Creating Information Literacy Assignments
Based on research and our own experiences, general library tours and orientations are not adequate experiences for teaching information literacy. Students are often overwhelmed by the amount of information shared, and little information is retained. To create assignments that will help students to gain the information literacy skills they need, follow these steps. Visit the Information Literacy for General Studies page for assignment ideas to meet each of the Information Literacy Learning Outcomes.
1. Ensure students’ research topics align with your assignment’s source requirements Accordion Closed
Sometimes instructors require students to find and use scholarly/peer-reviewed sources for a research assignment when the topic is general and/or introductory in nature. Sources like peer-reviewed journal articles pose a particular problem in this situation, as they are usually too specific and narrowly focused to be useful for general or introductory topics. Meanwhile, when students are asked to choose their own research topic, they often pick topics that are unlikely to be discussed at all in the scholarly literature. Students are often unfamiliar with scholarly/peer-reviewed sources, or what types of subject matter those sources cover.
When students can’t find the information they need in the sources they are required to use, they have to engineer a way to retrofit the source – usually a peer-reviewed journal article – into their paper. What students learn from this is that peer-reviewed journal articles are not that useful as sources – rather, they are just a weird inconvenience that has to be dealt with while in college. This also results in students experiencing the research process as contrived, difficult, and unpleasant.
Many students don’t know how to come up with a manageable topic that is not too broad or too narrow and for which a reasonable number of sources can be found. Students need more guidance on choosing topics that are appropriate for their assignment’s source requirements, and they need the time and skills to test their topic to ensure relevant sources can be found.
2. Make your research assignment directions extremely clear and explicit Accordion Closed
If you want your students to use certain types of sources – and to find those sources using a particular strategy, then be very clear and explicit about why and how. It is confusing to students when they are told to, “Go to the library!” to find sources. This directive is confusing because students can access most library resources online from the library’s website without being in the library. While some students heavily use the print book collection, most don’t – especially in STEM. Telling students to go to the library to find sources might not make sense to them, and is probably not the most practical way for them to find information sources.
3. Break down your assignment into small steps Accordion Closed
Assigning students to research and write a paper on a topic can be an overwhelming task that doesn’t necessarily do a great job at teaching information literacy skills unless you tackle those skills in small steps. Consider all that is involved with writing a good paper; students must have some proficiency with all of the following:
- finding, selecting, reading, and comprehending unfamiliar content
- synthesizing that content into their own argument or thesis
- writing in a coherent and structured way
- understanding the purpose and mechanics of citing
While reading and comprehending new content is a challenge, writing and citing are even bigger challenges. But finding and selecting information are not easy either. To be able to do that well, students must:
- understand different source types and their purposes – particularly the source types the assignment requires them to use
- recognize source types when they’re encountered in an online environment
- know where to search (that is, know which databases to use and how to find them)
- know how to search using keywords and their synonyms
- be aware they should test and adjust a topic if it is too broad, too narrow, or if it is inappropriate for the assignment’s source requirements
- be able to discern relevant, credible sources from those that are not
- know how to get to the full-text of online sources, or retrieve print sources from library shelves, or use the library’s document delivery service
Now let’s break down the knowledge and skills needed to use information – that is, to incorporate and cite outside sources in a piece of writing. For that, students must:
- know what citations are
- fully understand why we cite and what plagiarism is
- know where to find the elements needed for a citation and how to construct it
- understand in-text citing
- understand how to appropriately incorporate outside sources into a piece of writing using direct quotes, paraphrasing, or summarizing
- know what a style guide is and how to use it
- know what to do when their style guide fails to provide appropriate instructions (many style guides don’t address what to do with DOIs, how to cite ahead-of-print articles, how to cite websites with no date, etc.)
Most students enter college with few or none of the skills listed above, and they need multiple opportunities to learn and practice these skills in order to master them. Breaking these skills into small steps helps students master them!
4. Encourage students to seek help from the library Accordion Closed
Many students have misconceptions about what librarians do. Typically, they think the role of a librarian is to organize and shelve books. They don’t realize that — in fact — librarians are experts at helping students find and evaluate sources. Encourage your students to seek help using the library’s chat service or by contacting their librarian directly. Both options are available on Cline Library’s website.
Avoid these common confusions
Students hear all sorts of different directions for how to conduct research to find sources. These directions are usually intended to encourage students to find and use scholarly sources, but many of them don’t make sense to students.
Students say their assignments’ instructions are :
Why that’s confusing:
The library’s website is not the only place to find scholarly sources, nor are students likely to use the library’s website after they graduate, so these directives are confusing. Plus, they don’t encourage the development of lifelong information literacy skills. Nowadays, most library databases contain a mix of scholarly and non-scholarly content, so using library databases is not a guarantee you’ll land on scholarly content.
Cline Library’s databases, as well as many scholarly sources the library subscribes to, are only available from the Cline Library website. Most databases, ebooks, and journal articles that the library subscribes to are on .com websites. Reputable newspapers and magazines are also on .com websites.
Google often does an excellent job of pointing students to credible, and even scholarly, sources. Students might think they can’t use Google Scholar, an excellent, free resource, to find sources. Realistically, students are not going to avoid using Google, so we might as well help them use Google intelligently.