Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Returning to the problem of information literacy

Information literacy Since I started running "key skills" modules umptynine years ago, delivery of information literacy skills has been a constant concern. Leaving aside arcane discussions of what information literacy actually is, the realities of very large student numbers often forced me down the MCQ route, both because "If it's not (summatively) assessed it doesn't exist" and because of the impossible logistics of more appropriate alternatives.

Returning this week once again to the problem of information literacy delivery for the coming year, I turned to the research literature. The last time I did that I found it unhelpful because publications were dominated by arcane (unkindly: airy-fairy) discussion of the nature of academic literacies. This time around, by focusing my searches onto "information literacy" AND "science" (a spot of Boolean karma there), I came up with a more satisfactory outcome. Sifting of the literature in this restricted area now gives a more clear cut consensus on the best and possibly only solution: a pragmatic approach involving learning by doing - an authentic assessment apprenticeship model. Which unfortunately causes rather than solves a problem.

Numbers - that's the problem. If I had the luxury of delivering this content for half a dozen students on a single degree course, I'd have them write essays recursively until I knew they'd got it. Not viable with 400 students. So my alternative is ... peer assessment, either using the Blackboard Self and Peer Assessment tool or the Turnitin PeerMark system (comments on these welcome please). Which is fine, except it leads me into a discussion about formative versus summative assessment. Have students peer assess and only force completion by completion, or going down the hairy (and possibly unacceptable) route of having students summatively peer assess?

Information literacy assignment
1000 word Microsoft Word report on assigned topic:
  1. List and justify which keywords you used for your search (2 marks)
  2. List and justify which synonyms you used for your search (2 marks)
  3. List and justify which wildcards you used for your search (2 marks)
  4. List and justify which Boolean operators you used for your search (2 marks)
  5. Display search results (screenshots) from each of the following databases: PubMed, Google Scholar, WoK. (3 marks)
  6. Annotated Bibliography - list your choice of the 10 most relevant and important papers for your assigned topic - explaining why you chose each one. (10 marks)

I would really welcome your comments and insight on this.

Thompson, L, and Blankinship, L.A. (2015). Teaching Information Literacy Skills to Sophomore-Level Biology Majors. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 16(1): 29. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.818


  1. I think one of the search skills worth developing is the refinement of a search - showing how you start with a crappy search and then start to refine it, in part as a response to the search results you have seen so far and in part as you start to realise what sort of thing you actually want to find.

    There's also the distinction that I think many folk forget of doing very specific known item searches, trying to rediscover an item you've already seen, and more open discovery based searches where you only have a rough idea of the sort of thing you want to find.

    Unless you're an expert, of course, and never so a search with less than optimal keywords and a wealth of advanced search limits:-)

    1. Very true, and we can get at that via the breadth/narrowness of the assigned topic for the exercise.