What do students want? A focus group study of students at a Mid-Sized Public University.

Author:Weber, Michael A.


This study presents the findings of a series of focus groups conducted at Kutztown University, a medium-sized public liberal arts institution serving approximately 10,000 students and over 500 faculty members. The focus groups, consisting of almost fifty undergraduate students, centered on how students are meeting their information needs, how they use the library, and how the library could be improved.

We are keenly interested in providing excellent library resources and services to our constituents, with this in mind we set out to develop a study that would ascertain the effectiveness of our current services, the strengths of our collections, and the direction the library should take concerning new information delivery systems and products. The library had participated in the LibQual survey, but we were interested in conducting a more in-depth, open ended assessment of our student users. We quickly realized that a survey would be too static and would limit the creativity of the participants. Ultimately we decided that a student focus group would be the best method to accomplish our goals.


In accordance with the literature (Powell and Connaway, 2004; McNamara, 1999; University of Texas at Austin, 2005a; University of Texas at Austin, 2005b), we developed seven questions to ask each focus group. The questions start out broad, then narrow, and finish by focusing on the primary concern of the study. By modifying questions from a previous study (Weber and Flatley 2006), we constructed a set of queries aimed at student library use.

* Where do you go to meet your information needs?

* Is the library useful to you? Why or why not.

* How can/does the library help you with your classroom work?

* Do you use library resources for your own research and interest? Please explain how and what.

* What do you think is the single most important service for the library to provide?

* In the age of the Internet, what do you see as the role of the academic library on campus?

* In your opinion, how can the library be improved?

Focus group set-up included scheduling sessions and recruiting a diverse population of students. We created a varied schedule for our session times to allow for the wide-ranging class and activity schedules of our undergraduate students. We included "open hours" (e.g. times when no classes are scheduled at the university) and late afternoon times. We were then faced with the challenge of recruiting a group of busy undergraduate students. Other researchers have relied on various incentives including food and prizes to induce participation (Becker and Flug 2005). Given our lack of a budget we had to develop other means to recruit students. Our recruitment centered on three diverse pools of students. First of all, we were able to induce a number of our student employees to participate by offering them one-hour of paid time (e.g. they would work their regularly scheduled hours but one of those hours would be spend in a focus group). Secondly, we had the good fortune that one of our student workers was also the president of a campus organization dedicated to involving students in Greek life in service projects. This student was able to recruit other students to do the focus group as a service project. Our third pool consisted of students from two library science classes for non-majors. We asked a library science professor if we could interview his research methods class. We felt that participating in a focus group was an appropriate learning lesson for a research class and he agreed. Altogether we were able to arrange a total of 11 sessions with 49 students. In accordance with University policy, all participants received a notice that explained the purpose of the study and signed a consent form. All responses were kept confidential. Responses were recorded by taking notes and using a tape recorder. Our study encompassed a diverse pool of students in the areas of race, gender, and years of enrollment. All participants were undergraduate students. Tables of diversity are listed below.

In general sessions lasted about 50 minutes, the duration of an average class. Six of the eleven sessions were moderated by both co-authors. The two of us would have liked to have participated in all sessions, but time and other restraints made this difficult. Four of the remaining five sessions came about because we had to split the above mentioned research classes into two groups. Each class was simply too large to use as one focus group.

Results and Discussion

Our results were grouped according to four distinct topic questions: where are students going for information; how are they using the library and its services; what do students view as the primary purposes of the modern academic library; and how can the library be improved? These four questions are discussed below.

Where students go for information

The first question posed was very open-ended. We simply asked students where they go for information. Not surprisingly the vast majority mentioned the Internet (88%). However the next most frequently mentioned resource was the database vendor Ebsco (41%). We have noted that students refer to all Ebsco databases as simply "Ebsco." To us this translates into the use of Ebsco's flagship academic database--Academic Search Premier. This was followed by "Google" (31%), print resources (14%), and "library databases" (12%). The results are summarized in Table 1. Interestingly none of the students mentioned family, friends or professors as sources of information. In fact, in one session all four students specifically said that they did not seek out friends for information and that they only would go to their professor as a last resort for help. Of course, we must keep in mind that the students were asked this question by librarians within the confines of a library. So they were most likely thinking of information in terms of academic research.

These results confirm our experience that most students go to the Internet first when doing research. Our feeling is that this is not a bad thing instead it is an opportunity to continually market and offer the library's services and resources through channels that are familiar to our students. For example, we recently created an authenticated link for Google Scholar because a student requested it. This now allows students to search for articles online with a very familiar interface and be directed to the library's full-text when it's available.

How students are using the library and its services

The library as study space and a meeting place

One-quarter of the participants specifically mentioned the importance of the library as a quiet place for individual study. They noted the positive atmosphere of the library and commended it as a great workspace and place for study. Two students specifically identified the library as the best study environment on campus. When asked about this in contrast to remote access to resources, the students clearly valued both, but they also were aware that...

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