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Defining Information Literacy

How do students handle the explosion of information resources in the multitude of formats available today? Newspapers, television, books, journals, computers and telephones give us news, articles, databases, government documents, experts, local agencies and opinions. We all are a part of this information society, and we all need to be "information literate."

Information literacy has become a popular term, yet it means different things to different people. In the Good Library we define it as

  • the ability to recognize an information need,
  • find information to meet that need, and
  • apply and evaluate that information.

Information literacy is not just about learning facts but about learning to learn, a skill that lasts a lifetime. It is not simply library instruction; rather, it is preparing students to learn from a variety of resources. It comes through a mixture of lectures, hands-on assignments, written research projects using technical skills, and critical thinking abilities in the use of print, electronic, and oral information resources. 

A solid understanding of information needs and uses results from a broad, continuing, and repetitive program throughout the college experience. Further, it requires sustained cooperation among all on campus if it is to become a part of the learning process across the curriculum. Because research indicates that the professor plays a large role in determining how students find and use information, any information literacy effort must actively involve faculty.


Library and Faculty Roles in Developing Information Literacy Skills

For many faculty members, using the library is second nature. However, you may have forgotten how intimidating and frustrating the information-seeking process can be to a first-year student. If you completed your studies before the explosion of electronic information, you also may not realize the enormity of information now available to students nor the increasing importance of determining the credibility of much of that information. 

Faculty may be surprised how little students use the library - and how ineffective their use of information resources can be - if no specific requirements are made. Students' familiarity with the keyboard and general computer use leads them to falsely believe they know how to effectively use all resources accessible through this medium, and that this medium is the only one they need. Contrary to their perceptions, however, students need guidance in the research process. A professor's concern for how students go about doing their assignments, and acceptance of only quality work from students provides such guidance. 

It is equally important that faculty work with librarians to coordinate instruction and information-based assignments. For instance, students are quick to interpret the absence of a professor at a librarian-led class session as an indication that the session need not be taken seriously. More importantly, the professor can contribute to the session by suggesting specialized sources, indicating those that should be emphasized to fit the assignment, and asking for clarification or further information when students are reluctant to do so.

A three-part library program lays the groundwork for teaching information literacy at Goshen College:

    1. First-year required GC Core courses. In the fall, the first year students are asked to complete several assignments during their Identify, Culture & Communty/Learning Community courses. They are introduced to print and electronic sources.
    2. Academic Voice (Literature and Writing) class. Through joint planning by the librarians and the professors, students plan and implement an efficient search strategy for completing a search topic, evaluating materials, and selecting appropriate sources.
    3. Instruction in majors. Basic reference tools and the research methodology for a particular discipline are presented in an upper-level course in that department.

Additionally, professors can and often do incorporate information-seeking activities into class assignments. The level of information literacy skill required and/or taught in this context varies greatly, however. Students won't learn to be scholars (or even information literate) if they are simply handed a reading list. Such a situation can be further devalued if the professor has not consulted with a librarian to make sure the library has all the necessary materials before handing out such a list. Moreover, students need to be taught the strategies that scholars in particular disciplines use to find credible, relevant information sources when they have no ready-made reading list.


A Few Words About Plagiarism

The electronic format of much information available makes plagiarism easier than ever before. Here are a couple of suggestions to help discourage it:

  • Emphasize the process of research. Require copies of proposals, outlines, multiple drafts, interim working bibliographies, and photocopies of sources.
  • Require students to engage and apply ideas, not describe them.
  • Discuss plagiarism with students--what is it, how to avoid, etc.
  • Consult the library's Writing Guide, which contains help[ful information and tutorials on plagiarism.


Strategies for Designing Effective Information-Based Assignments

1) Avoid these commonly-assigned activities:

  • An entire class looking for one piece of information or researching one topic. Often the students who start on the assignment first check out most or all of the most useful resources. This also encourages students to use the work of other students, since the core group of sources is the same.
  • Students working from incomplete or incorrect information; materials assigned that the library does not own; vague topics. The information-seeking process has its own built-in barriers; adding unnecessary logistical complications will only discourage students from proceeding to the more substantive and valuable stages of the process.
  • Students given obscure factual questions and told to find the answers. Assignments that are not related to the class and subject matter at hand are often seen either as jokes that do not have to be treated seriously or as time-wasting busy work. Students are likely to ignore any learning opportunity intended by such exercises.

2) Set objectives and make them clear to the students. Be clear about your expectations regarding fulfilling the assignment. Encourage students to read, evaluate, and analyze research findings rather than simply retrieve something. Maintain high standards and inform students that you expect and require research to be of high quality.

3) Teach research strategies where appropriate. These may seem obvious to experienced researchers but are generally unknown to students. Discuss the information search process in class.

4) Encourage students to start at the library's home page when doing research.

5) Provide criteria for evaluating information, especially web sites. See Evaluating Web Sites.

6) Do not assume that student can effectively search for information, including searching the web.

7) Include a method for evaluating the thinking process behind information finding and use (e.g., keeping a research journal). 

8) Make sure students have enough time to complete the assignment. It helps to have intermediate goals so those students cannot wait until the last minute to find information. This is a recipe for frantic web surfing and the use of questionable sources.

9) Encourage students to use scholarly web guides.

10) Give your liaison librarian a copy of the assignment beforehand and discuss resources you want students to use so that the library can be prepared. If appropriate, ask for class instruction on advanced search techniques, sources, and research methods.

Consider alternative designs for an assignment:

  • prepare an annotated bibliography of information sources on a topic
  • write an abstract of a journal article
  • compare a popular magazine article and a scholarly journal article on the same topic
  • work in groups to prepare a guide that introduces new majors to information sources in the discipline
  • seek information on simulations of real-life projects
  • read and evaluate a case study and suggest alternatives
  • trace the history of a particular word or phrase important to the discipline
  • keep a journal of the search process, including methodology, items consulted, successes, failures, etc.
  • compare a scholarly edition with a performance edition of a score; consult reviews of scores and recordings
  • investigate government agencies or professional organizations which regulate the discipline
  • write a grant proposal
  • learn mechanics of getting published, including the indexing of the journal, time lag, reputation in the field, review process
  • trace an author through a citation index to determine the "scholarly network"
  • compare information found on the web with traditional print resources on a particular topic
  • do a commercial in class on information gathered from book, journal, web site on a particular class topic


Additional Resources on Information Literacy

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) has recently adopted information literacy competency standards for higher education. An information literate individual is able to perform the following:

  • determine the extent of information needed
  • access the needed information effectively and efficiently
  • evaluate information and its sources critically
  • incorporate selected information into one's knowledge base
  • use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
  • understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally

The Information Literacy Competency Standards document describes information literacy in relation to information technology, higher education, pedagogy, and assessment. Also included are performance indicators and specific objectives. You may wish to consult this document as you think about your role in helping your students work toward becoming information literate people.