Instructional Strategies for Digital Reference: Methods to Facilitate Student Learning

Megan Oakleaf and Amy vanScoy

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In today’s climate of accountability in higher education, most colleges and universities—and therefore academic libraries—consider student learning the cornerstone of their missions. Reference service is one area in which libraries can demonstrate their commitment to support student learning. Are librarians using reference service to teach students? Or are they letting teachable moments pass by? This study identifies eight instructional strategies librarians can apply in digital reference transactions and analyzes the presence of these strategies in digital reference transcripts. The results suggest that librarians use a few instructional strategies, but could learn and employ several more in their efforts to create information-literate students. The authors hope that increased training in the use of these eight instructional strategies will allow librarians to maximize their impact on student learning. Portions of this article were presented at the RUSA Reference Research Forum at the 2009 ALA Annual Conference.

In today’s climate of accountability in higher education, most colleges and universities consider student learning the cornerstone of their institutional missions. Many academic library missions mirror this focus on student learning. Traditionally, the primary library service associated with the mission to increase student learning is information literacy instruction. However, the increased emphasis on accountability and assessment in higher education provides libraries with an opportunity to revisit other library services to examine their potential impact on teaching and learning. Reference service is one area in which libraries can reinvigorate their commitment to support student learning. Are librarians using reference service to teach students? Or are they letting teachable moments pass by? This study identifies eight instructional strategies librarians can apply in digital reference transactions and examines librarians’ use of these strategies in one university’s instant message (IM) reference service.

Literature Review

Many authors have underscored the instructional potential of reference service in both face-to-face and digital modes. For example, Moyo identifies the integration of instruction into reference service as a “growing need.”1 Beck and Turner point out that in-person reference transactions occur at the user’s time of need, when they are most open to learning.2 Elmborg describes instruction provided via reference service as “‘authentic’ in that the student has a specific project underway and has specific questions regarding how to proceed.”3 And Avery emphasizes the importance of identifying teachable moments during reference transactions.4

A few authors have focused their studies on the potential instructional value of digital reference services. Although some studies acknowledge perceived barriers to instruction in the digital reference environment, many researchers believe that librarians should “take on the role of teacher” in digital reference.5 Some studies have attempted to estimate the amount of instruction that occurs during digital reference transactions. For example, Johnston found that 60 percent of the University of New Brunswick’s digital reference interactions had an instructional component; Moyo found 82 percent at Penn State University; Desai and Graves registered 83 percent at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; and Ward reports 90 percent at the University of Illinois.6 Previous studies classify instruction in the digital reference environment in three main ways: (1) user requests for instruction,

(2) the general nature of questions users ask, or (3) the specific information literacy content addressed by librarians (i.e. suggestions for database selections and keyword terms or the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education).7 However, the existing literature does not identify specific instructional strategies librarians can employ to transform any reference transaction into an instructional episode, although Desai and Graves call for more research in this area.8 The current study seeks to fill this gap by developing, on the basis of educational theory, a set of instructional strategies that can be used to teach during digital reference transactions. In academic libraries, these strategies can increase the learning of the largest group of digital reference users—students.


To maximize the impact of digital reference on student learning, librarians can employ a variety of instructional strategies grounded in educational theory. At the outset of this study, the researchers developed a list of instructional strategies on the basis of educational theories, including metacognition, active learning, and social constructivism, as well as working definitions of each strategy.9

Educational Theories

Metacognition is often defined as “thinking about thinking” or the ability to be intentional and reflective about one’s thoughts. Expert thinkers and learners are metacognitively aware of their mental processes. When working to solve a problem, they remember methods that they’ve tried in the past. They actively refine their problem-solving strategies by combining what works best for them, what is empirically known, and what others have experienced. Research indicates that people who employ metacognitive behaviors can more easily describe the initial state of a problem they want to solve, the goals they need to achieve to solve the problem, the tools they have at their disposal, and any constraints or barriers barring the path to achieving the solution.10 Because metacognitive behavior is the hallmark of an expert learner and thinker, librarians should seek to develop metacognitive skills in their students and expect to encounter students with widely varying metacognitive abilities. By integrating instructional strategies into their digital reference service, librarians can reinforce skills students currently possess and model skills students still need to acquire.

Constructivism and Active Learning

Active learning is a central tenet of constructivist learning theory and widely accepted as a hallmark of effective instruction. When people actively participate in real-world activities and problem solving, learning occurs.11 Librarians can employ active learning techniques during digital reference transactions to engage users in effective information seeking behavior.

Social Constructivism

According to social constructivist theory, what people learn is socially developed through interactions with “expert” members of a specific community. By interacting with community members, novice learners are acculturated in the knowledge and skills of the group before joining a community of expert learners.12 According to Elmborg, librarians who adopt a social constructivist model of instruction can guide users to become members of a community of information-literate people.13 By adopting specific strategies, digital reference librarians can acclimatize users to the information community.

Instructional Strategies

The researchers in this study derived eight instructional strategies from the three educational theories described above (see figure 1). Initially, seven strategies were developed. The researchers used these strategies to analyze 150 digital reference transcripts as a pilot study.14 They independently coded each transcript using the seven instructional strategies, then peer-checked all of the transcripts for interrater reliability. During the pilot study, the researchers also examined the transcripts for the presence of unanticipated instructional strategies, but found none. However, they determined that one strategy could be subdivided into two separate strategies. Thus, after the pilot study, a final strategy was added to the list, making a total of eight instructional strategies. Finally, the researchers labeled the instructional strategies with “catchy” names to facilitate recall and use of the strategies by practitioners providing digital reference service.

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