Framing Information Literacy: Searching as Strategic Exploration

In February of this year, ACRL filed the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (hereafter, the Framework). Consisting of six frames, the document discusses the core concepts of information literacy, and reformats them from the previously used, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (hereafter, Standards). No longer a detailed, prescriptive list of outcomes, we now have more guiding theoretical principles, and a larger focus on life-long learning. It is less skill-based and more value-based.

I have struggled with wrapping my head around the Framework for a while, not because I dislike it, but rather because the concepts of frames, threshholds concepts, knowledge practices, and dispositions were all completely foreign to me prior to encountering the Framework. I have had formal and informal discussions with colleagues that seem to lead to breakthroughs in one moment, and then confuse again in the next. Perhaps one of the benefits and frustrations of ditching standards for frames is that there are not necessarily hard-and-fast rules for measuring information literacy, and the Framework recognizes how context-specific information searching, finding, analyzing, and sharing is.

The code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules.

-Captain Barbosa, explaining the Framework.

Next month, however, I will be doing a short lightning talk about teaching discovery systems within the context of the new Framework, so I figure I had better start digging in and getting my hands dirty. I am going to start with the frame I have chosen to structure my talk: Searching as Strategic Exploration. Within the Framework, it is explained as follows: “Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.”

What I like about this frame is the characterization of searching as “nonlinear” and “iterative.” When I teach, I often teach students to “develop a search strategy” and understand the research process, and I like this focus on research not being a process that looks like this:

Research Linear

And more of a process that looks like this:

Research Messy

And probably a lot messier than this.

Because the truth is, all parts of the research process influence each other, and all part of a person’s writing process influences that person’s research needs, so to think that we can teach one, linear, “correct” way of doing research is a bit arrogant. And I think the Framework, and this frame in particular, really responds to a more 21st century approach to teaching and research. For me, it has also opened my mind to reject the notion that one can master information literacy and become “information literate.” We’re not working toward the end of that linear process, right? Instead, we’re developing habits of mind, “knowledge practices,” if you will, that reflect increasing awareness of the complexity of what it means to search for information.

The other part of this frame that struck me is the use of the word strategic. Searching is strategic and a good strategist recognizes that the best way to get tripped up to do the exact same thing every time, regardless of the circumstances. To throw in a pop culture reference: in Catching Fire, the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss mistakenly thinks going into the games the second time that she and Peeta will follow the same strategy they used before: ignore the other competitors, trust no one else, and take no allies. But Haymitch realizes that strategy won’t work the second time around, because the circumstances have changed. In his words: “I want you guys to forget everything you think you know about the games. Last year was child’s play. This year, you’re dealing with all experienced killers.” If you’ve read the series, you know that Haymitch is the big thinker, the planner. He’s been around the games long enough, and knows how they work. And he knows that the fastest way to end up dead is to not adapt to the changes in their circumstances. So while Katniss and Peeta understand the kill-or-be-killed strategy of the arena, Haymitch understands the games as a larger, more complex system than simply what happens after the gong sounds. Throughout the books (and the movies….) he is constantly reminding Katniss that this is bigger than her, bigger than District 12, bigger than each individual part of the machine.

This is what we want students to begin to open their minds to. This system of information is bigger than they’ve ever considered. It is not as simple as teaching them how to click through the library website until they get to a database, plug in the “correct” key words, and find a scholarly article. It’s not about the individual steps in the process, it’s about grasping the bigger picture, and beginning to think like Haymitch: responding to the context with the tools you have at your disposal. Part of that may be skills-based, yes, because students have to be aware of the tools available. What this Framework puts into perspective, however, is that knowing how to get to a library database is useless if one does not how to think critically about their research context.

Research is nonlinear. It is iterative. To be successful, students have to be flexible and responsive. It is not enough to jot down some key words and, if unsuccessful, give up and assume there’s nothing out there on their topic. They have to begin to ask themselves: So that one way I approached this problem failed. How can I respond to this to be more successful next time?

Let us all wish each other luck. 🙂

ACRL 2015, Part 1: Reading in Information Literacy Instruction

I have recently returned from my first ACRL conference, and after spending yesterday and this morning catching up on emails, projects, etc., I have finally settled down to spend some time thinking about the sessions I attended, people I met, and new ideas that have been simmering as a result. So, I present:

Part 1: Reading in Information Literacy Instruction

I attended a contributed papers session by Margy MacMillan and Stephenie Rosenblatt titled, “They’ve Found It. Can They Read It?” that focused on the librarian’s role in teaching students to read and engage with scholarly sources. The topic of freshmen students and scholarly articles has been on my mind a lot lately. A colleague and I are working on a project to investigate why faculty often require first-years students to use scholarly articles to the exclusion of other types of sources. On the surface, the answers seems apparent: They’re in college. They need to use these types of sources. But in many classes, students are told to find scholarly articles and incorporate them into their own writing or presentation (or in the case of many introductory science courses, into their lab assignments), and they are not really taught to how to use them or even, more elementary, what their purpose is. What is the value of a scholarly article over a trade publication? What is the difference between a scholarly article and a blog post by the same author on the same topic? What is the difference between a scholarly article, a trade article, and a newspaper article, written by the same author and on the same topic?

Naturally, I can answer those questions. But I deal with information sources every single day. And I have been working in higher education for 6 years. I should be able to explain this. If pressed, first-year students would probably be able to come up with some basic differences: some are written for a general audience, some for a specialized audience; some are longer; this one has a bibliography. But what can they really assess about the difference between the two when they’re asked to support an argument in a paper? If conversations I have had with faculty or other librarians are any indication, the main difference for students is this: they can actually read and understand the popular articles, some of the trade publications, and almost nothing of the scholarly articles.

Let’s be blunt: first-year students are unprepared to deal with scholarly articles. That’s just a fact. At the presentation, they cited a very important statistic: About 49% of incoming college students cannot read at a college level. Forty-nine percent. Half. Half of our incoming students are unprepared to read their textbooks. (Suppose that explains the continual refrain from professors that students don’t do the reading. They don’t know how.)

I taught a credit-bearing IL course for the first time this past fall semester. Looking back on their major assignment–an annotated bibliography which required at least 2 of the 7 or 8 sources be scholarly–I made a critical mistake in judgement. Eighty percent of my students were first-year students. About half of that 80% had not yet declared a major. Many of them had been put in my class by their advisors who recognized they may need additional support in adapting to reading, writing, and researching for college. And I required those students–the ones who hadn’t even decided on a major–to engage with texts that are incredibly discipline-specific and jargon heavy. Did I spend any time teaching them how to identify, read, and use those articles? Yes. But certainly not enough of it, because there were still bibliographies that were lacking at least one scholarly source, and many annotations that reflected a lack of understanding of the article as a whole.

This presentation was a real eye-opener for me, for the work that I do with my liaison groups, such as Freshmen Composition and First-Year Focus, for the one-shots that I teach, and for the credit course I helped design. I need to do better. We need to do better. And the women from this presentation have offered some great ideas to get started, meet challenges, and find further research. See their website: Adding Reading Strategies to Your IL Toolkit

Stay tuned for more reflections and reactions to a really great, thoughtful, engaging conference that has challenged me to continue to push my own boundaries of what libraries and librarians “can” and “should” do.

Reflecting on the purpose of reflection

We had a great discussion in our Library Instruction Team this morning about how valuable reflection is to the process of learning. Our starting point for this discussion was an article written by some Harvard Business School researchers, titled Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance. It’s a big lengthy, but it provides excellent details about the research the group did in investigating if having people reflect on the process of completing a task improves their performance. And, of course, it did.

In the course of our conversation, we talked about how to bring reflection into a one-shot library instruction session. A lot of good ideas were thrown around, including doing a 3-2-1 paper, or a one-minute paper. We discussed ways to add reflective questions to the online assessment activities we already use in our classes. We talked about our preferences for trying to bring actual, pen-to-paper writing into classroom activities. (There have been a number of studies that look into the effect of handwriting versus typing on learning.)

We also talked about using reflection in our own practices. How important it can be to reflect on your teaching after you have done it. To think about what worked well, what didn’t work, how it felt, how students or faculty reacted. We also talked about putting reflection to use after attending conferences or other types of professional development in order to aid our retention of ideas, feelings, and actions.

So this is my blog, reflecting on our discussion about reflection, hoping that it will reinforce these ideas and that I will commit to trying more reflective practices in my teaching. So I’ll try my own 3-2-1 reflection:

3 things ideas or issues that were presented:

  1. Reflection after doing a task aids in the ability to perform that task in the future.
  2. This type of reflection is valuable not just for students, but for teachers to learn and grow in their own practice.
  3. There are simple, quick, easy ways to build reflection into one-shot sessions, by asking to students answer questions like: Describe the process you went through to find this article; or, List the criteria you used to determine if the article you chose was scholarly or not.

2 examples or uses of the information covered:

  1. Using part of our regular meetings times as a reflective discussion about our teaching experiences, highs, lows, lessons learned, etc.
  2. Incorporating a short reflective exercise into a one-shot library session.

1 remaining question or unresolved idea:

  1. How can we measure students’ performance or retention of the information or ideas after the one-shot session is over?

So what am I going to do now that I have reflected on the value of reflection?

I am going to try to bring some reflection strategies into courses that I teach over the rest of the semester, paying attention to not only the students’ responses, but also to gauge how they react to being asked to reflect on the class. I am also going to write more often about my teaching, and definitely will write up a post-conference reflection after ACRL in March. I have always used writing as a way to sort through my experiences and feelings, but now I will try to be more intentional about my reflective process.