Information Literacy: Improving Student Research Skills in a Wikipedia World

When you assign your students to write a paper, do they know where to start? Upperclassmen surely do, but what about freshmen? Left to their own devices, they’ll likely turn to Google and Wikipedia as their main research tools, and may never even set foot in the library if they can help it.

As more and more accreditation bodies require information literacy as part of a student’s education skill set, faculty and librarians are teaming up to ensure students are able to locate and evaluate information effectively. In the online seminar Faculty and Librarians as Partners: Collaborations That Work, Kari Mofford, co-chair of the New England Library Instruction Group, and Marilyn Steinberg, science librarian at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, provided tips on how to integrate information literacy into assignments, and make it part of your assessment strategy.

Although a library scavenger hunt is a common way for faculty to introduce first-year students to library resources, Mofford and Steinberg recommend against it. Asking students to find the seventh word on page 777 of volume 7 of the Encyclopedia Britannica is viewed by students as busy work, and has no real relevance to the course. Instead, a more effective way to teach good library skills is to invite a librarian to talk with your class and demonstrate how to locate sources that are appropriate to the specific course or assignment at hand.

With the proliferation of information sources, included information that’s unfiltered or biased, it’s more important than ever for students to understand not only the difference between a primary and secondary source and when it’s appropriate to use one or the other, but the questions that you need to ask when evaluating the trustworthiness of a source, Steinberg says.

For students to be information literate they need to be able to locate, evaluate, and use the information properly and ethically. Some of the ways faculty can help students develop their information literacy include:

  • Integrating information literacy into the syllabus.
  • Insisting that students keep a search journal, including the databases they used, terms they searched, and which terms generated good results and which terms did not.
  • Educating students on plagiarism and the ethics surrounding it.
  • Implementing strict plagiarism standards.
  • Requiring students to use several different types of sources.

Mofford also encourages faculty to think about the sources they use on a regular basis – including professional journals, reference books and websites – and recommend them to students as a way of bringing real-world relevance to different sources.