by Melissa Correll,
Instructional Services Librarian, Lycoming College
Currently reading Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives our Economy and Shapes our World by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp
Critical Information Literacy Skills: The Case for Skepticism
There were several interesting breakout sessions, but since I do not have Hermione’s Time-Turner, I could attend only three. Heather Brodie Perry, Reference Librarian at Stonehill College, presented “Critical Information Literacy Skills: The Case for Skepticism.” Perry argued that information literacy skills can help people make social change. As PA Forward’s five literacies suggest, information skills can help people become better citizens and lead healthier lives. Perry focused on how reading the fine print (in this case, disclosure statements) can help people to identify the source of funding behind research articles. When corporations fund research, conflicts of interest can arise. An exemplary case is the infamous Soon & Baliunas article denying climate change, which was funded by the American Petroleum Institute. This fact is stated briefly in a short acknowledgement appearing before the list of citations, but when Perry gave the article to her students, only one student noticed the statement.
Perry noted that students tend to assign the same weight to anything they see in text, whether printed or published online. This ‘if it’s published, it must be good’ attitude extends beyond students; I would argue that everyone is guilty of this to some extent. Perry recommends teaching fact checking and skepticism: get students in the habit of corroborating information using multiple sources from multiple authors, and to look beyond credentials when evaluating for authority. This is sound advice for everyone. People may hesitate to criticize an article, even in the presence of a disclosure statement, if they see that an author is affiliated with a prestigious institution, or if there are a lot of impressive-looking charts and graphs or a long list of citations. As librarians, we should help people form better habits of mind that help them critically evaluate information, check for reliability, and investigate researchers’ motivations.
Big, Fast, and Familiar: Looking at and past Google as BFF
Habits can be hard to break, but it can be effective to meet people at their current skill levels and shepherd their development from there. This is the tactic Calvin Wang and Adam Hess, both librarians at Arcadia University, proposed in their presentation, “Big, Fast, and Familiar: Looking at and past Google as BFF.” Hess mentioned that students tend to start their research with Google, and suggested that instead of trying to deter this, librarians can leverage this behavior to help students improve their search skills.
Hess believes students can learn to use Google effectively to “get the lay of the land” when they approach an unfamiliar research topic for the first time. He described a workshop he did with faculty, in which he challenged a Biology professor to research a topic in the humanities. Her first stop was Google Scholar, and she found that the articles were above her level of comprehension in the discipline. Her solution was to try Google; there she found a Wikipedia page which gave her the background information she needed to be able to understand the academic articles she previously found. If an expert faced with an unfamiliar topic uses this research process, a student likely does something similar.
Hess described his technique of teaching students to examine the results list of a Google search, without clicking on anything, to glean information about a topic. From what dates are most of the results? What types of resources are in the list? Can you identify any keywords from the links’ titles and descriptions? Using questions like these can prompt students to devise a search strategy and understand some general background information about their topics before they approach the databases in search of more in-depth resources. Although Hess has not yet used this technique in classroom instruction, he has used it in one-on-one consultations with students. He allows the students to take the wheel and direct the search, which makes for an engaging experience.
Hands-on activities are generally preferable to lectures, as Kelly Cannon, Susan Falciani, Rachel Hamelers, and Jen Jarson, all librarians at Muhlenberg College, demonstrated in their presentation, “Deepening Student Engagement with Information: Active Approaches to Instruction.” Each shared a particularly effective active learning experience they designed for students. Cannon shared a unique lesson that came about serendipitously: a renowned scholar of Holocaust studies was about to retire, gifting her collection of 350 works on the Holocaust to the Muhlenberg College Library. Cannon partnered with a professor of Religion, inviting a group of Seniors enrolled in a seminar on the Holocaust to review and evaluate the books and make recommendations about whether or not to add them to the collection. Far beyond a lesson in collection development, the students learned much about the nature of authority and scholarship through this immersive activity. When librarians allow students the agency to make mistakes and figure things out on their own, students tend to find the lesson more impactful.
These breakout sessions were successful because the presenters took a pragmatic approach to information literacy. Lofty as the Framework may appear at first glance, its strength is in the way it reveals opportunities for students to apply information literacy skills in real-world situations. As Hensley mentioned in the first keynote, it is time for the Framework because it is time for librarians to change how we teach. Information literacy skills definitely help students perform better academically, but they also help people be better citizens in their communities, make more informed decisions about their health care, and be more savvy consumers. These theories can benefit us all when we put them into practice.