Enhancing Student Research Skills Through an Information Literacy Stipend
In Fall 2009, it was my good fortune to be invited to work on an Information Literacy Stipend with Dr. Sharon Meagher, Chair of the new Latin American Studies and Women's Studies (LA/W/S) Department. The Weinberg Memorial Library has been awarding Information Literacy Stipends to full-time faculty since 2004. The purpose of these stipends is to strengthen students' research skills by incorporating an information literacy component into the professor's course assignments. As defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), information literacy is "a set of abilities requiring individuals to 'recognize when information is needed and to have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information'" (http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/standards/standards.pdf). In the months leading up to the course, the professor of the course collaborates with a member of the library faculty to design assignments that will strengthen and assess the students' information literacy skills in that discipline. This scenario is ideal because it gives students the opportunity to apply these skills to real assignments, as they are learning the content of the course. The way Dr. Meagher and I collaborated in her introductory course, PHIL 218: Feminism: Theory and Practice, is a good example of the success of this model for teaching basic skills at the point-of-need.
Dr. Meagher's information literacy goal was for her students to understand how to engage in research on issues concerning feminist theory and practice, which included finding and evaluating scholarly research sources as well as claims made by popular media. To this end, Dr. Meagher and I designed a total of five information literacy lessons, which I delivered to her class over the course of the semester. These lessons built upon each other, and were assessed in two different ways: in mini-assignments due soon after the lesson was delivered, and in a final group project in which the students were required to use and document all of the information literacy skills they practiced in those earlier mini-assignments. For the final group project, each group planned and presented a booth at the annual Feminist Fair about an issue of importance to feminism. This project required that the students research their issue using the tools I introduced in the information literacy lessons, and to document their sources as well as their research strategy and methodology. Examples of what we covered in the information literacy lessons include how to find background information on a topic using the library resource Credo Reference, how to chase a footnote in a scholarly work back to the original source, and how to evaluate websites that contain information about, in this case, feminism.
One of the things that made this collaboration successful was the fact that I delivered instruction to the students over the course of the semester, as opposed to trying to teach many research skills in one jam-packed lesson. This model gave Dr. Meagher and I the opportunity to assess the effectiveness of each lesson (through self-reflection as well as the mini-assignments mentioned above), and adapt each subsequent lesson to the students' needs and the needs of the course. It also allowed the students to get to know me, a librarian to whom they could come for research help in this course as well as future courses. Finally, each lesson was tied into a reading or assignment the students were working on that same week, which meant the students were making connections between the skills being presented and the practical application of those skills. This culminated in the final project, during which the students applied this cumulative set of information literacy skills to a single issue in feminism, and reaped the rewards of the toolkit of research strategies now at their disposal.
As a librarian, I was very satisfied with the level of instruction I was able to offer using this model. With a one-time information literacy session, the librarian is often left wondering how effective the instruction was. The question lingers: "Did the students actually learn what I just taught them?" Without any kind of follow-up, the answer to this question often remains a mystery. The mini-assignments that followed each lesson I taught in Dr. Meagher's class assessed precisely the extent to which the students learned and applied the skills I taught them. The fact that Dr. Meagher granted me access to her ANGEL page for the course and invited me to view the posted mini-assignments of the students (in the form of discussion forum posts) enabled me to see how my instructions were interpreted by the students, what landed successfully and what got left behind. Everyone benefits in this scenario, because my teaching improves, and the students' learning experience improves in the next information literacy lesson as a result. The professor of the course benefits as well, because the quality of the students' work goes up as they apply these research skills to the course content in the preparation of their assignments.