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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Reference Interview and Instruction in Reference Training

This guide accompanies the U of I Library graduate assistant training session.

Why does instruction in reference matter?

Context matters:

As members of the University of Illinois academic community we have a responsibility to provide our students with positive, impactful (transformative) learning experiences.

Learning matters:

Our work with students during a reference transaction should provide a hands-on educational experience that teaches them skills that will enable them to become self-sufficient, lifelong library users.

Professional standards matter:

Numerous professional organizations have developed standards and guidelines that focus on educating our users. They include the following:

  • RUSA Behavioral Guidelines
  • ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

Teachable moments in reference


Teachable moments are:

  • Spontaneous
  • Dependent on the readiness of the recipient
  • Sensitive to the needs of the patron
  • Serendipitous

Tips and Strategies:

  • Listen!  The reference interview is key.
  • Who is your user?  Your approach should change when working with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.
  • Be patient and flexible, the learning styles of users vary.
  • Let the students do the work.
  • Look for body language cues in person.  How receptive is the user?
  • Look for moments to teach rather than push information out during chat.
  • Keep it short and to the point.  They are teachable moments.

Incorporating instruction in reference: Practice

Identify the teachable moment in each of these scenarios:

  1. A student is looking at the first set of 10 results from a database search.  They ask you which articles are best for their topic.
  2. A student asks for help on a search; you see they’ve typed in “cons of gun control” and gotten no results.  They want to know why there are no articles on this topic.
  3. A student says they have tried every keyword they can think of in EBSCO but can’t find any good articles on the use of solar power by Native American communities.
  4. A student asks for help finding scholarly articles on steroid use in sports and asks if the Sport Illustrated article they found would qualify.