July 11, 2019

Understanding the experience of nursing students: part 1

What do nursing students want from their university library? That question was on my mind for a while, reinforced by a context of negative feedback and middling-at-best satisfaction. It was clear that we weren’t quite hitting the mark as a service, but what were we missing? In this blog post I’ll give you an overview of a project I ran to learn more about nursing students’ experience of the Library and to consider what changes we could introduce to their (and other students’) benefit. I’ll focus on my overall approach and some of the key outcomes from the project.

What was the aim?

This project, referred to in shorthand as Nursing UX, was designed to address the lack of granular feedback currently provided to the Library by nursing students. Whilst we did receive some feedback from students, this never felt detailed enough to make any meaningful service improvements. I therefore wanted to understand more about students’ current level of knowledge about the Library, and build on that to consider what more we and the department could be doing to support students. Ultimately I wanted to complete the research with a set of specific recommendations to take back to the Library’s Leadership Team.

As much as this was a project designed to support nursing students, I also wanted to make sure that - wherever possible - the recommendations would benefit other students in the department and perhaps even the University as a whole.

The research aimed to identify where we were missing the mark with students

What did the research involve?

I used a range of user experience (UX) methodologies in this project. If you’re not familiar with UX, take a look at some of the ways we’ve used it at York. The techniques were:
  • Classroom voting, where I asked whole cohorts to complete a short questionnaire at the end of one of their lectures. This was designed to identify the overall level of knowledge of different library services in each cohort, as well as their general feelings and preferences for those services.
  • Touchstone tours, in which students led me around the Library and explained how they use the space and what they like and dislike. This technique aimed to see what resources and services were a priority for students, but it was also illuminating to see what they didn’t mention on the tour.
  • Semi-structured interviews, in which I asked students to draw a cognitive map of their process for writing an essay. This was the launching off point for a discussion about their academic experience generally, gradually focusing down to questions about their experience of using the Library.
I then brought together the results from all three methodologies, thankfully with the help of an intern who had much better capabilities with statistical analysis than me! For that reason I won’t go into the methodology, but I’ll talk about some of the key findings from the different elements of the research.

What were the key findings?

In this section I’ll give an overview of some of the key findings from the research - some surprising, some reinforcing things I’d heard elsewhere.

Comms, comms and more comms

One message came out very clearly in the results: students who have a greater knowledge of the Library are more likely to use either physical or electronic resources. Not rocket science perhaps, but it was nonetheless useful to confirm that it’s worth taking the time to ensure that students know about our services. I thought I was doing this relatively well, so it was a much needed wake up call to realise that lots of students hadn’t grasped some fairly basic introductory information. For example, one student commented:

I didn’t know about this until recently, that [YorSearch] will tell you exactly where it is in the library, it will give you a code … I would just walk up and down thinking ‘where the hell is this book’!

This is despite me having talked about this numerous times in teaching sessions and through classroom activities, so clearly something wasn’t quite clicking for some students. It was really worrying to me that many students might have been in the same boat, and were too anxious to ask for help (more on that below). I therefore created a comms plan for how I would get messages to students, incorporating face-to-face opportunities and email follow up. This has been in place this academic year and seems to be working well, although it’s sometimes been a challenge finding time in busy periods for this kind of bespoke interaction. It’s been worth it, however, as it’s given me more face time and, hopefully, credibility with the students.

I’ve also learned not to be afraid to repeat things. Even if many people in the room already know about it, there might be that one person who’s still wondering the shelves looking for a book! There’s a fine balance here, of course, as we also want students to become independent and to ask for help when they need it.

Our messages to students were sometimes getting muddled or forgotten

Students’ anxiety is a real problem

It’s easy to forget that many students will never have stepped foot in a library before, let alone one of the scale of an academic library. No wonder then that students they’ve reported feeling overwhelmed. One student sums it up perfectly:

When you come to the library it’s really daunting, because you’ve got loads of people who know what they’re doing, sat at desks, typing away.

This isn’t the only time I’ve heard this feedback from students, so it clearly wasn’t limited just to the nursing students. It did seem, however, to be a more widespread issue within this group. This is ultimately a crucial issue for academic libraries; our universities will expect students to be making use of our resources, but many appear too intimidated to do so. Nursing UX showed that students who used the Library more frequently were more likely to provide more positive feedback. There is absolutely, then, a vested interest for libraries to encourage students to use our services; it’s for their benefit, but also means that we get a positive result for what is becoming a key metric.

So how do we make students feel welcome and not overwhelmed? I have no ‘lightning in a bottle’ answers sadly (add a comment if you do!), and this is something we’re still thinking about here at York. It’s at least partly to do with what students see when they enter the building (read more on this from our UX Space project), but it also means breaking down barriers to support. We’ve got a really helpful and friendly group of staff at our Help Desk, but many students seem worried to approach them for assistance. Roving help might be a way forward - going to students at the point of need - but we’ve got some more thinking to do on this. For now it’s really illuminating to know that students have that anxiety about using the Library, so talking to them openly and honestly about their concerns can only be a good thing.

Some students felt too intimidated to use the Library. Hardly the warm welcome we were aiming for

That's it for now. Check back next week for part 2, where I'll talk about some of the other findings and what we're doing as a result.

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