Unique peer consultation program

Unique peer consultation program creates national buzz

Knowledge Marketplace

by Michele Coffill

photos by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

In the center of the first floor of Grand Valley's newest facility is a unique space designed intentionally to help students become lifelong learners.

The Hines Corporation Knowledge Marketplace is a one-stop shop within the Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons where students can get help with assignments from peer consultants trained in research, writing and speech presentation.

Lee Van Orsdel, dean of University Libraries, laid the groundwork for this concept when early talks about how to build a library for the 21st century began on campus. "This is really Lee's vision," said Ellen Schendel, associate dean of the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies. "She wanted the library to accommodate students who were working in groups or working alone, capturing in that space whats needed to help students work well."

To determine what was needed in the Mary Idema Pew Library, Van Orsdel and other library faculty members conducted student focus groups, listened to experts and closely noticed their surroundings. For example, when librarians arrived for work in the mornings, the chairs in Zumberge Library were rearranged in groups and whiteboards filled with notes  signs that student use of the library at night was social and group-oriented. To accommodate, the Knowledge Market is open from 6 p.m.midnight.

Peer consultants

Peer consultant

Peer consultants were trained by their respective Knowledge Market partners: University Libraries, Fred Meijer Center for Writing and Michigan Authors, and the Speech Lab. The IT help desk is nearby and also staffed with student consultants. Information Technology and the Student Academic Success Center were key to establishing the market.

The market is the first of its kind among academic libraries. Van Orsdel said Grand Valley's collaborative experiment could influence the way future libraries are designed and change how universities think about helping students develop the soft skills they will need in the workplace.

"The experts in learning tell us that students are reluctant to express what they dont know to someone who will give them a grade or to an authority figure like a librarian, but they will seek help from other students," Van Orsdel said. "In the process of consulting with a peer, there is evidence that students understanding of their own competence may improve at a faster rate."

The physical design of the market was intentional, so students passing by can drop-in for an appointment. They shouldn't expect easy answers, however. Mary O'Kelly, head of instructional services for University Libraries, said peer consultants work with students to provide them with a road map to find the answers.

"Our peer research consultants are trained to be aware of the resources, they do not know all the content," O'Kelly said. Professional subject librarians, of course, remain available for specific or advanced help.

O'Kelly used a simple question — What's the population of New York City? —  to explain how peer research consultants differ from librarians or professors. In traditional libraries, reference desk staff give the answer (8.25 million). Peer consultants work with students to explore the answer together, she said. The modern library focuses on knowledge-building rather than knowledge-telling.

Results of past peer consultations have been positive. O'Kelly said nearly all (97 percent) of the 664 students who met with peer research consultants last year reported they felt more confident completing their assignment after their appointment.

Speech Lab

The Speech Lab is new to campus, but results after one year of operation showed similar student satisfaction. Danielle Leek, associate professor of communications and lab director, said that preliminary analysis of speech grades for students who meet with lab consultants showed those students received, on average, five to 10 more points than their classmates.

Leek said a 2010 survey of about 500 undergraduates showed that giving a speech was their No. 1 fear for class projects and more than 80 percent of survey respondents never practiced their speeches aloud prior to their class presentations. The speech consultation area of the market addresses these concerns by providing quiet, private rooms, and video recording capabilities.

"Part of the goal of the Knowledge Market is to help the students be even better than they already are," Leek said.

Altering the learning experience

The library opened in late June. With only two months under their belt, the Knowledge Market partners understand that business hours or other factors might change when the fall semester begins and they see an influx of students.

Patrick Johnson is the interim director of the writing center and responsible for hiring about 60 consultants for the market plus writing centers on the Allendale and Pew campuses. He said that the market could alter how consultants in the writing centers work with students.

"It may change our processes in the centers; our student consultants may find new ways to assist students and ask different questions," Johnson said.

The writing center assesses its consultants partially based on the confidence level of the writer, Johnson said. Similar client-based evaluations are used for speech lab and peer research consultants. A national research program will aid Grand Valley in developing an assessment for Knowledge Market consultants.

O'Kelly was instrumental in placing Grand Valley in a 75-team cohort of colleges and universities in a research project conducted by the Association of College and Research Libraries. The main focus of the project is to develop a plan and collaborate on what we want to measure, she said.

Buzz about the market has spread throughout the nations academic community. Johnson said colleagues have told him they have trouble imagining a similar collaborative venture at their institutions. Van Orsdel has heard similar comments, and has a set response.

"This is not only a cultural change for the university, it literally changes the learning experience for the student," Van Orsdel said. One reason its so important is that it simulates lifelong learning and risk taking. In the work environment, she explained, an employee who didn't understand a problem would typically seek out a colleague for help before going to the boss; on a college campus, students seek help from their peers before asking a professor.

"The Knowledge Market goes with the library's mission of putting the student in charge of their learning," Van Orsdel said. "We believe this is what a liberal education is about."