November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Information Prescriptions: Tools To Support Students’ Library Skills

Have you ever had a student arrive at your desk and your gut tells you they need more help than they are letting on? If so, information prescriptions may provide a remedy.

Our inspiration came one evening after we caught a news feature about a local university teaching hospital offering information prescriptions, which doctors give to increase their patients’ understanding of a diagnosis or condition. The patient and family librarians at the hospital began offering information prescriptions as a targeted method for providing patients and their caregivers research-based information related to their illness or injury, treatments, and care.

Always seeking ways to diversify and enhance our services at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA, we were intrigued and wondered how we could bring a version of this service to our school. We met with the hospital librarian overseeing the program to ask questions about the marketing, implementation, and success of the program. After gathering details, we began to develop a strategy tailored to meet the needs of our school and began a pilot.

In our school, information prescriptions are special passes designed to use with a class that has already received library instruction. After teaching specific research methods, information literacy or technology skills, we tailor prescriptions to the teacher’s assignment. The result is a personalized student form that allows individual students to record the type of follow-up assistance they need. Students can request a refresher on database navigation, citation assistance, generating a thesis, or basic feedback. Teachers then cross-check the form to make sure the student has considered everything before sending him or her to the media center for assistance. We’ve even included peer tutoring services as one of the options available on the form. After receiving assistance, all students complete a post-prescription form to assess whether they left the library with the academic support they felt they needed.

Information prescriptions are not completely novel ideas. They merely allow us to track the work we already do in a more systematic and analytical manner. Identifying learning needs and addressing them through early intervention begins at tier one in the classroom, with additional tiers providing support beyond regular class time. Information prescriptions allow us to target a specific skill and provide that support and remediation.

A student, for example, might claim that there is no information on the topic he or she wants to research. Even though the student participated in whole class instruction, we can remedy this need by working with the student on suitable alternative search terms. This request allows for personalized assistance.

Through the post-prescription form, students can indicate whether the targeted academic need was met, and we can track our impact on student achievement. Our pilot program occurred in the last quarter of the 2016–17 school year. Almost half of the teachers participating in the pilot—46 percent—teach elective classes, with the remaining instructors spanning all other content areas, except math. In terms of tracking student academic needs, we found that 85.7 percent of our prescriptions met students’ self-identified needs, and in 14.3 percent of the cases, we did not. In those instances, we often fell short on class time or the student’s need might have been misidentified, meaning he or she requested help locating articles, but instead we spent more time tweaking a thesis into a more finite research topic.

This small pilot was well received by students and teachers. Although the school year is over, we are continuing to look for more ways to use information prescriptions and expose more teachers and students to the idea. Feedback on effectiveness will also inform any adjustments we make to the process. We have also created a toolkit to help other librarians learn about the idea.

Looking ahead to next school year, we hope to build on the successes and continue to expand targeted interventions. We plan to publicize information prescriptions by attending department meetings at the beginning of the school year and asking teachers that we worked with to share this strategy within their professional learning communities.


Monica Cabarcas is a librarian at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA. She is passionate about the changing landscape of education and is currently working on bringing like-minded librarian leaders together through the School Library Innovation Lab. 

Erica Thorsen is a librarian at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA. Having just finished her 16th year of school librarianship, she is passionate about ways in which she can diversify and improve library services to meet the ever-changing needs of her students.

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