way suggesting their students aren’t being properly taught,” urges Sheppard. “Also, assure the principals that there will be no cost for the program.”


Kenneth Burhanna, interim dean at Kent State University (KSU) Libraries and professor, University Libraries, originally spearheaded his institution’s high school outreach program, Informed Transitions, in 2005. Since then it has grown tremendously in reach. Built on the work and support of the Institute for Library & Information Literacy Education (ILILE), the program aims for successful student transitions from high school to college, by bringing high school students to the university library.

HEAD START ON RESEARCH High school seniors get a jump on college-level research skills through Kent State University’s Informed Transitions program. Photo Courtesy of Kent State University

A visit to an academic library works best when the students are doing research for a real assignment. This gives the librarians an opportunity to demonstrate the use of academic library resources in an immediately relevant way. In the absence of a high school assignment, though, KSU librarians provide one geared to students’ needs, pinpointed through discussions with teachers and media specialists. These include, at a minimum, an introduction to the Library of Congress Classification System, periodical organization and access, and basic database searching.

To reach high school educators who don’t have the time or funding to make the trip to an academic library, some Ohio universities have work-arounds in place. First-year experience or outreach librarians will visit high schools to offer an introduction to the academic library using a combination of INFOhio resources and library-specific data. Another option is for high schoolers to make individual campus visits, which may be arranged by contacting nearby academic librarians. Finally, some Ohio universities offer workshops for high school teachers and librarians, with attendees bringing information and insights back to their students.

“Ultimately, the success of programs like this rest on maintaining good communication across educational communities and finding ways to align objectives, says Burhanna. Kent State librarians, he reports, first had to develop program guidelines and policies and then needed a mechanism to make this critical information readily available. The resultant website, Library.Kent.Edu/highschool, organizes everything from scheduling guidelines to chaperone requirements to instructional expectations for visits.

UWM’s Finkelstein agrees, and adds, “Big college libraries can seem scary, so it’s important for students to recognize that librarians are approachable and that our job is to help them become successful, lifelong researchers.”

COLLABORATION TIPS for academic librarians implementing a high school and college instructional partnership:

  • Respectfully request to review the students’ research assignment before they arrive. Offer suggestions to the teacher or library media specialist if you believe modifications should be made. Note your reasoning.

  • If the school librarian or teacher is not able to participate in the visit, request that the chaperones are familiar enough with the assignment to assist students.

  • Send along a campus map, indicating where visitors should park. Will they need a parking pass?

  • Provide a checklist of anything visitors will need to bring, such as photo IDs, cash/coins, or USB drives.

  • The American Library Association has a map that lets librarians discover other librarians who are interested in partnering on transition projects, as well as step-by-step advice on how to get the conversation started.

Christina Vercelletto, former news editor at School Library Journal, writes for Education Dive, Family Circle, Trip Advisor, and NY Metro Parents.

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