Information Literacy Instruction? Thanks, but no thanks.

For years I have been asked by colleagues at various universities and colleges, what do you do for information literacy instruction? I say, since there is no required first year course, it is a matter of approaching instructor-by-instructor with some accidental successes. By far the most common response I get from the librarian across from me is an assuring nod. The response I often hear from faculty is “not in-class, but I’ll let the students know you are available as a resource.”

Faculty assume the students learn research skills before the students are in their course, yet are regularly surprised (or disappointed) that the students don’t have the skills once they get to the class. The most common scenario is that students rely the skills they learned in high school. For most of them, this is inadequate for the level of work they are expected to do in college.

In research conducted as part of the ACRL Assessment in Action program, I asked faculty about this gap between expectations and reality. I asked faculty, “What are your expectations for student research skills, and to what extent do first year students meet those expectations?” What was revealed from this seemingly straightforward question, was that there are many opportunities along a student’s college learning path where there are opportunities for them to learn necessary research skills, but those opportunities are mostly missed.

Mandatory is a taboo word in the academy where academic freedom rules the roost. However, when it comes to preparing students for success we should think about what skills are critical to their academic and post-academic careers — and how those skills are taught. However, simply relying on students to understand what they do not know is unrealistic.

I propose a dispersed means of offering this instruction to students. By leveraging partnerships we can offer an ongoing reinforcement of the skills and be more able to assess student ability.


Incoming first year students are assessed before the start of classes to gain an understanding of areas of strength and weakness. This assessment serves to inform the type and depth of instruction offered, and also is a pre-test which when married to a post-test upon completion of the student’s second year. Depending on the level of progress made, it would be determined if the test is then offered an additional time before graduation.

The Library does not do this on its own. These skills are critical to student success which is a common goal of the college. Key partners are the dean of the college, the writing center, the center for teaching and learning, and academic computing.

Dean of the College: Requiring each incoming student to be assessed for their critical information literacy skills, and that they take a first year seminar with a research component during their first year.

Faculty: Designing a curriculum that involves research skills and reflects the supports available on campus will expose first year students to the academic research process as well as uncover the many supports available to them.

The Writing Center: All writing center consultations should include information about citations and citation management tools. Library workshops can be promoted at this time.

The Center for Teaching and Learning: Work with faculty to develop first year seminars and help them work information literacy skills into their course. Librarians have one or more sessions with students during class time or outside of class.

Academic Computing: Integrate IL into courses in the Learning Management System for courses.

and, of course, The Library: Oversees the curriculum design including assessment and provides workshops for students and faculty on new tools, no strategies, and overall how-to instruction.

Spreading  IL instruction out over time allows students to learn the skills incrementally, and also when they need them. When writing a research paper and reviewing it at the Writing Center, students can also have their citations reviewed. Faculty would sign up to teach a first year seminar knowing that information literacy would be a core part of it. Spreading skills out over time and when they need the skills just makes sense.

Librarians have carried the information literacy mantle and found a mixed bag of success. Sometimes we feel confident about the finding and evaluating information elements, but never see a final paper. Other times we work with students on a citation management tool, but do not see the citations the students end up creating. Why is it important for librarians to have this follow through? Without a means of understanding how we are doing, we will never be able to do better. Without confidence that students are prepared for the work they are expected to do, we will never be able to fully help them. Without assessing how students develop these skills over time, we will never understand nor will we be able to understand our value in this regard to campus. We can say it is important. Faculty can say it is important. Students, when they know it has a name and it is useful to them, say they wish they had known about it earlier.

Poster: Plugging into the process: enhancing campus partnerships to provide robust student research support
Evelyn, Sarah, O’Mahony, Daniel, and Quist, Edwin, “Plugging into the process: enhancing campus partnerships to provide robust student research support” (2014). Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.