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Strategies to improve information literacy skills discussed

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - September 12, 2005

Undergraduates are intelligent and curious, and have a remarkable facility with communication technology, says Scott Kennedy, director of research and information services for University Libraries. What they don’t have is experience with the world of scholarly information.

That’s why information literacy is one of five competencies in the new general education requirements implemented this year. The new system is intended to help ensure that students have a basic facility with scholarly communication processes, he said.

Kennedy made his remarks during a Sept. 6 workshop for faculty and teaching assistants titled “From Chaos to Clarity: Shaping Student Research Through Information Literacy.” The event was part of General Education Month.

Information literacy, said Kennedy, denotes an “understanding of how knowledge is created, disseminated, and organized. It implies familiarity with scholarly communication processes and facility with the tools required to tap into those processes. It assumes the ability to evaluate, synthesize, and incorporate information into written, oral, and media presentations.”

He said the new General Education system recognizes that training in information literacy, as in writing and computer literacy, is the responsibility of the entire community and that “repeated exposure to various elements of this process” is needed for students to develop these skills.

Undergraduate services librarian Kathy Labadorf said many students entering the University have done well in high school using mostly Internet search tools, such as Google and AltaVista: “The library,” she said, “may be ‘terra incognita’.”

At a research institution, Labadorf said, students need to expand their sources of information; they also need to be able to distinguish good information from bad.

Basic information literacy skills are taught in English 110 and 111, which are required courses for all UConn students. Further skills are taught within the majors. But this leaves a gap; acquiring competency is a developmental process, she said.

Labadorf said educators can use a variety of strategies to improve information literacy. These include exercises such as tracking a classic paper through a citation index to learn how knowledge builds; contrasting a trade or professional journal with a scholarly journal, analyzing the differences in content and writing style; and exploring the references in a paper to see how original sources are used.

Students need to learn that “scholarly and professional writing is a conversation between people,” Labadorf said, and that documenting this exchange is part of the purpose of bibliographies. Preparing a bibliography is not just to show what students have read or to demonstrate that they have not plagiarized, she added.

Undergraduate instruction librarian Shikha Sharma described a one-credit FYE course, “Google This,” that she and Labadorf co-taught last year using the web-based research portfolio as a tool for developing information literacy skills.

The course was designed to help students identify the best sources for a 20-page research paper, and was based on a series of small assignments throughout the semester. Students learned how to identify a manageable research topic; develop a concept map showing the relationship of the topic to various disciplines; formulate research questions and strategies; select online sources; and produce an annotated bibliography justifying the choice of sources.

“The final portfolio by each student showed a marked improvement in their ability to define and focus a research topic,” said Sharma.

John Bennett, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and a member of the General Education Oversight Committee, is adapting the research portfolio in his class this semester on thermodynamics.

“In classes, I always lamented that I got nothing but web references,” said Bennett. “They were typically not well evaluated, and the best I got was a series of pieces of information that implied, ‘we think we got all the stuff we need; we hope you’ll put it together.’ The portfolio concept provides a more organized way to approach the research process.”

Bennett now requires his students to keep a research log – recording what searches they did when, and what those searches produced – as the basis for part of their grades. He also allocates a portion of the grade on each report to the student’s demonstrated use of library resources.

Learning research skills can take the burden out of writing a research paper, said Sharma. “I tell students if they do the job up front, then writing a paper becomes a word-processing exercise, not an ‘oh my God’ task,” she says.

Sharma and Labadorf are planning soon to create a webpage to which faculty can link that will introduce the research portfolio concept.  

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