August 23, 2011

Research and Information Literacy

The headline "Students Lack Basic Research Skills, Study Finds" in a Wired Campus post had caught my attention last year and I printed it to use in a workshop.

Information literacy is one of the components in the writing intensive courses that are part of our grant project here at PCCC and we know that students still struggle with the process.

Using information from the Project Information Literacy Progress Report, the post cited several findings that we deal with in all our classes.
  1. 84% of students say that when it comes to course-based research, getting started is their biggest challenge. 
  2. The three sources cited most often by students were course readings, search engines like Google, and scholarly research databases. 
  3. Only 30% asked a librarian for research help. 
As an example from our WI courses, while a traditional research paper addresses all of the broadly defined information literacy (IL) competencies, we don't see that as the only - or always the best - means of assessing information literacy.

We actually encourage faculty to differentiate with students Research versus information literacy. Many of our students see research as only something that leads to a research paper.

We also encourage instructors to create assignments that may address only one or several of the IL competencies. For instance, a bibliography covers two of our stated competencies, while an annotated bibliography covers three others.

A two-part assignment from the one Western Civilization course demonstrates how our IL rubric can be used to assess competencies. Part 1 of the assignment asks the question "Does this website have an apparent bias?" for each website used. This can be assessed under the "Evaluation of Sources" criterion in the rubric, with some slight revisions tailored to the assignment. In this example, an answer on the "Beginner" level would demonstrate little or no recognition of the bias (or lack thereof) in the Web site. A "Developing" answer may demonstrate the recognition of bias but difficulty in articulating just what the bias is. A "Competent" answer would recognize the existence and the nature of the bias, and an "Accomplished" answer would demonstrate a recognition and explanation of the bias that is highly nuanced.

In the essay portion (Part 2) of the assignment, students have to compare their personal opinions (stated in a previous essay) with the opinion of others as found in the aforementioned Web sites. In this case, the students' essays can be evaluated under the "Uses information effectively in their writing assignments" criterion in the rubric. An essay on the "Beginner" level would use little or no information from the outside sources. A "Developing" essay would attempt to incorporate information from outside sources, and perhaps be off-topic at times. A "Competent" essay would use information from outside sources to support the topic and demonstrate some synthesis with their own ideas. An "Accomplished" essay would contain highly refined and articulated use of information from outside sources, as well as synthesis of this information with their own ideas.

Alison J. Head, a co-principal investigator for, feels that our students "feel overwhelmed, and they’re developing a strategy for not drowning in all information out there. They’re basically taking how they learned to research in high school with them to college, since it’s worked for them in the past.”

From my own classes, I know that students do see "research" as more of a quest for the "right answer" than as a process of evaluating different arguments and coming up with their own interpretation. That aspect is also something we deal with directly in the critical thinking component of the WI course sections. Unfortunately, we also find that many instructors actually discourage looking at different arguments or including the students' interpretations in their assignments. Although encouraging those two things in all assignments wouldn't be practical, in redesigning GenEd courses as WI sections, we found there was almost no opportunities for that kind of diversity of thought in the existing assignments.

“Not being aware of the diverse resources that exist or the different ways knowledge is created and shared is dangerous,” says Ms. Head. “College is a time to find information and learn about multiple arguments, and exploring gets sacrificed if you conduct research in this way.”

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