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I recently posted an anecdote on tumblr about the impact library instruction can have on a student. The post was well-received, but there was one commenter who made this very relevant point, that I wanted to address in full:
I get requests from teachers pretty frequently to talk about “databases and research options” without their students having anything specific and looming in mind to research. Maybe, *maybe*, those are students that will remember, weeks months years down the line, that the library offers something they need. That’s what I question the worth of.
That is the essential challenge of “one-shot” information literacy instruction. What is the best approach to this scenario? Remember that when you get a vague request like “databases and research options,” you have a lot of leeway: there’s a lot to information literacy outside database demonstrations, and “research options” gives you some freedom. It’s your responsibility as an instructional librarian to turn this vague premise into something meaningful for the students. Going through the motions of demonstrating a couple different scholarly article databases isn’t going to be enough (or even the right track at all).
The Information Need
I interned in the reference and instruction department at the University of San Francisco five years ago. Gleeson Library’s coordinator of instruction, the wonderful Joe Garity, made the point to me that a research workshop that’s not grounded in an information need — an assignment the students are working on — will rarely have a meaningful impact.
One of the workshops he brought me in to co-teach with him was a freshman year composition & rhetoric course. This was an archetypal example of a class where we were asked to present “databases and research options,” despite the fact that the students were not going to be writing research papers.
The year was 2008, a presidential election year (Obama vs. McCain) as well as the year California’s Prop 8 was on the ballot. Joe talked to the instructor and discovered that the students’ next assignment was to make persuasive, debate-style speeches on electoral ballot issues. We focused on that. No student — especially a freshman — was going to trawl Academic Search Premier for research studies in order to make a political argument (even our actual politicians don’t do that level of research!).
So what were the students likely to actually do instead? Turn to the internet. Searching the internet for political information is risky: is there a topic more rife with heavily biased, unsourced websites and faux-journalism than American politics? We started where the students were likely to start: Wikipedia and its strengths, weaknesses, and edit wars. Then we moved on to navigating California’s state electoral webpage, and then searching for reliable fact-checking political websites. Sometimes information literacy instruction isn’t about driving traffic to the library’s licensed content; if those resources aren’t the right tool to solve a student’s real-life information need, then the workshop won’t be productive.
Of course, sometimes the library’s licensed content is the right tool, and those resources are rightfully the focus. But the lesson plan should always be centered around solving a student need (represented in the form of an assessable learning outcome) that relates to a student’s academic assignments. Figuring out which classes call for which approach starts with working with your faculty. Hopefully, you have a constructive relationship with the teacher or professor. Start a dialogue with the instructor about their student’s information need. If the instructor isn’t forthcoming (remember, they are busy, just like you), you can ask for a syllabus, or look at the course description to get a better sense.
Ultimately, no one 50-minute workshop can hope to cover all five ACRL standards for information literacy. If you are trying to build an information literacy program, you will want to look at your school’s curriculum and the way students progress (which it should be noted can vary dramatically by major or program). If you can map that curriculum to your information literacy learning outcomes, so that each librarian interaction with a student (whether that’s in a workshop, embedded in a class, or in a librarian-led credit course) builds on previous interactions and on student coursework, you can ensure your institution is covering the full spectrum of information literacy skills. More on curriculum mapping, a project we’re working on right now at my place of work, in my next post.
I had a great time at the CARL Conference over April 8-10 in Sacramento. There was a lot to digest, in terms of insight and inspiration, and I’m hoping to distill at least a little bit of that wisdom here. There was a wide range of topics covered in the various presentations and speeches, but a couple subject areas jump out as being worthy of further discussion. My next couple posts on this blog will tackle these. First up: Library Instruction/Information Literacy.
About ten of the twenty-four official discussion sessions were focused on information literacy and instruction. Of these, I attended several, and came away with a lot of good ideas and an appreciation for the serious research going on in the subject right now.
Three staff librarians from Cal State-Long Beach presented their ongoing, 6-year research endeavor to determine the effectiveness of their library instruction program. Their presentation, “Are They Getting It: Seeking Evidence of Students’ Research Behavior Over Time” described their grant-funded project from its inception to its current state, two years into the study.
I’m impressed with the depth of their research. They started by developing a large sample of freshman students with the intention of following them throughout their education. Their analysis of the students’ research skills extend to studying the students’ research paper bibliographies for source and citation quality. This sort of extensive, longitudinal study is difficult to implement and ties up a lot of staff time and resources, but the results — sure to be published — will be of use to universities and colleges throughout California and beyond (which is why CARL was the main grant-giving body behind the project). It’s easy to suppose how and why information literacy programs are successful or not; it’s another thing to really study what’s happening in a quantitative manner.
One interesting takeaway from their presentation was their use of a statistician to analyze the substantial data their surveys were generating. You can’t merely collect information — it needs to be analyzed in a meaningful way. Sometimes it is best to bring in an outside expert instead of relying on in-house staff. Their statistician was able to model their data in several dimensions and changed their whole perspective on the information they had gathered — and saved the time and energy of the librarians themselves.
The presenters — Susan Jackson, Karin Griffin and Carol Perruso, all of CSULB — also provided extensive survey details in the form of handouts, including a timeline, survey questions, and project budget. While the survey will run for several years yet, I’m looking forward to their eventual results and what it will teach us about what works and what doesn’t, and how research behavior is evolving.
Working With a Campus Assessment Coordinator
Another example of using outsider expertise came from the presentation “Upstairs-Downstairs: Working with a Campus Assessment Coordinator and Other Allies for Effective Information Literacy Assessment” by Golden Gate University librarians Amy Hofer and Margot Hanson. In this case, their outsider was really an insider: the existing GGU Campus Assessment Coordinator. Still, they were reaching outside the lines of library staff to work with someone with a campus-wide responsibility, and more importantly, an understanding of program assessment.
According to their presentation, the advice and administrative approval they got from their use of the Campus Assesment Coordinator was essential for the success of their program study, which involved the startup of a new, embedded library instruction program that moved away from “one shot” instructional sessions in favor of an ongoing, semester-long engagement with a class. Their Assessment Coordinator started by asking what a successful program actually looked like, who was the audience for their study, and suggesting the use of a control group to put the study’s findings in context. They also devised measures to test discernible improvement in actual information use, rather than relying on the students’ self-assessment of their own information literacy (in the form of traditional satisfaction surveys).
Hofer and Hanson narrowed their research by focusing on a specific segment of the GGU student body, a special program for foreign-born students developing their English-language research skills (the PLUS program). Golden Gate University has an unusually high level of international students due to its emphasis on graduate-level business programs and location in the heart of downtown San Francisco. They were able to measure student research skills based on written tests and an analysis of work performed at the beginning and at the end of the school term, and saw marked improvement in two of the three categories they measured (the hardest area to improve was the students’ choice of subject, which is a critical thinking skill that can extend beyond the library’s sphere of influence).
The Golden Gate University study was a well-orchestrated example of research that would be easier to implement than CSULB’s expensive, time-consuming longitudinal study that would still yield relevant institutional results. More information about this study, including some of the test questions and suggested further reading is available here.
The Post-Google World
The final presentation at the conference I attended was an informative workshop built around information literacy program curriculum, and improving lesson content by reverse engineering the process: start with the (desired) results, and work backwards to build your lesson plan. Korey Brunetti and Lori Townsend of CSU-East Bay were joined by Julian Prentice of Chabot College to lead this session (Let’s Try This Again: Redefining the Content of Information Literacy for a Post-Google World) that combined an initial group presentation with a workshop-style open discussion using Prezi to capture the assembled attendees’ ideas.
There were a few big concepts that emerged:
- Keep your goals simple — reduce, reduce, reduce superfluous objectives in favor of imparting a few key, simple ideas on your students.
- Emphasize critical thinking skills across mediums. Ultimately, the source of a citation doesn’t matter (open web vs. subscription database vs. government website etc.), it’s the quality and verifiability of that source.
- Understand how contemporary students work and integrate better tools and critical decision-making into their existing study patterns.
This sessions’ notes and final “Prezi” will appear in the forthcoming CARL Conference Digital Proceedings.
I found a number of take-home lessons in this focus on information literacy programs. Beyond the simple opportunity to see how different libraries and universities are pursuing information instruction, it was instructive to see the value of both long-term and short-term research for improving existing programs, jump starting expanded programs and ultimately — and perhaps most importantly — proving the library’s enduring value to campus administrations.
Through each of these sessions were also woven excellent ideas for instruction curriculum in the 21st century; how best to capture the students’ attention and impart meaningful lessons that will actually impact their research methods in a positive way.
My next post will cover some of the career-development issues discussed at the conference, including Dr. Peter Hernon’s plenary lecture.