Student Success: Academic Librarianship’s New Holy Grail | From the Bell Tower

There is little debate in academic librarianship over our role in contributing to student success. The year ahead is likely to see more debate over what it should mean, how we demonstrate that contribution, and to what extent data is used to accomplish it.

There is little debate in academic librarianship over our role in contributing to student success. The year ahead is likely to see more debate over what it should mean, how we demonstrate that contribution, and to what extent data is used to accomplish it.

For most of my academic library career the holy grail was collaboration with faculty. In addition to feeding a desire to gain some equal footing with faculty in contributing to student learning, those collaborative efforts brought a sense of purpose to my effort to help students learn. While connecting and building relationships with faculty is still critical to an individual liaison librarian’s success, my observation is that it is now somewhat secondary to the academic library’s collective ability to enable student success. Making that the focus of the academic library enterprise would certainly demonstrate support of what has emerged as the top priority of our institutions. In 2018, there was a clear sense of urgency around student retention and graduation—always a fundamental purpose of higher education, but heightened by an increase in at-promise student enrollment. If signs during the course of 2018 are an indicator, then the debate over how academic libraries do or do not contribute is sure to emerge as a major issue for 2019.


Before we can best determine how academic librarians contribute to student success, we need to have some understanding of what that looks like. It depends on who’s defining student success. Looking at it from the perspectives of students and their families, success would certainly involve graduating in the fewest possible years. Graduating with the least amount of student debt while obtaining a professional position in their intended field would also likely contribute to what constitutes overall success. There may be other qualities, such as developing good relationships with other students and faculty, accumulating honors or awards, or completing a satisfying internship. From the perspective of the academic librarian, student success could be as simple as helping students to achieve retention and persistence to graduation. Other qualities of success could include optimal GPAs, well-developed digital literacy skills, or a rewarding library job. Ultimately, how academic libraries define student success may be best determined by what we measure in order to document our role in contributing to it. The challenge for this profession in the year ahead is determining whether our current thinking about what constitutes student success is still relevant to our current students and then coming to some agreement about how we should use student data to assess our own success.


What may better inform our profession’s understanding of student success, and how we can best help our students achieve it, are two reports that seek to get higher education rethinking what goes into student success—and how it’s measured. In its report Defining Student Success Data the Higher Learning Commission, the country’s largest regional accreditor, claims that "current discussions and measures of student success are based on a construct that does not represent students now enrolled in U.S. postsecondary education institutions." The gist of this report is that, owing to socioeconomic and demographic change, success for today’s students should be about more than “getting to and through.” It goes even further to suggest that contemporary perceptions of success privilege students whose behavioral norms are typically identified as “good students.” These students may be the ones librarians typically identify as those who borrow books, study in the library, or meet with a librarian for research support—and that may be misguided. The report recommends that higher education should establish a new framework to change the conversation on student success. In essence that calls for institutions to focus less on aggregate institutional data and more on success as defined by an individual institution’s own students. The report also suggests developing new success measures that go beyond traditional attainment of institutional goals. That means introducing some new outcomes, such as students’ return on investment, debt rate, and physical/mental well-being.


The Frontier Set is the name given to a group of research universities, state systems, community colleges, urban-serving universities, and minority-serving schools, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities. They too are rethinking what constitutes student success, and similar to the Higher Learning Commission, there is a growing emphasis on a student-centered, rather than institution-based, approach. Working Together for Equitable Student Outcomes elaborates a plan for dramatically increasing student success and easing attainment gaps. Partly, that means taking into account the different needs of at-promise students who rarely conform to traditional standards of student success. It also seeks to enlist all institutional staff in the effort to help students be successful. That could play to the strengths academic librarians can bring to a more holistic approach. This report does emphasize that student data must inform decision making, but that data is not the end but a means, with other methods, to identify gaps and demonstrate accomplishment. The work of the Frontier Set is based on actual institutional programs and practices, whereas the Higher Learning Commission’s discussion of a new student success framework is only in the planning stage.


Demonstrating how their work contributes to student success in hardly new for academic librarians. In fact, the profession has engaged in a series of past efforts to catalog its efforts. ACRL’s report on this, for example, reveals that our profession’s output focuses primarily on educating students for effective research skills, as well as providing space to support their learning and programming that enlightens them outside the classroom. All will continue to be essential to the academic library’s delivery on its commitment to student success. These new reports, which herald a need for higher education to examine new dimensions of student success, could change how academic librarians frame their role in supporting it. Two takeaways come to mind for a modified approach to student success in our libraries for 2019.

  • Place more emphasis on what student success means in terms of our own institutions rather than a set of generic characteristics that could apply anywhere and then develop local strategies, in collaboration with institutional research and assessment, that contribute to an institutional effort to advance student success—with thoughtful applications of data analysis that are consistent with institutional practices.
  • While all students’ success is our mission, consider how we might concentrate on support for at-promise students. Academic librarians should ask if their success efforts are one-size-fits-all or are easily adapted for students with the greatest need who least conform to our traditional sense of “good library user.” When data is used to demonstrate the library’s contribution to student success, it should reflect the diversity of our learners and an understanding that traditional data, such as circulation activity or research consultations, may be inadequate to tell the success story for our at-promise students.


Though I think the majority of academic librarians are open to using data collected through analytics, there is a vocal minority that will continue to call for putting student privacy above any use of analytics. Perhaps there are ways to achieve some reasonable medium that brings the “no analytics ever” librarians together with those who believe that analytics can be valued without compromising librarian values. It need not be an all or nothing proposition. These new reports on student success suggest that academic librarians need to rethink how they define and contribute to student success because there is no one-size-fits-all approach. What’s needed is a student success framework that reflects each institution’s student body. For some, that means analytics are an imperfect approach, but for others it may fit well with institutional strategies based on a new success framework. The coming year will further advance academic librarianship’s prioritization of student success. Whether we choose to work together with institutional partners on data-driven, analytical practices or position our organizations as defenders of privacy will significantly shape our role in the student success mission.

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Anika Reynesh

And by the way, it is obvious that librarians are integral to students success. There is definitely no debating that.

Posted : Oct 08, 2019 03:45

Sarah Hartman-Caverly

I agree with Steven that defending student privacy and use of analytics "need not be an all or nothing proposition" - that's why I proposed an approach to library assessment incorporating learning analytics from the perspective of the Privacy by Design (PbD) framework. I owe Steven thanks, as this work was directly inspired by his 2016 TCLC keynote address, Libraries and the Whole Student. and

Posted : Jan 10, 2019 03:21



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