How to Be a Peer Research Consultant

ACRL announces the publication of How to Be a Peer Research Consultant: A Guide for Librarians and Students by Maglen Epstein and Bridget Draxler, a concise guide for librarians and students on developing and teaching research skills and fostering these peer-to-peer relationships.

Learn more about How to be a Peer Research Consultant in this excerpt from the Introduction by the editors, ©Maglen Epstein and Bridget Draxler.


Introduction for Librarians

This concise manual provides focused support for anyone who is preparing undergraduate students to serve as peer research consultants. This handbook can be read in its entirety to gather ideas and activities, or it can be distributed to each student as a training manual for use during training and as a future reference. It could be assigned as part of a group training preparation course, or it could be read individually on the job. Students could read it cover to cover or select chapters to read in any order based on their needs and interests.

Throughout this guide, we refer to these trained undergraduate students as peer research consultants. You may have another name for this position at your institution: research tutor, reference assistant, research helper, etc. Whatever their title, you’ll find valuable content and training resources within this guide to prepare students to think holistically about research and guide the students they work with to develop metacognitive, transferable research skills and habits. If such a position doesn’t yet exist at your institution, you’ll find inspiration and support as you create this valuable high-impact student work position. Among other benefits, approachable peer research consultants can serve as front-line greeters and refer students to seek out more sophisticated help from librarians.

In writing this guide, we have drawn on research and practice from the world of college and university writing centers. Writing center professionals have been training students to provide one-on-one tutoring for many years. Tutors in writing centers are not expected to be composition scholars or know everything there is to know about grammar and mechanics. Indeed, it is precisely their role as peers that makes them able to do something that professional staff cannot—connect with students as partners in learning and provide a friendly, welcoming space for growth. We pay particular attention to the peer research consultant-student relationship and offer guidance for helping consultants value the knowledge and perspectives of the diverse student researchers they will encounter. Peer research consultants forge relationships with students and they gain valuable skills of their own.

In addition, we have drawn on best practices in reference interviews and information literacy instruction. The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and core American Library Association (ALA) documents like the Code of Ethics serve as concrete foundations for students who may not be familiar with the deeply held values of our profession.

This manual is intended to be useful in a variety of settings and is designed to be applicable to each institution’s unique library resources and holdings. Examples are drawn from a variety of academic disciplines and can be adapted to suit particular libraries’ specialties. The appendix includes activities, discussion questions, and written reflection prompts to complement the content covered in each chapter. Some of you may be training a large group of students while others are working with only one or two. Some may be planning a multi-week pre-service training while others may be providing ongoing on-the-job training. Activities and discussions are modular, and you should feel free to choose those that are right for your particular context.

Finally, if you haven’t already, we invite you to consider the training of peer research consultants as an opportunity to introduce students to the profession of librarianship—particularly those students who may be underrepresented in the field. Through mentoring and coaching, undergraduate students can feel confident in their ability to help their peers with research and may be inspired to continue this work as professional librarians in the future.

Introduction for Students

You may have heard the phrase “hidden curriculum,” which refers to prerequisite or assumed knowledge that students bring to college. We might assume, for instance, that students know the basics of how to use a library catalog, that they know the difference between a journal and an article, or that they know the difference between a research topic and a research question. We might assume particular habits of mind, in terms of where they seek sources and how long they spend in the search process. But, of course, every student brings their own unique set of educational and personal experiences to a research project, and we should not take these assumptions for granted.

Your role as a peer research consultant is, in many ways, to reveal the hidden curriculum to the researchers you assist. We use the term “researcher” rather than “student” here intentionally. In addition to helping researchers develop skills and habits of mind, such as how to find peer reviewed sources or use a library catalog, you are also helping them to build confidence in their identities as researchers. While students may not self-identify as researchers when they seek your assistance, your modeling of this language—naming them as researchers—may be the first step to building that confidence. This confidence, then, supports the more concrete skills and habits that you offer in your consultations.

Your task, as a peer research consultant, is to help make better researchers, not just better research. This catchphrase, like much of the advice offered in this book, draws on writing center theory, whose tutors are tasked with making better writers, not just better papers. It echoes, too, the adage of giving a person a fish versus teaching them how to fish. In each case, the emphasis is on empowering the subject through transfer—that is, the ability to apply what they learn in one situation to future scenarios. In the context of this book, this distinction between better research and better researchers is largely one of process; by focusing on the researcher in front of you, and equipping them with the skills, habits, and confidence they need for the project at hand as well as for future research, you are providing a toolkit that they can use again on their own. The goal is to be helpful, but in a way that will ultimately equip them to help themselves in the future. If you do your job well, in short, they’ll no longer need you.

Of course, as a student yourself, you are not expected to have the answer to every question that researchers may bring to you. Librarians attend years of school to be equipped for these more challenging questions, and this guide doesn’t aim to replace library school. You aren’t an expert. What you should learn from this book, though, is how to role model the problem-solving skills to find the answers to those difficult questions. That is, you should show researchers what you do when you get stumped—consult a citation manual, use a library guide, or make an appointment with a reference librarian, for example. You may not always have the answers, but you can model the persistence and help-seeking behaviors that will get researchers the answers they need.

The concept of better researchers, not just better research is, as mentioned above, only one way in which the best practices for research consultations draw on writing center theory. In the table below, you can find a series of best practices, with examples of what to do and not to do in your consultations. While these best practices will be elaborated on in the chapters that follow, we provide them here to set the stage for what’s ahead. While flexibility is a central tenet of good consultations—adapting to the researcher, the research task, the time frame, etc.—these best practices will give you a foothold into strategies that will keep the researcher, rather than the research, at the center of your work.

For example, teaching metacognitive strategies is an important way to equip researchers for future research. Instead of doing a task for a researcher, coach them in doing it themselves, then ask them to put that process into words or reflect on what they found or learned and how they found or learned it. You might, for instance, ask a researcher during a session to explain how they typically come up with search terms, teach them some additional strategies that draw on their strengths or build on their current system, and then end the session by asking them how they think they’ll come up with search terms in future research projects. You might even want to be explicit with researchers about your goal to teach transferable strategies. Transparency and self-reflection are important ways to facilitate transfer and help to reveal—you guessed it—the hidden curriculum.

Best PracticesDon’t say/do this:Instead, try this:
Respond as an interested reader, using “I” language“Your sources don’t fit your research question.”“When I look at these sources, I’m confused about how they relate to your research question. Can you explain?”
Let the researcher guide the session“The most important thing for you to do is find your sources.”“What is most important for you to work on today?”
Descriptive (instead of prescriptive) feedback“You should replace this source with something peer-reviewed.”“I notice that this source isn’t peer-reviewed; is that what the prompt asks for?”
Break large tasks into smaller steps“You’ve just got to sit down and write this ten-page research paper.”“Let’s take this one step at a time; first, we’ll narrow your topic; then, we’ll find some sources; then, we’ll outline a draft of your paper.”
Use wait timeJump in with the answer.Sit back and give researchers time to think and search a bit on their own.
Use non-directive questions“Here are the search terms you should use.”“What search terms would you start with?”
ParaphraseNod to signal you understand.Put their argument, question, or statement in your own words to clarify and confirm meaning.
Practice Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and be flexibleTeach them there is only one way to do research.Use a variety of audio, visual, and kinesthetic strategies (such as mind mapping) to help researchers find their own best way.
Metacognition and reflectionTell them what to do.Explain what you’re doing and why, and ask them to reflect on how they could repeat the process on their own.
ReferralGive up when you don’t know the answer to a researcher’s question.Refer researchers to other resources or people, such as reference librarians, for additional help.

In the chapters ahead, you will learn more about these strategies and others. You will begin by thinking about scholarship as a conversation and how you can use that concept to frame the research process for developing researchers. Early chapters consider foundational information literacy concepts like evaluation of sources, construction of authority, ethical source documentation, and researcher privacy, through consideration of central library documents like the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and the American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics. Next, you will dive into consultation essentials, including the research process—learning flexible, foundational strategies for success. You’ll find practical advice on the reference interview, the researchers you will assist, and common research assignments.

Each chapter includes key concepts, best practices, and practical examples. You’ll find activities, discussion questions, and written reflection prompts for each chapter in the appendix. We urge you to engage actively with these materials to learn by doing and reflecting. Because metacognition is so important to revealing the hidden curriculum to the researchers you assist, it should be part of your own process as well.

Ultimately, our hope is that the process of helping researchers will improve your own research skills as well as your ability to problem-solve, communicate effectively, and work with researchers from a variety of educational backgrounds and learning styles. The skills you develop as a peer research consultant will make you not only a better researcher but also a more flexible, creative, and interpersonally savvy person.