All posts filed under “Information Literacy

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On Assessment (and our practice of it)

My thoughts on the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium continue, this time with a focus on assessment. Carolyn Caffrey Gardner and Rebecca Halpern facilitated an enjoyably contentious discussion on assessment and critical praxis that encouraged us to not only question our personal and institutional assessment practices but also our motivations for conducting assessment. During the discussion Gr Keer posed a question to the room that I think has the potential to help us rethink and, in many cases, reshape our own relationship to assessment.

The Question

Within academia, why do so many librarians toe the assessment line? Why are so many of us assessment advocates and practitioners? 

I won’t say all librarians fall into the assessment advocate category, however, the preponderance of literature, professional development opportunities, courses, and grants related to library and information literacy assessment would seem to indicate that as a profession, academic librarians are (for the most part) IN IT. We often know our college or university’s assessment coordinator on a first name basis, can write learning outcomes in our sleep, and are sometimes the first ones to volunteer for institution-wide assessment work. While many of our colleagues outside the library issue the oft-heard hue and cry against number-crunching, standardized testing, and other stereotypical practices, we often try to defend assessment as a means of improving teaching and learning.

But why? Have we been effectively indoctrinated while in library school? Is it a meaningful practice to us? Do we see it’s value and understand it’s importance?

I think (like all things) there’s a multi-layered answer to Gr’s question that I’ll attempt to parse below.

The Noble Answer

This answer was one of the first responses issued during the conference discussion, and I have to say it’s one I’ve used on a number of occasions (as recently as one month ago).

Unlike traditional college and university faculty, we don’t give grades. We only see our students sporadically throughout the semester/quarter/term so we need some way to determine a) what we are learning and b) how we can improve as teachers. Practicing meaningful assessment give us the opportunity to determine both. 

With this answer assessment is portrayed as the practice of doing good. We might evaluate essays with IL rubrics, examine search exercise worksheets, or read through minute papers to help ourselves better serve our students and improve our own information literacy education programs. Assessment is about improving our professional practice and helping our students. This answer seems most in line with assessment philosophies found in professional development programs like ACRL’s Immersion Program.

The Practical Answer

We do it because we have to do it. 

Whether it’s statistics we need to report to ACRL, data we need to feed into our college’s assessment management system, or reporting we need to do to satisfy reaccreditation requirements, assessment is often the thing we all know we have to do but don’t really want to do. We don’t want the library to be singled out for failure, so we do what we have to do in order to keep in the higher-ups good graces.

Many of the faculty at my liberal arts college are deeply suspicious of assessment initiatives and would readily answer with this perfunctory response. It’s something higher education accrediting bodies are now requiring, so we’d best get to it in the most painless / easiest way possible.

The Answer Revealing an Ulterior Motive 

We do it to demonstrate the value of academic libraries within the teaching, learning, and research practices of our institutions. 

The Value of Academic Libraries Initiative’s Assessment in Action Program makes strong use of this answer. Through assessment, we can tell the story of our library. Spoiler alert: In that story, we are the hero. We are integral to everything our faculty, students, and staff do and we should be funded and respected accordingly. Yes, assessment is good for learning how to better serve our campus community, but it’s also really good for showing those in positions of power that we are, indeed, important.

The Answer Revealing Professional Insecurities


Depending on how it’s expressed, the “ulterior motive” answer can sometimes come across as librarians protesting a bit too much. On my more cynical days I wonder if our commitment to “meaningful” assessment practices is us sort of staking our claim in academia. Information literacy education and assessment is our “thing.” Being knowledgable in this area can make us experts on campus. We suddenly become the ones our colleagues turn to for help drafting learning outcomes, developing rubrics, or writing assessment plans.

I also can’t help but question whether assessment has become a scholarship default. For academic librarians published research is often a requirement of tenure, promotion, continuing appointment, or career advancement. Yet depending on where our graduate education takes place, we may not possess the intensive research methods knowledge and experience of our faculty peers. For many of us, conducting assessment and writing up our findings serves to validate our existence as teachers and scholars. Are we really doing assessment for the good of our students and institutions or for ourselves? Can we be doing both?

The Cultural Answer (a slight return to altruism) 

I shared my idea for this blog post with a colleague whose professional career started off in cataloging, and her answer to the assessment question surprised me. Her take on our profession’s assessment advocacy is informed by her experience in our profession as one in which we share information freely and encourage others to do the same. Librarians advocate making information available to others, so perhaps our strong interest in assessment is an extension of this value/philosophy. We want to know what our students are learning and we want to share that information with others in hopes that it will not only improve our own teaching and instruction programs, but those of others as well.

Extending this explanation, or perhaps digging down to its root, I suspect that we could also say that librarians are deeply curious people. Perhaps assessment is our attempt to satisfy our curiosity about teaching and learning? If so, do we run the risk of simplifying a complicated practice–educating students–by developing questions that will ultimately give us manageable answers? Or can we learn to be ok with the ambiguity that accompanies assessment practice?

The Non-Answer

On any given day I may feel any of the above responses more deeply than another, but it doesn’t change the fact that assessment is woven into my professional practice. What I seek to do then is to assess learning in ways that are personally meaningful to me, helpful to my library, and not alienating to my students. I think that in doing so I manage to satisfy the external pressures that so often force us to assess before we are ready to do so (and as a result, do it badly). I don’t want to be a slave to assessment or so inflexible to serendipitous opportunities for teaching and learning that I miss a chance to really connect with students because it’s not the result of a pre-determined learning outcome. The tension between assessment as requirement and assessment as meaningful practice still exists in my day-to-day work life.

If you get a chance, I highly encourage you to examine the questions Rebecca and Carolyn drafted for their discussion and perhaps try to answer them with your colleagues. I’d be interested in hearing your responses.

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Faculty-Librarian Gaps, Perceived and Actual

I sometimes feel as though when we talk about faculty-librarian collaboration in academia, the conversation starts to feel a little bit like Ghostbusters:

Dogs and Cats Living Together!!! Mass Hysteria!!!!!

Gale and Library Journal just released the results of a survey of approximately 1,000 academic librarians and faculty around the U.S. in their new report, Bridging the Librarian-Faculty Gap in the Academic Library. You can view a summary of the survey findings as an infographic, request a PDF of the full report and survey instruments, or read a short summary in Inside Higher Ed (if, like me, you loooooooove reading comment trolls).

On its surface, it’s kind of a bummer of a report. Here are some of the highlights (according to the infographic):

  • 98% of academic librarians wish for better communication with faculty, while only 45% of faculty feel the same.
  • 57% of faculty are more likely to say they coordinate with librarians, but only 31% of librarians say they coordinate with faculty.
  • 54% of faculty vs. 66% of librarians say their library does an excellent/above average job of developing collections in direct support of course curriculum.

It would seem, based on these results, that we want to talk to them more than they want to talk to us. In a word, that sucks. It makes me want to stop trying so hard. But I decided to look at the full report and examine the Academic Faculty Questionnaire in more detail before completely throwing in the towel.

What Questions are Being Asked?

In Question 4 faculty were asked “How essential is it for your campus library to provide the following services for you and your students?” 51% of faculty surveyed rated “instruction of students in information literacy” as a Very Essential service, while 34% of faculty rated it as Essential. How was this not one of the leading stats in the survey result summary??!?! About 70% of faculty state that they devote class time to teaching information literacy, but 51% state that they cover this themselves. I wonder why that number is so high, and if it might be an issue of librarians needing to better communicate the kinds of teaching we can do. I also noticed that the survey asked about faculty coordinating with librarians to address course reserves and acquisitions to meet curricular needs. That was the question that resulting in the 57% faculty coordinating with librarians stat. There was no question that asked about collaborating with librarians for instructional purposes, which I found strange. Additional questions focused on whether or not faculty created handouts that pointed to library resources or embed links to library resources in course of faculty websites. There was no question about whether or not faculty encourage students to consult librarians as a part of the research process.

I think this survey suffered from a lack of understanding of the role of the education/teaching/instruction librarians in an academic setting. There was a big emphasis on “communication and coordination” but not collaboration. So many of the questions focused on services and library resources, but few really delved into the teaching partnerships that are possible between librarians and faculty.

Why Do I Care?

As someone who just completed a major action research project examining the relationship between faculty-librarian collaboration and first year students’ information literacy abilities, I was struck by the plethora of literature in librarianship focused on growing these collaborative relationships and how difficult it can be to do so. It was interesting to note how important information literacy instruction was to faculty in this survey, and think that this is something we can build on. In informal conversation with departmental faculty colleagues so many of them express relief that librarians can address the intricacies of literature searching, the conceptual process of developing a research approach, and the use of basic research tools and services. Some colleagues initially have a very narrow view of what librarians can and do teach, but when presented with different options are eager to take advantage of our expertise.

I know that personally, my desire for greater collaboration with faculty stems from not having a classroom to call my own. Because I work at a school with no credit-bearing information literacy course offerings, I’m dependent on my colleagues for opportunities to teach students, opportunities that I know would benefit students who are struggling to meet the expectations of college-level research. I suspect that librarians who do teach credit-bearing courses suffer from less of the let-me-in-your-class angst that we as liaison librarians fight to overcome (let me know if I’m wrong, of course).

As I grow older and more comfortable with my role as a librarian in academia, I’ve begun letting go of some of the desperation to be included that I know I suffered from as an early-career librarian. Some of this is a result of experience. I feel more knowledgeable about information literacy education and pedagogy and more at-ease in a classroom setting. I still have plenty of self-doubt/impostor syndrome moments, but I’ve learned to let go of it a bit. I know that I have something to offer students and faculty who want to incorporate a research/information literacy component in their courses. I’m becoming better at understanding that there are some faculty who just aren’t interested in partnering with me, and that’s ok. I will still continue to do outreach to my liaison departments but I’m not going to spend my professional time chasing, pleading, or begging. I’m going to focus my energy where it will do the most good, which often means working with what I have and strengthening existing relationships.

Have you read the Gale-LJ survey? What was your reaction? What are the librarian-faculty dynamics like at your institution? 

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What First Year Students Discovered With EDS

Discovering Dinos

A Discovery by Denise Chan on Flickr

Like many of my colleagues, I resisted teaching our library’s discovery tool for the better part of a year. Despite its front-and-center presence on our library’s homepage, and the fact that students were using it on their own, I stubbornly resisted teaching OneSearch–our branding name for EDS–in favor of the catalog and databases. It was not my finest teaching hour. I’ll admit that much of my reluctance to include OneSearch in classes stemmed from not really wrapping my head around how it might help students better understand the research process in general and their research in particular.

My attitude changed last fall after I was asked to teach a class for a Comparative Politics course. The course was way interdisciplinary. To understand the situations they were researching, students needed to delve into historical, economic, and social issues in addition to political ones. Focusing on individual databases wasn’t going to cut it. Using OneSearch was a great way to frame our in-class conversations in terms of where information comes from and is published. Students found interesting research outside of traditional political science publications (some in the economics literature or in sociological texts) and were quite surprised by it!

Fast-forward to Earlier This Week

I wanted to continue teaching OneSearch, but this time I wanted to incorporate it into a course for first year students, specifically, a First Year Seminar (FYS). Being able to use OneSearch and understand what it searches is one of our revised information literacy learning outcomes for the FYS, so there’s no out for librarians who are reluctant to teach it anymore. It’s a must-do. That said, what is the best way to actually DO IT?

The class I taught yesterday was for a FYS that examine how culture and time influences treatment and social acceptance of individuals with mental illness. One of the first research assignments the students work on is a biographical presentation on an important figure in the history of psychiatry in the Western World. Students select from a list of historical figures (HF) provided by the professor, which range from Sigmund Freud to Melanie Klein to John Garcia. Of course, they have to do some research on their selected HF, which presents an excellent opportunity for information literacy instruction.

The Class

I started off the class by giving students a worksheet and giving them 1-2 minutes to write down their HF and everything they currently know about the person. Of course this varied from student-to-student (some knew nothing, others had a decent picture of the HF). Then I gave them about 3-5 minutes to find biographical information about their HF in whatever way was most comfortable to them. As they were searching I asked them to note the following:

  • What did you learn about your historical figure?
  • How did you find this information?
  • Are you happy with what you found and would you use it in your presentation?

Naturally, they all started at Google, but the places they ended up were all just different enough to spark an interesting discussion about what kinds of websites are more helpful than others and how comfortable they felt including the information they found online in their presentations.

After that I introduced OneSearch as a supplement to the kind of online searching they are all already doing, which was backed up by their professor who wanted to see at least 1-2 presentation references that came from the library’s resources. We all did a search together so that I could introduce OneSearch basics (limiting to the catalog, limiting to biographies), and we could talk a bit about the different types of information that were brought up in the search. I asked them to note what they saw in results and got answers ranging from journal articles to books to encyclopedia entries.

But I really wanted to give the students an opportunity to discover OneSearch on their own, so I gave them a good 10-15 minutes to do individual searching on their own HF, and asked them to answer the following questions as they did so (also on the worksheet):

  • Is there a particular result (or results) that look(s) really helpful? If so, write them below.
  • How does the information you found on OneSearch compare to the information you found at the beginning of class? Is it less or more helpful? Be honest! You won’t hurt my feelings, I promise.
  • What is still confusing to you about using OneSearch? What questions came up as you were searching?

Our discussion post-independent searching was excellent. The students had really specific questions about mechanical issues like getting books that showed up in their results from other libraries or accessing the full-text of a journal article, but they also brought up really interesting issues about information format. One student noted that the journal articles in her results didn’t really have much biographical information but some of them did mention research conducted by her HF. We then talked about why that might be the case and what kind of information journal articles typically convey. It also gave us the opportunity to discuss how those articles might still be helpful in a biographical profile (mentioning their research interests). Another student found that her HF had such a common name (John Garcia) that she had to enter in a different term (that she picked up from web-searching!)–food aversion–in conjunction with his name to narrow down her results. This was also a great way to discuss using information from non-academic web sources to supplement research in academic library resources. Some students discovered fantastic sources for their presentation and others were way more fruitful in their web searches, which again presented an opportunity to talk about why that might be the case (and when it makes more sense to use open-web sources for research).

There was a lot of class participation and emphasis from their professor (which I always appreciate). It’s interesting to note the kinds of topics that came out searching in this tool that I don’t think would have been brought out by only focusing on the catalog or on a specific database. The whole experience has made me more confident about teaching with discovery tools for first year students, and I’m curious:

What has your experience been teaching with discovery tools for first year students? Upper-level students?