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Integrating Information Literacy into the Major

by Lynn Cameron

Editor's note:  JMU Libraries and the Center for Faculty Innovation are cosponsoring a 3-day workshop on “Information Literacy for Teaching and Learning:  A workshop for Faculty and Librarians” to be held on May 9-11, 2006.  Facilitating the workshop will be Dr. Terry Mech, Library Director at King’s College Library in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and a noted author and presenter on information literacy.  The workshop will provide faculty and their liaison librarians with an opportunity to collaborate on revising a course or developing an assignment that supports student development of information literacy in the major.  Participating faculty will receive a $1,000 stipend.  Faculty will receive an invitation to apply at the beginning of Spring semester, 2006. 

Faculty and librarians share the goal of developing students who are able to find, evaluate and effectively use information – and use it ethically.  This set of skills, known as information literacy, forms the foundation for high quality coursework at JMU, active citizenship, effective job performance, and lifelong learning.  In fact, information literacy is a key outcome for higher education. 


In JMU’s nationally recognized information literacy program, basic information-seeking skills are integrated into the General Education curriculum as a formal requirement.  First-year students complete Go for the Gold, a web-based tutorial, and course-related assignments that require them to find and use information.  All first-year students must then demonstrate competence by passing the Information-Seeking Skills Test (ISST).  The skills students learn in General Education are transferable; students have opportunities to apply the search strategies and evaluation skills they learned as they move through General Education.  When they begin to take courses in the major, however, they need to move beyond the basic skills all college graduates should know to a new level - discipline-specific skills. 


Student researchEach major has a unique set of information literacy skills that are important to the field.  Psychology majors, for example, need to be able to conduct a review of primary research on a topic.  They need to be able to evaluate the research design of a particular study.  Art history majors, on the other hand, need to locate works of art and find criticism of them.  They also need to use interdisciplinary sources to understand the context of a work of art.  Chemistry majors need to locate chemical and physical properties of substances and find references for reactions of compounds and chemical transformations, as well as conduct a search of the primary literature on a chemistry topic.  Chemistry majors would not have been exposed to these specific skills in General Education.  Professional organizations in some disciplines have defined the set of skills appropriate for their field of study.  The Association of College and Research Libraries maintains a web site that provides links to information literacy standards and curricula developed by organizations in the disciplines. 


The JMU library liaison program provides every academic department with a librarian who will collaborate with faculty to help students develop information literacy skills in the major.  The librarians provide course-related library instruction, develop guides to research, and create web pages that support student development of the set of skills needed in the field.  One strategy that makes this collaboration especially fruitful is to target a required, research-oriented course for assignments and instruction.  Following are a few examples of faculty and liaison librarians collaborating to insure majors learn information literacy skills important to their field in a required course.


Health Sciences – Students majoring in Health Sciences take HTH 151, Foundations of the Health Sciences, which is intended to be the first course in the major.  Faculty make assignments that require students to find and use information related to course goals. The librarian provides instruction to all sections, giving students a uniform introduction to sources and strategies in the field.  The librarian then makes and grades an assignment that requires students to find and evaluate two web sites using a 14-point scale.  The librarian is available for individual consultations as student begin working on projects.


Business - All Business majors are required to take COB 300, a gateway course.  Faculty make assignments that require students to work in small groups to gather essential information for creating a business plan.  The Business librarian makes a presentation to all sections of this course and makes herself available to meet with the small groups by appointment to help them when they have difficulty.


History - History majors are introduced to information literacy competencies in their field in History 395, a required seminar course designed to help majors develop basic skills in historical research and writing.  Faculty require students to complete a “research trail” assignment which exposes them to a wide variety of specialized sources that are key to the field.  The liaison librarian for History provides instruction accompanied by a handout listing key reference sources and databases in history.  She then provides individual assistance by appointment.


Communication Studies - In Communication Studies, the curriculum has two or more points where students learn the tools and strategies for finding information in the field.  Communication Studies majors take SCOM 280, Introduction to Communication Research.  The liaison librarian delivers instruction to all sections of this course and then again in several upper division courses, providing students with an opportunity to hone and extend the skills they learned in 280.


In all of these examples of how information literacy is incorporated into the major, the faculty member makes an assignment that requires the students to find, evaluate, and use information related to course goals, and the librarian provides instruction and support.  This seems to be an effective model.  It is not enough for faculty to give students an assignment with no guidance on how to conduct an effective search.  This can result in confusion, rather than learning.   Neither is it enough for a faculty member to bring a class to the library for instruction without an assignment that is related to course content.  This approach may seem meaningless to students.  When information literacy skills are introduced in a required course, all students in the major have an opportunity to learn the skills and practice them in a project, presentation, or writing assignment.  If this course is taken early in the major, these skills will be used again and again for research assignments in other courses.  By the time students graduate, they will have a solid foundation in basic skills from their first year at JMU and in skills specific to the major.  They will go out into the world prepared to find, evaluate, and effectively use information in their professional and personal lives.


JMU Libraries is committed to collaborating with teaching faculty to provide students with opportunities to learn information literacy skills in the major.  The upcoming workshop will be an excellent opportunity to integrate information literacy into the major, laying a foundation of research skills that will be useful for graduate school or work in the profession.  



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