Teaching Reflections: Dr. Johanna Luthman on Information Literacy
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts in which teaching award winners will share their experiences, philosophies, and techniques. To read the first post, click here.
Dr. Johanna Luthman is a professor of history and a recipient of the 2017 Teaching Excellence Award for Tenure-Track Faculty.
This year, our incoming freshmen were born in 2001. Our dual-enrolled high school students were born even later. In addition to the fact that this makes me feel very old, it is also important to note that these students were all born long after the internet revolution and, more significantly, many of them cannot remember a time when there were no smartphones and tablets. Our students carry the world’s knowledge in their pockets and they take for granted that they have easy access to information at a moment’s notice. As a result, I find that I am increasingly focusing on teaching students information literacy, because having easy access to information is not in and of itself useful unless you know how to search for information that is suited to a particular purpose, have the ability to clearly distinguish between different sources of information, and understand how to evaluate the information you find. I came to this realization rather gradually, based on my experiences with students over time. My response has been to incorporate the development of information literacy into assignments I was already using, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel entirely.
For example, in my Survey of World Civilizations until 1500 course (HIST 1111), I have developed an assignment that I call a “creative research paper.” Student pick a fictional historical character from a list I provide, research the time period, and then come up with a historically plausible narrative for their character. Essentially, they are writing historical fiction. I originally developed this assignment to get students more engaged with humans of the distant past, and it works well for that purpose. However, I have noticed that I have had to change and expand the instructions for the research portions significantly.
As part of the assignment, students turn in an annotated bibliography. Initially, I required this simply to ensure that students were working on the project and not leaving it to the last minute and that they were working with good sources. I did not emphasize it very much. Over the last few years, however, the annotated bibliography has become a more significant part of the whole project, because I noticed that students were struggling more and more with searching for and identifying different kinds of sources.
I require that students use a minimum of two books for sources. I want them to read solidly researched books by experts, so I require that the two books be relatively recently published secondary sources. I used to think that was a pretty straight-forward requirement and would get frustrated when some students seemed to have such a difficult time identifying not just books, but specifically books that fulfilled those requirements. Students would turn in articles, encyclopedia entries, children’s books, books published in the 19th century, and books that had nothing to do with their subject. “How can this be so hard?” I wondered. It takes me very little time to search for, evaluate, and then locate a potential source for a project like this. Then, I started thinking about how I scaffold other assignments, breaking down the various steps required and making my instructions more intentional. I sat down and made a list of all the separate steps I performed when searching for and evaluating sources for an assignment like this one. I was astonished by the long list I created: I came up with no less than thirteen steps, and nine or ten sub-steps within those! I do this process automatically, without really thinking about it in a conscious way. However, many students have not developed that process yet and need further guidance.
The changing nature of the current publishing world has also led to more students misidentifying non-book sources as books. Most libraries today have more eBooks than they have paper volumes on the shelves. As a result, it has become more difficult for students to figure out what kinds of sources they are finding in online search listings. Students misidentify journal articles, book reviews, and encyclopedia entries as eBooks, and vice versa, as the text-entries on the screen looks similar to the untrained eye. Even after having read the text, or portions of the text, students might misidentify it. The line between eBooks and articles has also become more blurred, with eBooks now enabling the publication of shorter texts (under a hundred pages) that are still longer than a standard journal article, but shorter than a traditional book. In order to combat this problem, I tell students in this survey course to rely on the library catalog rather than GALILEO. The majority of students who misidentify sources have used GALILEO, or simply Google searches, instead of GIL. In upper level courses, I go into more detail concerning how to identify other kinds of sources.
After these epiphanies, I now take more time to focus on the process of searching for and evaluating books: it has become a central purpose of the annotated bibliography assignment. I stress to students that they are not just doing their history course assignment, but they are also developing information literacy skills that will be useful in all classes and beyond as they move forward. I do not note all the individual steps and sub-steps down in my written instructions. I have learned that if written instructions are too long, students tend to get overwhelmed and ignore them. I do, however, go over and model all these steps in class and in individual student meetings during office hours.
As long as they meet the minimum requirement regarding books, students can also add any other kinds of sources, as long as they are reliable. Usually, students are drawn to various websites, because they are used to gathering information through simple Google searches. As a consequence, we also have a discussion about how to evaluate websites. We look at examples to see who created the content; what category of website it is; what the web address can tell us; whether or not it lists references, and, if so, what kinds of references; what the potential biases for the site could be; etc. I break down the various parts of a Wikipedia article, including references, page discussions, and editorial histories. I find that I spend more and more time on this portion of the process, even though it is tangential to the particular assignment, because this is how students generally search for information. If they learn about information literacy in enough places, from enough instructors, and in enough courses, I hope it will become something that students recognize as important across all fields.
Significantly, teaching information literacy does not mean forgoing content. We focus much on skills these days, and we cut out content to make more room for it in our classes. It is of course impossible to do everything in a course: we do have to make difficult choices all the time regarding what to include. I have overheard students say (although none have dared say it to my face yet) that it is pointless to learn content, because if they ever need to know particular historical information, they can simply look it up. It is true that you have access to much information, but without sufficient content knowledge, you will not know how to phrase your search. Students actually learn this pretty quickly in the assignment: without at least some content knowledge, they do not know which search terms to use, and they get stuck at the very beginning of the research process. For instructors, the trick, as always, is to find that unicorn that is the correct balance between content and skills-based teaching. If I ever catch that one-horned beast, I will let you know.