Getting to grips with Information Literacy

From time to time I find myself ruminating on exactly how and where I acquired a variety of study skills. I have no recollection, for example, of any formalised training in finding and selecting source materials and yet even as an undergraduate I seemed to be reasonably adept at choosing relevant information.

Back in those days, of course, finding the material was a bigger task than it is today.  The contemporary student is spared the need to leaf through the Index Medicus and then scourer the shelves for the relevant tomes before staggering to the photocopier burdened by the combined weight of several impressively-bound volumes. A multitude of online search engines and databases, coupled with institutional access to a plethora of electronic journals provides the 21st Century undergraduate with more information than they could ever hope to process in time to meet the assignment deadline (to say nothing of the less formal internet sources at their fingertips). 

The challenge today is much less focussed on the location of documents and much more heavily skewed towards the evaluation and selection of appropriate material; discriminating good sources from bad and the evaluating the relevance of the material to the specific task at hand.  Having recently marked a set of essays where several submissions were characterised by failure to achieve these goals, I am reminded that the challenge of panning through tonnes of data in order to extract pertinent nuggets of gold is considerable, and the skills necessary to achieve this are unlikely to be acquired by osmosis.

It was against this backdrop that I was interested to read a paper The annotated bibliography and citation behaviour: enhancing student scholarship in an undergraduate biology course, written by Molly Flashpohler and colleagues, and published in the Winter 2007 edition of CBE – Life Sciences Education. The paper describes an active intervention to develop the “Information Literacy” skills of students taking an immunology and parasitology module at a small college in Minnesota, USA. 

In keeping with many institutions, our programme includes sessions on making the most of Web of Science, PubMed and other such search tools.  In addition to this, I’ve done some work myself on plagiarism-prevention.  What I don’t believe we’ve offered previously is any intervention of the type described by the Flaspohlers, in which students are encouraged to undertake a meta-critique of the reference materials they have assembled for a forthcoming assignment.

In the Minnesota model, the students are required to produce an annotated bibliography.  This is more than a citation list; each resource they are intending to use must be critiqued in a brief (approx 150 word) paragraph.  The students are advised that this annotation should demonstrate, as far as possible: the authority or background of the original author(s); their intended audience; the writing style of the author(s); how this article relates to their project; any bias or point of view apparent in the original work; and to highlight any tables, figures, etc which the student feels will be particularly relevant for their task.  Further to this, the annotations are supposed to cross-reference to one another as the student compares and contrasts the specific work with others that they have chosen to cite.

It strikes me that a task of this kind is “do-able” – it could be added as a training step on the way to submission of essays or dissertations that are already part of our courses.  The authors describe the improvements they have seen in the seven-year evolution of this intervention – including a shift towards better quality and more authoritative sources, and a concommitant fall in instances of plagiarism. Admittedly they have been working with a relatively small cohort (average 17 per annum), but I suspect that the knock-on merits of adding an exercise of this type would justify the effort of introducing something similar to my group, where n is nearer 100.

To re-quote John Porter, author of an earlier work in the same journal (albeit under its former name): “An awareness of the current literature is as important to scientific research as the careful design of adequate controls“.  This being the case, Information Literacy is too significant to be left to osmosis.