Practical Approaches to Information Literacy for the First-Year Student

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As research on gaps in college preparedness continues to emerge, fueling debates in both academic and public forums, most postsecondary institutions have taken some measures to assist undergraduates in developing a higher degree of information and digital literacy, and to prepare students better for conducting academic research.

To learn where you can see the highest return on these efforts, we turned this week to Anne-Marie Deitering, the Franklin McEdward Professor for Undergraduate Learning Initiatives at Oregon State University. A forward thinker on integrating information literacy into different stages in the student experience, Deitering offers the following tips for her peers at other colleges and universities.

Integration Beyond Research-Based Coursework

“A truism among our colleagues pursuing information literacy efforts is that the best place to integrate information literacy is in courses with research assignments,” Deitering notes, “and that the best place to embed concepts and content on information literacy throughout the curriculum is to embed it where students are already motivated to do research and access library resources.” In this model, academic libraries often hold an information literacy or library services tutorial for students, or — in the case of a few institutions — embed a librarian within the research course.

However, Deitering suggests that in relying only on integration into research-heavy courses, you may miss some of your best early opportunities to help students develop information literacy.

For example, many first-year programs now include a study skills or academic introduction course. “One thing I’ve found,” Deitering notes, “is that you can do a very general introduction to library services that’s interactive and embedded in a first-year study skills course. This doesn’t necessarily have to be attached to a research activity or assignment. Because these students are taking a course where they are picking up study skills for future classes, they are primed to learn information literacy skills, too.”

Taking a More Thorough Look at What’s Needed

Because the first-year programming now common at many institutions opens up new opportunities for developing information literacy, Deitering recommends conducting research on the information literacy needs of first-year students:

  • Understand what first-year students need to know — what skills do they come to campus with?
  • Find out who they are — what are their demographics, and do the needs of varying student populations differ?
  • What information will they already be receiving during their first year, and what opportunities exist to integrate information literacy development?

To conduct this research, Deitering suggests:

  • Develop relationships with faculty who work closely with first-year students — “these may not be the same faculty with whom you already have partnerships, if different faculty teach upperclassmen and first-year students at your institution”
  • Connect with offices in the student affairs division that are already routinely collecting data on the needs of first-year students
  • If first-year orientation for new students includes a survey on college preparedness, add questions about information literacy to that survey (for example, inquire about students’ past experience with research projects and with their high school library)

“Get to know the group or groups that are creating the first-year experience. Understand their vision for it and really participate in the conversation about what that vision and about what first-year student success is.”
Anne-Marie Deitering, Oregon State University

Deitering emphasizes that it’s important to look at the specific needs of your student body — not just at national trends or at what has worked at peer institutions (although these items are certainly important to investigate). “This is about knowing your student body and your faculty,” Deitering suggests.

Here’s an example. Oregon State University’s academic library includes a collaborative learning center staffed with tutors; at one point, the academic success office wanted to add a table in the center devoted to supplemental instruction. Tutors would attend all sessions of classes with a high drop/fail/withdraw (DFW) rate, with the students; students would sign a contract that they would attend tutoring sessions, and then meet with the tutors outside of class.

“During Oregon State University’s research into what was working at other institutions,” Deitering recalls, “those leading the project were advised to schedule tutoring sessions during the evening, never during the day. However, they found that at our university, students attend these sessions heavily during the day. Know what will work at your campus.”

Empower Academic Advisers

Once you have data on the needs of your first-year student population, Deitering recommends going well beyond just offering tutorials. “There are professionals on your campus — particularly academic advisers — who devote much of their time to supporting at-risk students,” Deitering notes. “Often, students are more likely to bring their most pressing questions to these individuals, rather than to library services. But advisers’ grasp of library resources and services is often based on their own work, and will be both idiosyncratic and personal.”

Deitering advises making it a priority to provide academic advisers with resources relevant to first-year students. Because advisers already have established relationships with the students you want to reach, ensuring that they have the information at their fingertips to answer student questions will help to make sure students have access to those answers at the moment of academic need.

Focus on Services

Additionally, when you do have librarians in a class introducing the academic library to students, particularly first-year students, Deitering suggests focusing on introducing students to library services, not to information resources.

While counterintuitive, this shift allows you to achieve a critical aim. “The ins and outs of accessing a database aren’t intrinsically engaging,” Deitering comments. “But by introducing students to the services the academic library offers — study rooms, course reserves, reference librarians — and then having students explore those services and report back, you get students thinking about the library as a resource that will contribute to their academic success, and thinking about the reference librarians as partners in their academic success.”

Done well, this approach can serve to do more than just alert students to the additional skills they need to develop in order to conduct effective academic research; it can invite students into a relationship with the professionals who can help them develop and hone those skills over the course of their studies.