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Information Literacy: A Shared Responsibility
by Lynn Cameron

Lynn Cameron and Mary Kimsey

How do JMU students learn essential information literacy skills, such as being able to find scholarly journal articles and evaluate questionable web sites?  Whose responsibility is it to make sure students learn these skills that provide a foundation for coursework, as well as professional careers and active citizenship later on? At JMU the responsibility is shared between the faculty and the library. The library provides a two-tiered instruction program to help students develop skills. Faculty make assignments that require students to find, evaluate, and effectively use information related to the content of their courses, providing many opportunities for students to practice and strengthen their information-seeking skills. By collaborating, faculty and librarians can design assignments and information literacy instruction that can effectively teach students these skills.

Soon after arriving on campus, first-year students complete Go for the Gold, a web-based program for basic information-seeking skills, as an integral part of General Education Cluster One.  This program introduces students to basic skills such as database searching, evaluation of sources, and ethical use of information. Students must demonstrate mastery of these skills by passing the Information-Seeking Skills Test by then end of the first year. Cluster One professors reinforce the skills by making assignments that require students to gather information for projects.

Once students begin taking courses in the major, they will often attend a course-related library instruction session arranged by their professor and taught by the liaison librarian for the department. This session focuses on the skills and strategies particular to the major. Sometimes the session will include time for a hands-on search of reference sources, catalogs, and databases. Afterward, liaison librarians will often meet with students individually for consultations on their topics. Course-related instruction by a librarian is most effective when the professor has made an assignment that has an information-seeking component, giving students an immediate need for the skills.

The Association of College and Research Libraries has identified five skills that comprise information literacy. Students should be able to:

  • identify needed information

  • find needed information

  • evaluate the quality

  • effectively utilize information

  • observe ethical use of information

These areas are defined more specifically in the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Professors can set the stage for development of these skills by designing assignments that give dual emphasis to course objectives and information literacy skills. One way to accomplish this dual emphasis is to ask students to develop an end product, such as a paper, a speech, a brochure, or a debate that relates to course content, while at the same time building into the assignment attention to the research process with checkpoints along the way. Professors may want to ask students to keep a research log of catalogs and databases consulted. It also helps if the professor counts the quality of the research strategy and the sources found as part of the student’s grade.

Professors modifying existing assignments or designing new ones that give greater emphasis to information literacy may wish to collaborate with their liaison librarian.   In fact, a faculty member and librarian working together to design an assignment can make a dynamic duo. The faculty member has a clear idea of what they want the students to learn and what kind of project they want the student to complete, and the liaison librarian can help weave in strategies and reference sources relating to the research process. The librarian can also test out the assignment, make sure the instructions are clear, check to see if the library has the needed sources, and give guidance and instruction to students on how to do research. In addition to giving students a chance to practice information literacy skills, a well-designed assignment with multiple checkpoints can prevent plagiarism or at least make it harder.

Dr. Mary Kimsey, Professor of Geographic Science, and I collaborated on an assignment for Cultural Geography that incorporates information literacy skills. One goal of Dr. Kimsey’s course is to help students learn about various culture groups of the world and how they fit into the modern world. The purpose of this particular assignment is to give members of the class an opportunity to learn more about one threatened culture group by researching aspects of that group during the semester. At the same time students gain practice in information literacy skills by:

  1. using library reference sources to gather basic and statistical information
  2. using research databases to find articles in magazines and newspapers
  3. using the Internet to find high quality web sites
  4. giving a presentation and developing a briefing paper on the information gathered
  5. showing data in a table
  6. using information ethically by citing sources

For this semester-long assignment, students turn in six one-page assignments: 1. a background paper; 2. a discussion of three to five aspects of the culture that are very different from their own; 3. a briefing paper on a problem facing the culture; 4. population data presented in a table; 5. a briefing paper on livelihoods; and 6. a choropleth map, based on economic data in an Excel table, accompanied by a paper discussing spatial patterns evident in the data.  Every paper must be accompanied by a list reference sources. These assignments are spaced out during the semester, giving students multiple opportunities to find and use information. Providing a list of key reference sources and databases helps students go beyond Google to seek out scholarly and reliable sources. The assignment counts as 18% of the course grade. See an example of a full assignment here.

Feedback from students who tried the assignment for the first time in Fall 2004, was very positive, according to Dr. Kimsey. They commented that doing this assignment was a good way to learn more about a threatened culture and improve research skills at the same time. From Dr. Kimsey’s perspective, the brief assignments were a good learning experience for the students, and they were not too time-consuming to grade.  

I invite any faculty member who is interested in incorporating information literacy into an assignment to contact your liaison librarian and collaborate. If you are willing to share the outcome, we welcome the opportunity to hear about it and share it in the Knowledge Edge.

The following checklist may be helpful in developing assignments:

Information Literacy Assignment Checklist

Does the assignment:

___relate to course objectives

___specify information literacy learning objectives

___require the student to find and use information to generate a product (paper, speech, brochure, debate etc. )

___provide guidance or instruction on sources to consult and search strategy

___have a clear set of instructions

Does the student:

___identify needed information

___find needed information

___evaluate the quality

___effectively utilize information

___observe ethical use of information


  • making an assignment that frustrates students.
  • making an assignment for which the library has no resources.
  • having every student in the class research exactly the same topic.

Be sure to:

  • test out the assignment before use.
  • encourage students to ask the librarians for help.

E-mail comments and questions to:

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