Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 9, Issue 2

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Crisis in Information Literacy

Ann Jabro, Robert Morris University

Jacqueline Corinth, Robert Morris University


Ann Jabro, Ph.D, is a professor of communications, and Jacqueline Corinth, MSLIS is an assistant professor of learning resources and a public services librarian. 


Colleges and universities are integrating information literacy components into current curricula to better prepare students for the global marketplace. Students attending Robert Morris University are required to successfully complete five communications courses, that include elements of information literacy, as well as communication intensive courses in their major. Students’ inability to successfully complete an upper-level research assignment instigated collaboration between a librarian and the professor. As a result, students can more successfully identify, retrieve, and evaluate information when they receive training that involves application exercises.


Despite numerous exposures and application exercises to the fundamentals of information retrieval, analysis, and synthesis, students’ were unsuccessful in their attempts to complete information content designed tasks.   This article discusses a unified effort initiated to abate a series of problems related to information literacy.  Specifically, an assistant professor of learning resources and a public services librarian (librarian) and a professor of communications (professor) joined forces to devise effective strategies to better manage the crisis. Students’ inabilities to apply information literacy skills to a specific area of investigation were identified as a crisis.  The term crisis is strong, but is used in this discussion because despite the development of reference materials to assist students with their tasks, and 15-credits of on-going application exercises during freshman and sophomore years, their appeared to be a “disconnect” between content and application.


We begin our discussion with background on information literacy and the five-course sequence at Robert Morris University (RMU) designed to cultivate information literacy skills. The librarian offers perspective on how library resources have been utilized (perhaps underutilized) through the instruction of these courses and preparation of faculty. The professor describes an assignment required in a capstone, skills-intensive course in media management that cultivated awareness that some students had not achieved information literacy. The collaborators share their recommendations as to how future crisis can be avoided using early and on-going collaboration between librarians and faculty.


Information Literacy

The term information literacy has been known to librarians prior to the publication of the American Libraries Association’s (ALA) Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report in 1989. The report just made the whole thing official. In it the authors drafted a definition of and goals for information literacy that continues to impact higher education today:


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. Producing such a citizenry will require that schools and colleges appreciate and integrate the concept of information literacy into their learning programs and that they play a leadership role in equipping individuals and institutions to take advantage of the opportunities inherent within the information society (American Library Association's Presidential Committee on Information Literacy, 1989).


Librarians are experienced in all manners of information retrieval and were one of the first professions to notice the gap that was forming between humans and machines as information resources became increasingly available in only electronic formats. These new mediums required additional skills to first locate, evaluate, and then understand the information contained within them. Academic librarians in particular became disturbed by this disconnect. They determined that the placement of information literacy instruction within higher education made sense and began working on a common set of criteria to better accomplish this goal. In 2000, The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), and division of ALA, published the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education to “provide a framework for assessing the information literate individual” (p. 5).


The ACRL document is comprised of five standards that the information literate student demonstrates:

Standard #1 - Know: the nature and extent of the information needed.

Standard #2 - Access: accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.

Standard #3 - Evaluate: evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.

Standard #4 - Use: individually or as a member of a group, use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.

Standard #5 -Ethics: understand many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally (ACRL, 2003).


Each standard contains a number of performance indicators that detail exactly what skills the students should learn in this standard and the related outcomes that describe possible evidence of learning.



Standard: The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.

Performance Indicator: The information literate student selects the most appropriate investigative methods or information retrieval systems for accessing the needed information.

Outcomes Include:

A. Identifies appropriate investigative methods (e.g., laboratory experiment, simulation, fieldwork)

B. Investigates benefits and applicability of various investigative methods

C. Investigates the scope, content, and organization of information retrieval systems

D. Selects efficient and effective approaches for accessing the information needed  from the investigative method or information retrieval system (ACRL, 2003).


In more recent years, the call for information literacy at the college level extended beyond the boundaries of the academic library when the general campus community adopted information literacy as a mission in higher education. This was due in no small part to the regional higher education accrediting agencies that began to list information literacy instruction as a necessary component for reaccredidation. RMU falls under the regional jurisdiction of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.  In 2003, the ACRL standards were adapted by Middle States for their “Developing Research & Communication Skills: Guidelines for Information Literacy in the Curriculum.”


Communication Skills Courses

The foundation for student information literacy at RMU was established through the University’s award-winning Communication Skills Program. This program consists of nine courses that stress “reading and interpreting, writing, speaking, listening, making presentations using appropriate software, developing skills in cross cultural and multicultural group dynamics, and applying rhetorical skills.” (Robert Morris University, n.d.) Although put into effect before the recent information literacy push - this program dovetails nicely with the aforementioned criteria for information literacy developed by the ACRL and regional accrediting associations. Indeed, information literacy has become a concern and aim for the faculty teaching in the RMU Communication Skills Program. Just recently the department has partnered with the RMU Library to participate in an initial information literacy assessment through Project SAILS to better ascertain the information literacy level of the current RMU student body.


Communication Skills and Information Literacy

Most of the library-originated information literacy instruction for RMU occurs in the bibliographic instruction format for the various communication skills classes. Bibliographic instruction sessions, also called library instruction or library research sessions, are presentations done by library faculty for specific classes to teach research skills. Many communication skills instructors bring their freshmen and sophomores to the library for research instruction as part of a specific communication skills course. The librarian assigned that particular presentation will converse with the instructor concerning presentation content and will tailor the presentation to the instructor’s specifications. Past bibliographic instruction sessions have included such topics as: using the library catalog, performing basic and advanced database searches, determining popular vs. scholarly publications, and evaluating Web sites, as well as demonstrations of relevant electronic databases. Students then use these skills to complete assignments for the particular course.


Although helpful for the short term, these isolated one-shot library presentations need to be given a larger context and reinforced to contribute to a student’s deep learning. For bibliographic instruction to really take hold in a student’s memory and become a true component of information literacy instruction, the university instructors must have the student use these skills to complete a variety of research assignments throughout their undergraduate education. For this, librarian and the teaching faculty must collaborate to create authentic learning experiences for the student.


Capstone Course in Skills Intensive Program

RMU integrated authentic learning experiences for information literacy skills and major content areas through the creation of “skills intensive capstone courses” in students’ specific area of study. Faculty who wish to have a content specific course designated “skills intensive” must prepare a course proposal that demonstrates to a review committee that the course integrates information literacy skills in a specific content area. Upon review of a proposal, a vote is taken. One course that passed the test was Media Management, which is one of several capstone courses in the communications major.


Media Management   

The instructor designed three projects, which required extensive research, synthesis, analysis, and writing.  The written component was then collapsed to a 50-minute oral presentation. The market analysis featured an internal and external analysis covering twelve discrete content areas of a media organization or conglomeration. The assignment was multi-faceted and involved the following: coordination of teams, group graded generation of a proposal, individually graded compilation of a research portfolio, individually graded research and writing of individual content sections, group graded coordination of group project, group graded oral presentation of written findings, and individually graded critique of the written and oral presentations and group experience. After students selected teammates with whom to work, they negotiated the media entity for investigation and selected separate sections of the internal (history, consumers, competition, suppliers, market intermediaries, distributors) and external (demographic, societal, economic, political, cultural, regulatory) environments for individual investigation. The single greatest indicator for success with this project is mastery of skill#1: know.  If the students know where to obtain information and how to use the information, the task is very simple.


Research Portfolio

As the instructor prepared the students for the assignment, she assessed their information literacy abilities with a simple survey designed to ascertain knowledge of and comfort with information retrieval skills and adequate familiarity of RMU’s on-line resources. Few students indicated they had no experience with using the library and the majority indicated they possessed above average information retrieval abilities. The instructor was aware that certain instructors used the services of the librarians to present the research units in the skills courses, other instructors taught the units themselves. Thus, the instructor drafted a list of references that would direct students to references necessary to complete the assignment satisfactorily.


In an effort to ward off plagiarism, model time management skills, and enhance appropriate paper writing strategies, students were asked to compile their research and subject it to review by the instructor; creating a graded research portfolio. A grading rubric was provided that identified a point distribution for the following areas: ability to retrieve and select appropriate peer-reviewed and popular sources, and identification of areas where the research needed enhancement. A major portion of the grade was devoted to the relevancy of the research to the paper topic, as well as the likelihood that the student would be able to complete the assignment based on the research retrieved to date. 


Crisis Identification

This simple task turned out to be an immense commitment of time, effort, and individualized instruction. Almost 50% of the research portfolios did not earn passing grades on the first effort. This prompted closer analysis of the process and the instruction. More than 300 research portfolios and grading rubrics were analyzed to identify student weaknesses. The results suggest the following: 1) students didn’t read the reference handouts, which created an inability to demonstrate information literacy skill #1:  knowledge, as it was obvious that students’ familiarity and comfort with conducting broad data retrieval efforts using multiple databases was limited.  2) As a result of a lack of familiarity with the potential references, information literacy skill #2: awareness was not demonstrated.  For example, students didn’t distinguish between popular and peer-reviewed sources and their research presented no indication of depth knowledge. 3) Students were looking to news stories and company-generated web sites, rather then primary research on the topic, which supports a deficiency with standard #3: evaluation.  It should also be noted that the students who earned the grade of passing or higher tended to have minimal information retrieval problems and tended to seek confirmation from the teacher or librarian that their research was correct.


Small Talk Leads to Big Ideas

The professor and the librarian were exchanging pleasantries one day, when the conversation drifted to the media management assignment. The librarian discussed the number of students who were physically visiting the library seeking assistance.  The professor shared the research portfolio grading trends and was disgruntled.  She explained how much time she was spending with students conducting one-on-one training sessions about how to collect research to satisfy the requirements of the assignment. The librarian also shared similar stories.  It was determined that a unified effort was necessary, to better prepare students to approach and execute the assignment successfully. The unified effort would also empower the professor and the librarian to maintain on-going dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches. It appeared that Bloom’s Taxonomy (1964) or learning domains of cognition and attitude were being addressed in the skills courses, but the domain of psychomotor or manual skills acumen was insufficient.  Thus, a new strategy needed to be developed to enhance student learning and application of information literacy skills.



The librarian prepared a detailed handout that addressed and directed students to the specific aspects of the market analysis based on her numerous encounters with different students. The professor distributed research portfolios to share with students.  She also incorporated an in-class demonstration of how to approach collecting research for different aspects of the assignment; particular attention was given to peer-reviewed sources and how to use the information contained in those references. Based on this experience, we have generated our “Best Practices in Collaboration.”


Best Practices in Collaboration

Know: Solicit input from the Librarian before and while you are designing the task. 

Access: Become familiar with the repertoire of references the library owns, is licensed to use, and/or has access to through electronic databases and interlibrary loan. 

Evaluate:  Learn what resources are available through cooperative agreements with other information providers and what process must be followed to access this information. 

Use: Make an appointment with the librarian and show him or her finished tasks.       Together, discuss expectations and identify potential shortcomings.

Ethics: Monitor student achievement. 


If the task is compartmentalized correctly and appropriate resources are generated to guide the students, they should be successful in their endeavors.  If not, the professor and the librarian need to examine, refine, and redo. The suggestions for successful collaboration are congruent with the five standards of information literacy.  As such, we concur that preparing students to be successful citizens of the world is directly linked to our ability to ascertain what we know about our fields, and determine what information is available to better inform us about our respective areas of expertise. As collaborators, these conversations serve to generate an on-going redefinition of our personal information literacy based on the plethora of resources available on a daily basis.



While the initial data were without scientific basis many students have offered their observations about the superior quality of learning and enriched information literacy skills they honed while members of the class. Furthermore, students acknowledge that they thought they understood how to identify, retrieve and evaluate information prior to taking the course, but they didn’t realize how much more information was yet to be tapped - “I considered myself to be a very bright and information savvy senior until I took this course.  I have learned so much about how to find and use different types of information.  I know that this was a valuable experience that will help me throughout my life.” Today, the professor distributes a thoroughly planned and designed reference handout generated by the librarian to introduce students to the voluminous array of reference materials that could influence students’ research choices. She uses in-class demonstrations to explicate how certain references will be used to satisfy key components of the project and provides students with research portfolios compiled from previous semesters to review. More students are experiencing less frustration with the research-gathering component of the project.  They may spend time in the library working with the reference librarians to ensure they are acquiring correct data for the project, rather then asking how to begin the process. The professor and librarian converse regularly in order to ascertain additional research ideas and approaches that could further improve the project.  We learned that students who possess the knowledge and attitude for learning aren’t completely successful without the psychomotor or skills aspect in tact. The collaboration between the library and professor has created a discipline-specific information literacy rich course that builds on the more general communication skills courses the students have already completed. This inclusion of information literacy components throughout the students’ academic careers through the use of authentic research assignments promotes the kind of deep learning students require to succeed in the world today.



1. American Library Association's Presidential Committee on Information Literacy (1989). Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report. Retrieved February 28, 2005 from  

2. Association of College & Research Libraries (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago, Illinois: American Library Association.  

3. Association of College & Research Libraries (2003). Standards Toolkit. Retrieved February 28, 2005 from 

4. Bengamin S. Bloom, Bertram B. Mesia, and David R. Krathwohl (1964). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (two vols: The Affective Domain & The Cognitive Domain). New York: David McKay. 

5. Robert Morris University. Communication Skills Program. Retrieved February 28, 2005 from