On Information Literacy, Students, and Syllabuses

I sometimes get terribly annoyed with LIS literature. Often, I encounter articles that use small samples to confirm that librarians are indeed essential to post-secondary education. Given this cynicism, reading Alison Head’s 2008 article, Information literacy from the Trenches: how do humanities and social science majors conduct academic research? was a breath of fresh air. Although Head used a small sample for her research, she crafts a solid argument which shows that student expectations, anxiety, and even information literacy levels are affected by poor guidance in the classroom and from syllabuses.

Let me say before writing further that Head isn’t suggesting that teaching faculty are ghouls living in the ivory tower whose purpose it is to make things difficult for students. Rather, she argues that most students encounter a fundamental information gap between what professors expect of them and how they are supposed to achieve it. Syllabuses do a great job at listing schedules, reading lists, and essay requirements, but they fall short when it comes to explaining how the student is to meet the professor’s research expectations.

Head analyzed 30 different faculty handouts to achieve two goals:

  1. to find out what professors assign
  2. to find out the amount of guidance professors offer students about how to carry out their research, how to evaluate resources, and how to assemble and prepare the paper (p. 431).

The answer to the first question shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone working in the humanities and social sciences: 30% of assignments are argumentative research papers, while another 17% are lit reviews, and 16% are about theory (p. 432). Assignments in the arts, we know, are based on critical inquiry and interpretation – two related competencies that students often struggle with.

Head’s data show that undergraduates feel pressured to be original and creative in their work (p. 433), which is a difficult task when you’re writing on a tight deadline about a subject you know very little about. Her research on what professors assign to students confirms a lot of the things we already know – that bibliographic instruction isn’t always appreciated, that procrastination and time management are large stressors, and that student success is largely dependent on their understanding and grasp of basic IL competencies (p. 434-435).

The article really begins to shine, though, when Head shows that students often feel disadvantaged by the syllabuses that guide their coursework. 12 of 13 members of her student focus group felt that “one of their most serious obstacles is understanding professor’s expectations for assignments” (p. 435), and 48% of survey respondents felt that “a lack of information from the assigning professor stymied them the most, sometimes keeping them from beginning an assignment at all” (p. 435). Head continues:

The [content analysis] data show a lack of detail and guidance in many research assignment handouts. As a whole, the handouts offered little direction about: (1) plotting the course for research, (2) crafting a quality paper, and (3) preparing a paper that adheres to a grading rubric of some kind. (p. 435)

Head’s work identifies a major information gap that stalls the student’s attempts to produce academic research: a lack of guidance about basic research skills. Junior undergraduate students, who often have very low information literacy rates, have got to learn how to research effectively and also understand the professor’s expectations before tackling their topic, but they have been given very little information to help them along in this regard.

I don’t think that Head is trying to start a fire in the academy with this article. She’s identified a significant problem in post-secondary education but follows up by listing three remedies: more information from the professors, more IL instruction, and more proactive intervention on the part of faculty and librarians (p. 438). The article resonates because it clarifies the muddled situation we face at the reference desk when confused students find a helpful librarian, often by chance. Librarians know that a student’s information-seeking skills may not be as great as they could be, but we aren’t always thinking about what kind and amount of guidance the student has been offered before seeing us. Sometimes the student can’t find answers to the research question because they don’t even know what the research question is or how to produce an academic response to it.

Head’s article reminds me that students often have neither the skills needed to research effectively nor an understanding on how to improve those research skills in the first place. The IL help we provide at the Reference Desk is a bit of a bandaid solution for this problem. Yes, we must continue dressing those wounds, but it is imperative for us to raise the importance of basic research skills and IL competencies when we speak to our peers beyond the library. Whether you’re speaking with a faculty member or some one in student services, remind them of what students ought to be learning in basic writing and research courses. Faculty are accustomed to a research culture that has been nurtured by years of scholarship, but their students are only at the start of their own academic journies. This means that more time must be spent on basic research skills in the classroom, in one-on-one situations, and in handouts given to students. Although librarians have taken up the information literacy mantle long ago, we can’t solve this problem on our own. Raising IL competencies requires collaboration with our colleagues in the professoriate and in student support services.

note: If ever you’ve read anything by Gloria Leckie, then you’ll understand where Head is coming from in this article and why I support her argument. I’ve studied under one of Leckie’s own students, which has clearly informed my own opinions about the information seeking behavior and predicament of PSE students.

Head, A. (2008). Information literacy from the trenches: how do humanities and social science majors conduct academic research?. College & Research Libraries, 69(5), 427-45.