Information Literacy: A Neglected Core Competency

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Key Takeaways

  • College students think of information seeking as a rote process and tend to use the same small set of information resources no matter their question.
  • Information literacy is essential for lifelong learning and empowers individuals and societies.
  • Our educational system should expose students to information literacy from elementary school through postsecondary education so that it is a habit of mind they can call upon throughout their lives.
  • Collaborative efforts between faculty, librarians, technology professionals, and others can develop students who graduate with information literacy competency.

Researchers at the Information School at the University of Washington released an important and thought-provoking report in late 2009: "Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age."1 The study confirms and expands on the results of other reports. Its particular value is the size of the population studied, the diversity of institutions represented, and the use of both a survey and follow-up interviews for data collection.

The findings are troubling. College students think of information seeking as a rote process and tend to use the same small set of information resources no matter what question they have:

  • The primary sources they use for course work are course readings and Google.
  • They rely on professors to be "research coaches" for identifying additional sources.
  • They use Google and Wikipedia for research about everyday life topics.
  • They tend not to use library services that require interacting with librarians.

And although they begin the research process engaged and curious, they become frustrated and overwhelmed as it progresses.

The results of the study suggest that many college students view their educational experience as one of "satisficing" — finding just enough information that is "good enough" to complete course assignments. They miss opportunities that college education provides for exploration, discovery, and deep learning.

The consequences for these behaviors are serious when considering the lifelong learning skills students need when they enter the workforce. The implications for these young people later in life when they need information to make personal life-affecting decisions can be grave.

The ability to find, use, and communicate information effectively and ethically is commonly known as information literacy. It is the umbrella term for emerging literacies such as technology literacy, media literacy, and health literacy. Information literacy is the domain of all educators:

  • The Association of American Colleges and Universities identified information literacy as one of the essential learning outcomes that prepare students for 21st century challenges.2
  • The"2010 Horizon Report," a collaboration between the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and the New Media Consortium, indicated that the need for training in the related digital media literacy is a critical challenge in education for the next five years.
  • The Council for Independent Colleges offers annual workshops for chief academic officers, librarians, and faculty on integrating information literacy at their campuses.3

Information literacy is a national and global concern:

  • The White House recognized the issue when President Obama declared October 2009 as National Information Literacy Awareness Month.
  • UNESCO provided support for training hundreds of people around the world to teach information literacy competencies.
  • The Alexandria Proclamation developed at a colloquiumsponsored by UNESCO, the National Forum on Information Literacy, and the International Federation of Library Associations, stated that information literacy is the means to empowerment of individuals and societies and is a basic human right.

The fact that information literacy is applicable in all disciplines, involves metacognition, and is a way of thinking combined with a set of skills, hampers its inclusion in a methodical way in college curricula. It doesn’t "belong" to any single discipline, but instead belongs to all of them.

Our educational system should first expose students to information literacy and critical thinking in elementary school. Students should develop information literacy as a "habit of mind" that enables them to be sophisticated information finders and users by the time they reach college and then the working world. However, other priorities have prevented this from happening. This is an injustice to our young people, but it is also a problem for our society. Reports from employers indicate that we are not training our young people to be as successful in their jobs as they might be, or to have the ability to adapt to new jobs. Without information literacy competency, they will have difficulty in making informed decisions about their personal lives in critical areas such as health and finance.

So, because of reports such as the Project Information Literacy study, we can acknowledge that there are deficits in college students’ information-seeking behaviors. Once acknowledged, the questions to be answered are:

  • What strategies will work best to help students develop a better way of thinking about the world of information, how to mine it, and how to use and communicate the information they find?
  • What programs in colleges and universities work best to join faculty, librarians, technology professionals, writing centers, and others to inculcate the necessary skills?
  • How can we ensure that there is a progressive development of information literacy competency in the formal educational settings from kindergarten through postsecondary education?

Ultimately, this is a call to action for educators. We know that our current methods are not engaging students to use the skills they need for continuous learning. What can we do to ensure that we graduate information literate students, lifelong learners, and critical thinkers?

Additional Resources
  1. Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg, "Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age," Project Information Literacy Progress Report, Information School, University of Washington, December 1, 2009.
  2. National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, "College Learning for the New Global Century," Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007.
  3. See the CIC’s annual report for 2008–2009, "Creative Leadership for Challenging Times."