Critical Literacy? Information!

Throwback Thursday for February 12, 2015: Take another look at Heather Davis’s article on the ACRL Standards from 2010. Stop back on February 25th for a critical information literacy perspective on the new Framework from Ian Beilin.

Photo by Flickr user Hammer51012 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Picture it, a higher education institution, 2009. The sun is shining. It’s a warm summer day. Your iced coffee perspires on the desk in front of you. You are a faculty librarian participating in a workshop with other faculty members on outcomes-based assessment for teaching and learning. You’re excited to make the leap from routine library orientations to in-class assignments centered around information literacy concepts, which will help improve your instructional sessions and place students on the continuum towards mastery of information literacy concepts. Suddenly, the conversation turns to the topic of the learning outcome for information literacy.

“How is information literacy any different from critical thinking?”

“Couldn’t we just get rid of information literacy since it shares similar outcomes with critical thinking?”

Wait, what?!?

Immediately, your head starts reeling with the national standards of the Association of College and Research Libraries, various statewide initiatives that have mobilized to embed information literacy into k-12 and higher education curriculum, and individual faculty with whom you have worked with to cover these very same standards as part of their learning outcomes for their students.

As you witness this debate unfolding, you think to yourself, what is the difference between critical thinking and information literacy? Do they share some common characteristics? Is it possible for one to exist without the other?

How would you respond to this challenge, where there are shared outcomes among information literacy and critical thinking?

The goal of the assessment-based learning outcome is to identify one necessary skill, such as teamwork, critical thinking, or communication, the student will use on the job, in their daily lives, or in the next stage of their educational process. This learning outcome is then embedded in an assignment or throughout the curriculum, and a scoring rubric is devised to focus on increasing student competency in this skill. This rubric allows for a quantitative value to be given to completed assignments representative of the student’s application of the skill and helps place them on the competency continuum somewhere between a basic, on the low-end of the scale, and advanced, on the high-end, which provides a great opportunity to make sure students are “getting it.” This process also engages both instructors and students in a teaching and learning partnership. By emphasizing the mastery of key learning outcomes at your institution students will be prepared for a post-graduate workplace environment.

It is important to ask this question: Is it possible for critical thinking to take the place of information literacy in today’s digital information universe? In this post I’ll be looking at information literacy and critical thinking as components of assessment. How is critical thinking and information literacy intertwined in the assessment of student learning? What other types of literacies are required for today’s student? Why is information literacy critical to student learning?

Information literacy and critical thinking: An accidental marriage?

To begin, we should establish some common ground on the definition of information literacy. The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) outlines the major competency areas for the information literate individual:

  • Determine the extent of information needed
  • Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Incorporate selected information into one’s own knowledge base
  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
  • Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally ((“Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.” Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), 2009. http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency.cfm.))

These standards outlined by ACRL have been integrated into evaluation rubrics used by instructional librarians across the nation in levels K-12 through higher education. While there is variation in the language and presentation used to express these competencies, information literacy assessment closely follows these standards. One such example of a higher education institution is McKendree University, which has its very own on-line, interactive information literacy rubric. ((McKendree University. “Information Literacy Rubric.” Information Literacy Rubric, n.d . http://www.mckendree.edu/academics/Information_Literacy_Rubric.aspx.)) Developing and using a rubric for information literacy can help place an individual or group of students on the information literacy continuum, where a student may come into the instructional session scoring low, or beginning, and leave the instructional session scoring somewhere in the middle to high range, or mastering. Through this process, we can gauge a student’s mastery of information literacy concepts and measure the effects of the instructional session on student learning. It is important to remember that when students hear the word “assessment,” this naturally inspires a lot of fear. They are concerned about having to take a test, turn in a paper, or engage in some form of an academic assignment. While fear may be a reality for most students, it is equally important to remember that these evaluation rubrics are also an assessment of the instructional librarian. They are tools for improving both learning and teaching, and provide very useful metrics for identifying future teaching opportunities.

Similar to information literacy, critical thinking has its own set of competencies. One of the leading organizations in providing a foundation for the assessment of critical thinking, Foundation for Critical Thinking breaks this down into eight discrete elements:

  • Generates purposes
  • Raises questions
  • Uses information
  • Utilizes concepts
  • Makes inferences
  • Makes assumptions
  • Generates implications
  • Embodies a point of view ((Foundation for Critical Thinking. “Critical Thinking Model 1.” The Thinker’s Guide to Analytic Thinking, 2007. http://www.criticalthinking.org/CTmodel/CTmodel1.cfm#.))

Critical thinking, as its own unique form of assessment, aims to get students to distinguish between empirical and factual evidence by applying higher order thinking to their own mental processes of receiving, taking apart, and synthesizing information. In addition, students balance all of this with an awareness of their own subjective judgment. Assignments created with the learning outcome of critical thinking in mind strive to create a fair and balanced outcome and parallels similar skills that will be required for future practical application. In their article on the importance of this outcome for graduate and experienced nurses, Fero, et. al directly link critical thinking to patient safety: “Nurses must have the ability to recognize changes in patient condition, perform independent nursing interventions, anticipate orders and prioritize.” ((Fero, Laura J., Catherine M. Witsberger, Susan W. Wesmiller, Thomas G. Zullo, and Leslie A. Hoffman. 2009. Critical thinking ability of new graduate and experienced nurses. Journal of Advanced Nursing 65, no. 1 (January): 139-148, p. 140. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2008.04834.x.)) Focusing on the critical thinking characteristics of “interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation,” Fero, et al., argue that using a critical thinking framework in nursing education will bear directly on the nurse in their post-graduate nursing experiences. ((Ibid., p. 141.)) This study included an exercise that presented nursing students with videotaped scenarios in a clinical setting and then asked them to record, in writing, their identification of the problem and necessary action steps for the resolution. Even though this case study incorporates situations aimed to exercise the critical thinking skills of its student membership, there are points at which information literacy competencies come into play. This is a perfect example of an inherent collusion between critical thinking and information literacy, as the scenarios presented in these videotapes require evaluation of visual information and critical thinking, which will then lead to an understanding of the information needed to resolve these problems.

If professional disciplines, such as nursing, look to specific competencies for graduates entering the workforce, then educational institutions should meet this same need by embedding competencies in the curriculum. For example, Washington State University has codified critical thinking for its student and faculty membership, by creating an online Critical and Integrative Thinking Rubric. It serves as an institution-wide foundation for learning assessment across disciplines. ((Washington State University. “WSU’s Critical and Integrative Thinking Rubric.” Critical and Integrative Thinking Rubric, 2006. https://my.wsu.edu/portal/page?_pageid=177,276578&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL.)) Similar to the information literacy rubric, instructors use these templates as competency models, and modify existing critical thinking rubrics tailored to specific assignments. A class taught at WSU on investigations into the arts, manipulated the existing baseline of the Critical and Integrative Thinking Rubric to achieve its own critical thinking outcome for its course. These malleable rubrics are very useful in standardizing learning outcomes and setting clear guidelines for students to follow. Presenting and following a scoring rubric with an assignment can also take a lot of the subjective evaluation out of assessment and point students toward clearly stated goals.

Until death us do part

Clearly, there is a shared relationship between information literacy and critical thinking. Critical thinking comes into play when getting students on the path to looking at information and using it judiciously in light of their topic. Library information instruction sessions have been following a trend which seeks to blend these two together, getting students to look at websites, articles, media items, and other online content with a critical eye toward evaluating these sources for credibility.

Library instruction incorporates brainstorming or concept mapping into sessions, providing students with a creative approach to generating a purpose for their assignment. Increasing numbers of instructional librarians also devote time to the evaluation of information, which ultimately takes students out of the pre-packaged box of research databases and into the frontier of the freely available information online. Ellie Collier in her post, In Praise of the Internet: Shifting Focus and Engaging Critical Thinking Skills, touches upon this very relationship existing between information literacy and critical thinking. She encourages instructional librarians everywhere, “to shift our primary focus away from teaching how to find information and towards engaging critical thinking skills.” ((Collier, Ellie. 2009. In Praise of the Internet: Shifting Focus and Engaging Critical Thinking Skills. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. January 7. http://inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2009/in-praise-of-the-internet-shifting-focus-and-engaging-critical-thinking-skills/.)) This does not mitigate the need for the information literacy competency, when in fact both of these competencies live in perfect harmony. Both critical thinking and information literacy work together in a partnership, each leaning on and supporting the other. Li Zhang points to this very relationship between these two competencies, stating:

An information literate student will be able to formulate research queries and create search strategies that reflect an understanding of information sources and their organization, analyze the data collected for value, and ultimately incorporate the data to solve problems. This literacy or competency goes beyond simply acquiring knowledge; it involves the process of critical thinking, which emphasizes reasoning, forming judgment about the evidence, and determining when new information must be generated. Since information literacy and critical thinking are so closely related, it is the job of librarians who are also educators to go beyond merely providing lectures, but strive to cultivate students’ thinking skills in order to equip them with necessary strategies to cope with complex problems. ((Zhang, Li. 2007. Promoting Critical Thinking, and Information Instruction in a Biochemistry Course. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 51, no. 2 (Summer) http://www.istl.org/07-summer/refereed.html.))

Working with students to foster a cohesive, give-and-take relationship between critical thinking and information literacy will reinforce their post-graduate skills. As Zhang suggests, engaging students in that grey area between information literacy and critical thinking will foster direct engagement with information, and help them make connections between their research needs and the information available to meet those needs. Specifically, Zhang focuses on the following: comparing and critiquing websites for credibility; encouraging students to come up with their own standards of evaluation; using specific search strategies for online and database searching; and ultimately focusing on transference of skills between web and database searching. If you are an instructional librarian who loves to get your students thinking and talking about information, then you already know it is impossible to draw a clear line between information literacy and critical thinking.

Opening up the relationship

Increasingly, information literacy has become a national concern, stemming from a rapidly changing information and technology landscape. This includes print and electronic content, photographs, videos, podcasts, blogs, government documents, corporate records, institutional archives, and information formats yet to be defined. The concern for information literacy has had a long history, punctuated by different modalities: media, technology, computer, and cultural literacy. ((Horton, Jr., Forest Woody. “Understanding Information Literacy: A Primer.” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2007. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001570/157020E.pdf.)) To this list could be added multimedia, digital, communications, and social media literacy. Information literacy’s best friend, ACRL, draws a clear line between information literacy and information technology, stating that “[information] technology skills enable an individual to use computers, software applications, databases, and other technologies to achieve a wide variety of academic, work-related, and personal goals.” ((Association of College & Research Libraries. 2000. Information Literacy and Information Technology. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. January 18. http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency.cfm#iltech.)) Similar to the shared relationship between critical thinking and information literacy, much of these alternate literacies can reinforce and provide added dimension to the information literacy competency and create critical skills for the 21st century student. As information rapidly changes in appearance and content, it is of import for information literacy to be a part of the conversation regarding other literacy modalities.

The landscape of information literacy is changing, and these 21st century skills will also change the way students access, evaluate, incorporate, and use information effectively. Perhaps now and in the future, writing research papers may not be the primary method of student assessment at every higher education institution, and may not always coincide with every institutions mission for its student membership; however, in an increasingly networked world the necessity for an information literacy learning outcome is paramount. Beyond equipping students to interact with and use technologies effectively, being able to navigate information-rich environments is critical.

Information literacy: All by myself…

The necessity for classroom embedded information literacy skills is unavoidable. When navigating different user groups (e.g., community college associations, library associations, local library councils, and national library associations) the feelings on the topic of information literacy is similar: “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.” ((Association of College & Research Libraries. “Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report.” ACRL | Presidential Committee on Information Literacy, January 10, 1989. http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/publications/whitepapers/presidential.cfm.)) Even as information literacy bears strong ties to critical thinking, it must be able to stand alone as its own competency, by holding its own and be given equal representation in the assessment of teaching and learning.

Higher education institutions have taken a stand on the importance of information literacy, emanating standards and guidelines for the information competent individual from state and local government. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has made their stance on information literacy very clear:

Information literacy, which encompasses information fluency and information technology mastery, is critical to success in higher education and lifelong learning. Rapid and continual changes in technology and the proliferation of information resources present students with an abundance of information through a variety of vetted and unvetted formats. This wide variety of choices raises questions about the reliability, authenticity, and validity of content and poses challenges for students trying to evaluate, understand, and apply the information.  The Association of College and Research Libraries, in its Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, notes that information literacy is considered a key outcome by several regional and discipline-specific accreditation bodies because of its close ties to students’ competency with evaluating, managing, and using information . . . . An important element of both teaching and learning in today’s information age is information literacy — the set of skills needed to find, access, retrieve, analyze, synthesize and use information effectively and ethically. ((American Association of Community Colleges. 2008. AACC Position Statement on Information Literacy. American Association of Community Colleges: Position Statements. May 4. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/About/Positions/Pages/ps05052008.aspx.))

As discussed, information and technology is changing, as is the terrain of teaching and learning in higher education. Among the current changes, peer-reviewed and trade journals are consistently moving to an online format, newspapers are scaling back print production to pursue an electronic future, mobile devices are being used to access and navigate online information environments, iPhone apps are being created daily from a variety of creators, blogs and wikis are rapidly being created by both individuals and large-scale organizations, and educational content is shifting to open source environments. Students encounter information in their daily lives when they drop by the supermarket to pick up groceries, when they sit down to watch television or stream media content on their computers, or when they engage in the task of media creation. First and foremost, this is all information.

Critical thinking and information literacy rubrics, as they are typically laid out, are very similar. However, critical thinking is rooted in developing a thought process that occurs around a variety of life skills related to interacting and engaging with information. Information literacy has a marked departure from critical thinking. This happens when educating students about the types and formats of information and technologies that exist, and getting them to think about information and technology concepts in the aggregate. For example, we might emphasize, this is word processing, not, this is Microsoft Word 2007. Or this is a search interface, not, this is a research database. Increasing information competency equips students with the skills to efficiently navigate and gather requisite information they will need in the workforce. Out in the “real world,” students are not likely to be presented with a Google search box during every work task. Instead they will be required to use a variety of search interfaces to get at the information they need to address the problem at hand, and be able to evaluate the credibility of those sources. They will need to be able to create workarounds when their information strategies fail them. They must be able to locate, gather, evaluate, synthesize, and responsibly use information. This process is markedly different from critical thinking, which often emphasizes thought processes around information, situations, interpersonal communication, project-based work, and other aspects.

Information comes in a variety of formats and is needed not only for writing research papers, creating presentations, but is a critical skill in dealing with day-to-day personal problems and issues. In an important study by Project Information Literacy (PIL) facilitated by the Information School at University of Washington, researchers found that students were frustrated equally when “conducting research, whether for course assignments or everyday life problems, [presenting] its own set of challenges that are usually exacerbated in digital environments. Challenges are often deep-seated frustrations tied to finding resources students know exist, somehow, somewhere, but are unable to access.” ((Head, Alison J., and Michael B. Eisenberg. “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age.” Seattle, WA: The Information School, University of Washington, February 4, 2009. http://projectinfolit.org/publications/.)) One remedy can be found in a problem-based approach to the information gathering process, a process that can successfully be carried out through information literacy. By involving higher order thinking skills students see the connection between the skills they acquire in the educational setting and how they can be applied in their everyday lives. Guided instruction on how to navigate a complex information landscape would greatly improve a student’s ability to appropriately identify and navigate information, and better equip them to amass information if a definitive information gap is found. Developing information seeking strategies that meet real-life, everyday situations creates a natural bridge to workforce training, providing students with an invaluable set of skills similar to critical thinking, but independently valuable in its own right.

Rekindling the old flame

Library instruction sessions need to remain open to integrating critical thinking skills, as well as other learning outcomes and literacy modalities, in the k-12 and higher education setting. This practice can make information literacy relevant and test the mettle of this skill set in the educational environment. In the process of engaging students, we can find out what they think about information on a personal level as they interact with it in their daily lives. Once we push students to “figure it out,” begin to stir their creative and intellectual faculties, we can start moving the conversation forward. While information literacy and critical thinking share a contiguous and inseparable relationship, one cannot exist without the other. Without information literacy, students would find themselves equipped to think about situations and ideas, but incapable of recognizing and understanding the vast information network or how to access this network. Alternately, without critical thinking we would have vast amounts of information with no way to filter, gather, or synthesize this information.

It is also important for instructional librarians in an educational context to be involved in the development of an information literacy rubric. In the course of developing such a rubric, we can provide our instructional peers with a template for evaluating information literacy in their own classrooms, as well as our own. In addition, modifying existing rubrics at your institution can be an invaluable test of the impact of your teaching and show you if students are truly “getting it.” Such a venture might also help integrate you more into instruction and allow students and instructional peers to see you as more than just the cool librarian with the book cart.

Along with critical thinking, information literacy should be offered with the same frequency as other teaching and learning assessments in the educational institution. It touches every aspect of practical skills provided at higher education institutions: automotive core students use Mitchell 1® OnDemand™ to create estimates and look up information on various types of automobiles; allied health and nursing students use MedlinePlus® to locate current, reliable information on topics of health and wellness; psychology students use search interfaces to review current literature on mental health topics; and students find themselves using these information strategies out in the world without realizing it. Embedding information literacy into instruction with the same frequency as other outcomes-based assessments promotes an emerging population capable of working with various technologies, as well as an aptitude for finding the right information to meet a need in a timely and efficient manner. There is an everyday use for information literacy that would be lost if it were to disappear into or merge with critical thinking and obscure its importance by calling it anything other than information literacy.

A very special thank you to Emily Ford, Edward Sargent, Cheyenne Roduin, and Merinda Kaye Hensley for their invaluable insight and suggestions for this post.

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5 Responses

  1. Christy Earp

    Wilkes Community College adopted a plan to increase student disposition to use critical thinking in all aspects of their lives. The Foundation for Critical Thinking is the major model, and the CCTDI (California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory) was used to identify areas of weakness among faculty, staff, and students. A more detailed explanation of the plan can be read at http://www.wilkescc.edu/WCCCMS/WCCInsider1.aspx?id=774, but in a nutshell, WCC’s focus is to help students learn to:

    -Seek quality information

    -Discover their assumptions about learning, topics, subjects, and people

    -Ask questions

    -Analyze different points of view

    The library plays an essential role in the pursuit of these abilities, including participation as instructors in required freshman seminar courses. Faculty and staff also receive training in information literacy, through faculty/staff workshops and presentations, and through publications like the newsletter at the link below.


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