6 suggestions for teaching information literacy

Most college students have been exposed to more technology than students of previous generations. This does not make them technology experts.  Students do a lot of searching online for information. This does not make them expert, or even good, searchers. Thanks to Google, students can always find information on any topic.  This does not mean that they have found true, accurate, useful information and does not make them expert finders of information. Students need instruction and guidance in learning how to find, evaluate, select and use information, just as they need instruction and guidance in learning anything else. They are not born “information literate” and frequent, uninstructed Googling will not make them so.

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The Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

The Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (the Association of College and Research Libraries’ new “guide” to Information Literacy) is meant to explain the theory behind information literacy and the threshold concepts that students must incorporate into their thinking to become information literate.

The Framework document says:

“The Framework offered here is called a framework intentionally because it is based on a cluster of interconnected core concepts with flexible options for implementation, rather than on a set of standards or learning outcomes, or any prescriptive enumeration of skills…..Neither knowledge practices nor the dispositions that support each concept are intended to prescribe what local institutions should do in using the Framework; each library and its partners on campus will need to deploy these frames to best fit their own situation, including designing learning outcomes.”

How to teach students information literacy

While the “framework” provides a description of what a person who is information literate looks like and does with regard to information, the framework does not provide the answer we all want–How do we get our students to that goal?  The bad news is that the Framework is not going to help answer that question. The good news is that everything we have created up to this point is still relevant.  While some lessons may need to be updated and/or broadened to incorporate new types of information delivery or new groups from whom we can get information, the core of what students need to know to become information literate remains the same.  Students need to know how to find information, how to evaluate information, how to select information, how to apply information to a problem, and how to use information ethically and legally.

Here are 6 suggestions about how to offer students the concepts and skills that will set them on the road to information literacy.

1. Take them from the familiar to the less familiar to the unfamiliar.

Everyone I know uses Google on a regular basis.  The single search box is convenient, doesn’t require anything in the way of search strategy or specific language.  Most people have no idea that Google has an advanced search, much less how to use it.  In fact, Google no longer offers a link to its advanced search page from the basic search page.  Instead one must click on “settings” and select the advanced search.

Have students do a Google search for global warming in the single search box. They will get links to millions of pages returned to them.  Show them how to get to the advanced Google search page and have them use some of the search options to transform a giant search into something with a meaningful result.  From there, you might transition to a subject specific database, where students will find much more targeted information, making more of the information they find applicable to their information need.

2. Make students mentally stretch to make a lesson more memorable

If you want students to evaluate the information they find, ask them to determine what qualities make information credible, accurate, and reliable.  You can then ask them to evaluate information you supply against their list of criteria.  The supplied information may provoke changes in the list of evaluation criteria.  For example:

  • The hoax website Dihydrogen Monoxide should make students consider evaluation of the content
  • The website offering a scientific study on feline reactions to bearded men should make students consider evaluation of the bibliographic references.
  • The website of Dr. David Duke, a white supremacist, should make students consider the author and author’s credentials.

3. Selection and application of information is critical

There are thousands of webpages devoted to the recent Brexit from the European Union, many of them able to pass the evaluation test.  But every website does not provide information relevant to the same information need.  So a student seeking to answer a question about the effect of Brexit on Poland will need to select information targeting that effect and not information about how the term Brexit was created.
I have found it useful to put students into teams to role play a “real life” situation.  Students become researchers who must provide information to the CEO of the company they work for.  The CEO will base a decision about the future of the company on the information supplied.  Big money is at stake, as well as job security for the researchers.  The information must be on the CEO’s desk within the hour. A class presentation allows for discussion and critique of sources selected, sources discarded, sources undiscovered, and so on.

4. Get students to think about the consequences of plagiarism

Ethical concerns for students about the use of information usually center on the issues of citation of sources and plagiarism.  Students I have spoken to know they need to cite sources.  They know there are penalties for plagiarism, sometimes very harsh penalties.  They simply don’t know when to do it.  Is a citation required for paraphrasing?  Is a citation required for a quote?  How does one cite a quote from one person in a document from another person?  Providing students with a little practice in thinking through what a citation is for and what it accomplishes will go a long way to providing them with the answers to their questions.  As to the format for citations, there is software that will do that—much of it free.  Direct students to those tools and they will be forever grateful.

Get students to think about the ethical, economic and social consequences of plagiarism.  Have them look into the specifics of incidents of plagiarism that have had serious consequences (George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord vs. the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine, for example).  Discuss the nature of intellectual property and fair use.

5. The role of the individual in the information world is expanding

Students are both consumers and producers of information.  Students should be made aware that they can create and disseminate of information and discuss what that means for them in terms of both opportunity and responsibility. For some audiences the student can be an authority. Students can add perspective and new ideas to groups working on projects or problems by participating in blogs, listservs and other interactive discussion groups.  Students can create their own publications for issues of importance to them and make those publications available to the world.

Have students subscribe to and follow a blog that covers an academic topic over a specified time period.  Ask them to write about or discuss their experience, considering the positive and negative aspects of this form of communication, the quality of the information, the variety of people who participate, and whether or not the blog helps move the world forward in terms of the subject under discussion.

6. Apply the same skills to the “real world”

Students often fail to understand that what they learn in one classroom can often be useful in the next classroom, and that concepts and skills they learn in an academic setting can translate to applications in the “real world”.  The human brain works by analogy—comparing new information to information already in storage and looking for similarities. The use of analogies in the classroom can help students think about how one idea might apply in a completely different situation.

Get students to brainstorm steps to take when gathering information for a term paper. Write the ideas on a flip chart or white board.  Ask students to then suggest non-academic scenarios where the same process could be helpful.  (Buying a cell phone, planning a two-week vacation in an unfamiliar location, writing an annual report for work, finding a nursing home for an elderly relative, etc.)

To summarize, students need to learn basic concepts and skills in order to become information literate as students and as citizens of the world.  Make students active participants in their own learning.  Allow them to stretch their understanding through discussion and exploration. Get them to actively participate.  Ask them to grapple with the big ethical and social questions.  The instruction you have already developed is likely still relevant and useful so don’t start from the beginning, but build on what you have already created.

About Teaching Information Literacy Reframed

Teaching Information Literacy Reframed by Joanna M Burkhardt offers a starting point to understanding and teaching the six threshold concepts listed in the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, an altogether new way of looking at information literacy.

Joanna M. Burkhardt is a full professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and Director of its branch libraries in Providence and Narragansett. She coordinates the branches’ information literacy program.

This blog post originally appeared on the CILIP blog in August 2016. You can view the original post here: https://www.cilip.org.uk/blog/6-suggestions-teaching-information-literacy

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Global Media and Information Literacy Week Roundup | Facet Publishing

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