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Today’s students get most of their information electronically, and scholarly information is increasingly going digital. Modern libraries are judged more by the quality of their electronic offerings than the number of books they hold on shelves.
Yet, instructors seem to lag behind this trend in classroom instruction. As both a community college professor and reference librarian teaching information literacy (IL)—the ability to find and use modern information—I have a few suggestions as how to incorporate IL in the curriculum. Even if instructors are not electronically information literate, a simple updating of assignments can accomplish a lot—and a librarian can make it easy.
Links to assignments
IL instruction unrelated to assignments is not effective. Many institutions have taken steps to improve instruction by creating IL study modules and online tutoring programs appropriate to specific disciplines. These take general IL instruction and make it more relevant to a particular subject. Emphasis may change, but content remains the same and continues to lack immediate relevance. Assignment-specific instruction makes learning and using IL skills necessary.
Another tactic is embedment or collaboration in the classroom between the librarian and the subject instructor. While effective, this approach has two problems. First, it is cost prohibitive for a library short of librarians to lose a professional’s time to the effort. Second, professors seldom wish to give up classroom time to non-subject material or control of anything to an interloper. Assignment-specific instruction avoids both pitfalls.
Predesigned, single sessions addressing a student’s general IL needs is not effective. It is unrealistic to believe that students in one sitting will understand even the basic IL instruction needed for their academic career, let alone retain it for future use. Assignment-specific instruction teaches only those IL skills needed to complete a specific task. It is brief, deemed necessary by the student and requires immediate application. Students learn a limited number of skills, use them and retain them for future use.
A focused approach
Here are a few assignments used in my U.S. history courses that require IL skills. One is an annotated bibliography of public websites and the other is an electronic journal article review. Completing each assignment requires a different set of IL skills. Rather than teaching all IL skills in one sitting, I teach two separate sessions covering only those skills needed to complete each assignment. This minimizes teaching time (addressing students’ limited attention spans) and keeps instruction relevant. Students receive only what they need for that specific assignment.
Assignments, of course, must fit the subject and discipline. I take something traditionally done by historians—an annotated bibliography—and incorporate IL requirements into it. In this case, the assignment requires finding and evaluating public websites. Instruction includes how to judge the acceptability, credibility and scholarliness of material and sites found on the Web. Students learn where and how to find the information needed to determine these characteristics. They discover tools and techniques for searching and finding different types of websites. Students pay attention because the information is relevant—they need it now for a graded assignment.
Bypassing hardcopy books
The second assignment compels use of additional IL skills, while keeping the exercise true to the discipline. Rather than assigning the common critical book review done by historians, I use electronic journal articles in place of a hard copy book. Unlike the previous assignment, students use a specific library-provided database, not the public Web. New skills learned include search strategies, using subscription databases’ advanced features and how to navigate a library's electronic offerings.
Rather than presenting general IL instruction, assignment-specific instruction focuses on only specific skills needed to complete an assignment. Instruction time is reduced and students pay attention because they need it now for a current assignment, not “sometime in the future.” In other words, they are coerced into learning most, if not all, of what might have been provided in a single, all-inclusive general IL session. Additionally, they must employ what is taught.
This works wonderfully for me because I am both the subject teacher and the librarian. I design my own assignments and do my own IL teaching. For other professors, especially those who may need improved IL themselves, your librarian is your salvation. Find the subject librarian responsible for your discipline. Bring your assignments and course goals to them. Let them modernize your assignments. Let them teach your students the new skills needed. Not only do your students learn IL, but so do you. Soon, you will be IL competent and confidently doing the instruction yourself.
Robinson is an adjunct history professor and adjunct librarian at Austin Community College in Texas.
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