Why Information Literacy?
Information literacy is essential for academic success, effective functioning in the workplace, and participation in society as knowledgeable citizens. It is a combination of research skills, critical thinking skills, computer technology skills, and communication skills.
Why are these skills important?
Information sources have become more challenging for students to comprehend as information becomes more abundant, more complex, and available in more formats.
Students are unfamiliar with different source types and have difficulty distinguishing between them.
Many first-year students have never encountered a journal or a journal article before, nor do they understand that a journal article is found within a journal. If you’ve never seen a print journal issue before – as most students haven’t – it’s hard to visualize the connection between journals and journal articles. Students frequently get frustrated by trying to find journals when they need articles.
Other types of sources such as conference papers, dissertations, theses, etc. are also unfamiliar to students.
When you don’t know what a source is, you won’t be able to recognize it, understand its purpose, or assess whether it’s appropriate for your information need. This inability to match the right source to an information need leads to an over-reliance on using websites for solving all information needs.
In the online environment, students struggle to distinguish one type of source from another.
Many students are unaware that many sources exist in print as well as online, and they are unable to recognize different types of sources when they encounter them on the web.
It’s not uncommon for students to consider any source they find on the web to be a ‘website,’ even though the source may be a journal article, newspaper article, magazine article, etc.
The inability to distinguish source types in their online form leads directly to problems with citing; if you can’t tell what a source is when you encounter it on the web in its digital form, then you won’t be able to cite it properly.
Students are confused by the array of terms we used to describe sources.
Students are variously told to use sources that are credible, scholarly, academic, peer-reviewed, refereed, primary, secondary, etc. Not only are some of these terms synonyms, frequently they are defined differently by different instructors or used differently depending on the discipline. We also use words like articles, papers, and literature to mean the same thing in some contexts, but not in other contexts. To reduce student confusion, be explicit about your preferred terms and how you are defining them.
The increase in source types and formats has made assessing credibility more difficult to master
Those of us who have had a lot of exposure to print copies of books, magazines, newspapers, and journals learned that they have characteristics that make them easily distinguishable from each other, such as paper quality, size, format, thickness, issue frequency, use of color, amount of advertising, etc.
Those physical qualities also provided important information about the function, use, and credibility of the source. But, most of that information is lost in the electronic formats that students encounter today, making sources difficult for students to identify or distinguish from one another – thus it’s a lot harder for them to pick up on cues that indicate credibility, or the lack thereof.
There’s no foolproof way to judge credibility. More experienced researchers use nuanced heuristics to make the best guess we can, and this is very difficult to teach. Consider the most common heuristic that experienced researchers use to judge credibility: they determine whether a source is scholarly or peer-reviewed. But how do they make that determination? Most often they rely on previously stored knowledge — for example, they recognize the publisher of the source as being a reputable scholarly publisher. Or in the case of journals, they recognize the title and know it is reputable. The same is true when judging the credibility of other types of sources. Experienced researchers are able to rely almost entirely on their stored knowledge of:
- reputable newspapers
- reputable magazines
- websites coming from reputable organizations, agencies, institutes, or educational institutions
Students don’t yet have the names of reputable information suppliers stored in their head. Often, students don’t even know what ‘peer-reviewed’ means. Instead, they have to learn to rely on alternative methods of assessing credibility – for example, they must:
- check whether the author has expertise or authority
- check if the content offers compelling explanations and evidence, and cites other reputable sources
- consider the source’s intended audience and what that implies about credibility
- assess whether the author is likely to be concerned about their reputation as an accurate and reliable writer
These alternative methods of assessing credibility are difficult skills for students to master and time-consuming – if not unrealistic – for them to apply to each source they are using.