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Taking notes at the reference desk: assessing and improving student learning

Bonnie J. M. Swoger (Milne Library, State University of New York, Geneseo, New York, USA)
Kimberly Davies Hoffman (Milne Library, State University of New York, Geneseo, New York, USA)

Reference Services Review

ISSN: 0090-7324

Article publication date: 8 June 2015



The purpose of this paper is to assess student perceptions of their learning during reference transactions and to evaluate a note-taking strategy developed to improve the quality of learning during reference encounters.


Students were surveyed following a reference interaction and were asked, “What did you learn today?”. Based on the authors results, librarians developed a Reference Notes form encouraging librarians and students to take notes during reference transactions, highlighting terms, concepts and strategies. The forms were assessed with a modified version of the initial student survey to determine their effectiveness. Student survey results were analyzed, and librarians also provided feedback via surveys and discussions.


Initial results indicated that students retained concrete concepts like the names of previously unknown databases. With the implementation of Reference Notes, students were more likely to report learning broad-based concepts like narrowing a search, brainstorming keywords and search mechanics. Librarians and students felt the form was an effective reference tool.

Research limitations/implications

This is an indirect method of assessing student learning, relying on students’ self-reports. Without the opportunity to pre-define learning objectives for a reference transaction, the authors were unable to assess student learning directly.

Practical implications

Many librarians write down some information during reference transactions. A more systematic approach to taking notes may improve the learning potential of the reference encounter.


This project demonstrates that student learning assessment is an important tool for evaluating reference services. Through student learning assessment, librarians can develop strategies, such as the authors Reference Notes forms, to increase the quality of learning during reference transactions.



The authors would like to thank the reference librarians at Milne Library, SUNY Geneseo, for their participation in the assessment project and for their willingness to examine and make changes to their reference work.


Swoger, B.J.M. and Hoffman, K.D. (2015), "Taking notes at the reference desk: assessing and improving student learning", Reference Services Review, Vol. 43 No. 2, pp. 199-214.



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