What is Information Literacy?

With information being increasing accessible and abundant, it is important to be able to avoid information overload. The ability to navigate unorganised and huge quantities of information, and extract the most relevant and reliable knowledge from the online cacophony is a coveted asset. This is referred to as information literacy, a simple explanation is: 

On top of being able to perform tasks on computers, information literacy extends beyond retrieval. It is about how a person can understand, interpret, and evaluate the information through critical thinking, engaging in a deeper and more intellectual manner (American Library Association, 2000). From the instrument by Chan & Luk (2021), information literacy encompasses a range of skills related to critical evaluation of sources and data:

  • Having the ability to effectively find, evaluate and use information;

  • Applying information technology competency to locate and evaluate information; and 

  • Possessing adequate numerical skills to evaluate the information.

(Chan & Luk, 2021)

Useful in the academic, work, and personal domains, mastery in information literacy is auspicious, from helping you stay informed with accurate information, producing work that is reliable, to enabling lifelong learning.

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Prerequisites, Process, and Outcome of Developing Information Literacy

Information literacy is the ability to manage and use information and technological resources effectively.
Chan, CKY (2021)
 

Are You an Information Literate Learner?

The most frequently cited definition is that formulated by the American Library Association (ALA) Presidential Committee on Information Literacy (1989):

“To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information…

Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand.”

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Are You an Information Literate Learner?

 
 

Why is Information Literacy Important?

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Finding Reliable Information to Inform Decision Making

Effective and informed decision making requires accurate information for context. With more tools and technology to create, manipulate, and access content on a global scale, we are endlessly bombarded by information of varying quality, reliability and formats. Information literacy enables a person to understand and sort through data of different modes – text, images, videos, statistics, etc. – and absorb the most trustworthy, up-to-date information from different perspectives for consideration during the decision making process. To accurately evaluate the information, sometimes numerical and information technology skills are needed.

Enabling Self-learning and Lifelong Learning

Why Care About Information Literacy?

Information literacy is the basis for lifelong learning, critical thinking and problem-solving. By developing the critical thinking and reasoning capacity to find, evaluate, and absorb knowledge from the vast internet, learners can easily learn outside of the classroom and continue to grow even after their formal education (American Library Association, 2000). This also allows learners to pursue knowledge outside the syllabus on their own, allowing learning to be motivated by students’ own  curiosity.

This is increasingly important as self-directed learning and investigations are a big part of work and other life responsibilities, where learners have to learn to solve problems independently and reliably.

Developing Criticality

Information literacy empowers people to verify and challenge the opinion or information given by ‘experts’ and authority, becoming “independent seeks of truth” (ALA, 1989). This not only applies to daily life and navigating societal or workplace power dynamics, but also important in terms of academic studies, higher education in particular, where students are often tasked to evaluate and criticise arguments of more established scholars.

Empirical Evidence

A questionnaire collected the views of 1,241 engineering students in Hong Kong, and found that they rate their information literacy as weaker than they think is necessary (Chan, Zhao & Luk, 2017). In particular, they rated the importance of researching information and identifying relevant information at 4.16 and 4.23 out of 5, while their self-rated attainment competency scores are only at 3.33 and 3.31 respectively. This shows that while students understand the importance of information literacy, they do not think they fulfil industry standards yet, and would benefit from more support and development of such competency.

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Engineering Students' Rating of Importance vs.

Their Competency Level of Information Literacy-related Skills

How is Information Literacy Developed?

Experiential learning, projects, problem-based learning, and technological courses are all useful for developing information literacy. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to find the correct information they need using mixed approaches.

Student-centred Learning Activities

Courses that are designed for a student-oriented learning environment would allow more freedom for students to explore on their own.

By employing strategies such as ill-defined problems, problem-based learning, evidence-based learning, and inquiry learning, students could be given more opportunities to seek out information on their own with the guidance from a teacher but without reliance on course textbooks or other authoritative texts.  By letting students choose or come up with their own research topic and questions, teachers can also encourage self-directed investigation, which hones students’ information literacy skills.

Teaching about Advanced Academic and Research Tools

Beyond generic search engines, learners will also benefit from learning to use more academic and professional databases and software for information retrieval, processing, and analysis (ACRL, 2019).

University libraries and computer labs often play a major role in the provision of these tutorial workshops for different disciplines, and enhance learners' self-directed research and investigative skills. Training on numerical skills such as statistics would also help students navigate and evaluate data more easily, enabling them to scrutinise for logical fallacies and manipulation of results.

 

How Should I Assess Information Literacy?

Here are some factors to consider when designing an assessment for students’ information literacy:

Choice of Assessment

Walsh (2009) found through a systematic literature review that portfolios and simulations are the best tools for assessing information literacy, especially the higher-order thinking skills that are tricky to evaluate. Although, multiple-choice questions was found to be the most commonly used tool, and could serve as good concept checking exercises. The same study also pointed out that the quality of students' bibliographies is also a good proxy for information literacy commonly used by teachers as an indirect assessment.

Read Andrew Walsh's (2009) paper for a more detailed evaluation of more forms of assessment for information literacy.

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Example of Assessment Approaches for Information Literacy

Scaffold to Assess Thinking Process

Teachers should consider scaffolded components that help track learning, such as incorporating portfolio assessments and observations. Assessing learners' creative processes and products means giving credit to the results and also the steps taken to achieve them, encouraging students to engage more profoundly with their thinking and research process (Walsh, 2009).

Case Studies

Higher Education

A study on a credit-bearing information literacy course at Strathclyde University by Johnston and Webber (2010) finds reflective and analytical tasks useful in encouraging higher engagement with the process of research. As information literacy is an attribute difficult to observe directly, the depth of students’ reflections and analyses of their own research practices would provide a window into their mindset and thinking process.

Another case study by Kingsley and Kingsley (2009) looks at assessing information literacy in a disciplinary course. Students were assessed on their technology-independent and technology-dependent information literacy skills based on their ability to extract information from a given text, and to compile a bibliography of quality literature on a topic via specific online databases accompanied by written justification of choice. This sheds light on students’ technology skills (i.e. the ability to retrieve relevant information) as well as ability to evaluate information critically (i.e. through identifying quality literature from a large database).

Schools

Chu (2012) conducted a test on primary school students’ information literacy using a 14-item testing system, adopted and modified from the Tools for Real-time Assessment of Information Literacy Skills and informed by the information literacy standards from various institutions. The test consisted of questions inviting students to formulate question based on information needs, identify potential sources of information, determining accuracy of information, distinguishing fact and opinions, etc. While it was also dependent on the young students’ reading skills, it has proved to be a good assessment of information literacy.

On top of standardised tests targeting information literacy, Scott (n.d.) also raises the importance of incorporating information literacy training activities across different subjects at school with a common, consistent approach, embedding it into students’ overall learning experience and also helping them build the habit of being critical with information.

 
 

End Remarks

Challenging but Worthwhile

Information literacy, like many other holistic competencies and unlike subject knowledge, are often downplayed or exist as an assumption in assessment guidelines and rubrics. While it takes extra steps, it is worthwhile to include some component of information literacy and research skills in a programme, as the benefit would be reflected in the vigour and quality of student learning and work, from reliability, criticality, quality of argumentation, and higher engagement.

 

Further Readings

  • Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report by ALA

  • Characteristics of Programs of Information Literacy that Illustrate Best Practices: A Guideline by ACRL

  • Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education by ACRL

  • HKU Libraries' Learning and Research Services

  • Hong Kong Public Libraries' e-Resources

References

American Library Association (ALA). (1989). Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/whitepapers/presidential

Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), American Library Association (ALA). (2016). Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework

Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), American Library Association (ALA). (2019). Characteristics of Programs of Information Literacy that Illustrate Best Practices: A Guideline. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/characteristics

Chan, C. K. Y., & Luk, L. Y. Y. (2021). Going ‘grade-free’? – Teachers’ and students’ perceived value and grading preferences for holistic competency assessment. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-18.

Chan, C. K. Y., Zhao, Y., & Luk, L. Y. Y. (2017). A Validated and Reliable Instrument Investigating Engineering Students’ Perceptions of Competency in Generic Skills. Journal of Engineering Education, 106(2), 299-325.

Chu, S. K. W. (2012). Assessing information literacy: a case study of primary 5 students in Hong Kong. School Library Research 15. American Association of School Librarians.

Johnston, B., & Webber, S. (2010). Information literacy in higher education: a review and case study, Studies in Higher Education, 28:3, 335-352. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070309295

Kingsley, K. V., & Kingsley, K. (2009). A case study for teaching information literacy skills. BMC Medical Education 9, 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6920-9-7

Scott, D. (n.d.) Case study on information literacy – Hazlehead Academy. Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland (CILIPS). Retrieved June 24, 2021, from https://www.cilips.org.uk/advocacy-campaigns/campaigns/libraries-matter/case-studies/case-study-information-literacy-hazlehead-academy/

Walsh, A. (2009). Information literacy assessment: where do we start? Journal of librarianship and information science, 41 (1), 19-28.