Overwhelmed: Building Information Literacy

August 22, 2018 Diane Rubino

“They bring me information from [gulp] Wikipedia,” the panelist said, disbelief audible in her voice. This memorable comment came from an employers’ panel during which would-be hiring managers expressed concerns about recent graduates.

I tell this story in nearly every class. I want to convey the importance of information veracity for coursework and future bosses. Everyone nods. Digital natives know the Internet is a mixed bag of truth and lies. Yet many of those same students submit homework based on sketchy resources.


When I started teaching, I was surprised at the odd collection of commercial sites, unverifiable blogs, and, yes, Wikipedia that passed for an academic citation. There are cases when any of these sources could be appropriate, with careful consideration. However, the careful consideration part was underwhelming.

I learned that students were unlikely to vet their sources carefully. The Information Superhighway reinforced their natural confirmation bias. If they could easily verify their beliefs and the site looked okay at first glance, their ideas must be accurate—or so they thought.

I realized the students were not necessarily being careless. Instead, they had lackluster information literacy skills.

Information literacy, or the ability to know when research is needed, then finding, evaluating, and using that knowledge correctly, is a complex concept. I’m unable to tackle a lengthy treatise on the subject either in school or this short essay. But I can share my classroom experiences as well as resources that helped my students.

Rather than leaving their research process to chance, I built some speed bumps on the Information Superhighway to encourage reflection.

Don't Assume, Clarify

Don’t assume students will work from reliable resources or are fully information literate. If you want a certain type/quality of information, say so. I add language like this to rubrics and syllabi: Resources cited must be suitable for a professional/academic environment. No Wikis, –Pedias, Huffington Post, or blogs you’ve stumbled across. Be prepared to explain why the source you selected is reliable. This text alone, however, was insufficient to achieve my goals.

By the time you, dear reader, got to university, you’d been schooled in research basics. You were taught how to use the library, the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, the Library of Congress classification system, and so much more. But a librarian from an elite institution told me that some students don’t even know how to use a call number to locate a resource. Perhaps because they were unschooled on the basics, my students seemed to avoid the library, eliminating an essential evaluation tool.

Reinforce. Repeat. Remind.

Because Google is so tantalizingly easy, the idea of looking beyond the search engine results needs to be reinforced repeatedly.

I’ve tried a few approaches to augment my call for reliable, well-documented sources, one of which was a short video on the topic. I worried it might be too simplistic, but the experience turned out to be an “a ha moment” for some. This fine example from Seminole State College also mentions research attribution, another common point of confusion. I used to get lists of URLs instead of correctly written citations. This made my vetting process more difficult. Now I instruct classes to use an online citation generator like CitationMachine.

Early in the semester, I hold a librarian-led session in the library. I learn something new every time. But my students reported feeling overwhelmed by the amount of specialized search strategies. So I began asking for a narrow focus on just one or two relevant tools, like LexisNexis® and one specialized EBSCO® database.

I recently invited my school’s Information Literacy Librarian to teach a session. This was a revelation for me. He focused on fundamentals by providing evaluation problems like this multiple choice question: “If you want to locate good journal articles on a specific topic, which of these is the best way to start?” I realized the semester’s session needed to be re-calibrated again with more attention on information literacy and less on specialized tools.

Peerless Google

Last semester I explained that the first thing I would do to evaluate mid-project progress was to review bibliography. Yet even with a warning, guidelines, and extra coaching, I found myself having countless conversations like this:

Me:  Why did you use this as a resource?

Student: It had information about my topic.

Me:  Arggghhh.

The message I communicated was steamrollered by Google’s ease. It was only during these one-on-one sessions that I was able to coax students into developing a better bibliography.

I also learned that part of my work was to leverage, rather than replace, the existing environment. If Wikipedia is the first place students look, they needed to be reminded to, at minimum, consider the whole article and to review the references to identify more substantial resources. A colleague also has some success with in-class, group evaluations. Students share their reference lists and they collectively discuss and evaluate the appropriateness of each title. **

Fortunately, I work with colleagues who traffic in information veracity, so the work I do is in step with program values. Yet I’ve met instructors who believe my extra safeguards are ridiculous—and tell me so. Other professors have different ideas about what’s appropriate for their class. And of course, students have their own insights about veracity. These differing perspectives contribute to the confusion about what resource is acceptable.

But after teaching for a while, I understand more about what my students need and have collated the strategies above to ferret out the most egregious information-literacy errors. If students walk out of my class with a small dose of additional knowledge about, and tools for, vetting sources, I count that as a win.

*I’m grateful to American University of Bulgaria’s supportive Information Literacy Librarian Krasimir Spasov who developed an information literacy section for my students.

** This exercise is the idea of my former colleague, the American University of Bulgaria Professor in Writing and Literature Sean Homer.

Photo credit: Diane Rubino


About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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