Teaching & Learning Resource Center

Information Literacy: Concepts and Teaching Strategies

Female student on a laptop surrounded by papers

Are your students drowning in information? Can they spot misinformation and "fake news?" With a plethora of information available at their fingertips, information literacy skills have never been more critical.

You have likely heard of information literacy but may be unsure how to define it. You may have questions such as: Is information literacy important for my students? What learning bottlenecks might students experience related to information literacy? How can I effectively help my students to develop their information literacy?  

This guide defines information literacy, outlines core information literacy concepts, identifies common information literacy-related challenges that students may face, and provides teaching strategies and activities aimed at helping you to incorporate information literacy into your courses.  

Defining Information Literacy 

The term information literacy has been used for over 40 years, with various definitions proposed during this period. In 2016, the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) published the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and included the following definition:  

Information literacy is the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning. 

In other words, information literacy involves an understanding of how information is created, accessed, shared, and valued and the abilities and mindset necessary to be able to locate, evaluate, use, and create information sources ethically and effectively

Information literacy includes:  

  • Conceptual understandings, such as a recognition of how and why information has value or what makes a source authoritative   

  • Habits of mind, or dispositions such as persistence and flexibility when searching  

  • Skills or practices, such as the ability to effectively use a database  

UX Tip

Remember

As you review the teaching strategies, remember that a single assignment or instruction session cannot fully teach students to become information literate. You are not expected to teach every information literacy concept or skill in one course. However, you can take steps in almost any course to support students' developing information literacy, even if the course does not include a traditional research paper.   

Core Information Literacy Concepts 

The Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (Association of College & Research Libraries, 2016) highlights six core information literacy concepts:  

  • Authority is Constructed and Contextual 
  • Information Creation as a Process 
  • Information Has Value 
  • Research as Inquiry 
  • Scholarship as Conversation 
  • Searching as Strategic Exploration 

These core concepts describe understandings about the purpose and process of research and scholarship broadly shared among scholars, but that novice learners may not yet fully grasp. However, without understanding these concepts, many common academic or professional research practices may not make sense. Each core concept is briefly described below.  

 Authority is Constructed and Contextual

Expert researchers understand that information sources have different levels of authority or credibility, and authority is related to the expertise or credibility of the information creator. Many factors contribute to expertise, including education, experience, and social position. However, having expertise in one area does not imply expertise in others.

Experts also recognize the context in which information is needed, and will be used, can impact the level of authority needed or what would be considered authoritative. An information source that may be appropriate to use in one situation may not be considered authoritative in another situation.  

Students who grasp this concept can examine information sources and ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the information need to identify credible and relevant information sources in multiple contexts. (ACRL, 2016) 

For additional information view the Authority is Constructed and Contextual video. 

Information Creation as a Process

Experts know that information products are created by different processes and come in many formats, which reflect the differences in the creation process. Some information formats may be better suited for conveying certain types of information or meeting specific information needs. Understanding how and why an information product was created can help to determine how that information can be used. Experts recognize that the creation process for an information source and the format can influence that source's actual or perceived value.

Understanding different formats of information and the related creation processes can help students determine when and how to use a specific information source and help them make informed decisions regarding the appropriate format(s) for their own information creations. (ACRL, 2016)

For additional information view the Information Creation as a Process video. 

Information Has Value

Experts know that information has many types of value (financial, personal, social). Because information is valuable, several factors (political, economic, legal) influence the creation, access, distribution, and use of information. Novice learners may struggle to understand the value of information, especially as nearly all information appears to be available for free online.

Experts, however, understand their responsibilities as information consumers and creators, including making deliberate choices about how they access and share information and when to comply with—or when to contest—current legal and socioeconomic restrictions on information. Additionally, experts recognize that not everyone has equal access to information or the equal ability to make their voice heard.

Understanding this concept will help students make sense of the legal and ethical guidelines surrounding information (and the reasons they exist) and make informed decisions both as information consumers and as information creators. (ACRL, 2016) 

For additional information view the Information Has Value video. 

Research as Inquiry

Experts usually consider research a process focused on problems or questions, within or between disciplines, which are unanswered or unresolved and recognize research as part of an ongoing and collaborative effort to extend knowledgeThey understand research is rarely a simple, straightforward search for one "perfect" answer or source; instead, it is an iterative, open-ended, and messy process in which finding answers often lead to new questions. Expert researchers accept ambiguity as part of the research process and recognize the need for adaptability and flexibility when they search.

Understanding this concept will help students recognize that research requires patience, persistence, and flexibility and will prepare them to make sense of the ambiguous nature of their search results rather than seeking a single "right" answer. (ACRL, 2016)

For additional information view the Research as Inquiry video. 

Scholarship as Conversation

Scholars, researchers, and professionals within a field engage in ongoing discussions where new ideas and research findings are continually debated. In most cases, there are often multiple competing perspectives on a topic. Experts can locate, navigate, and contribute to the conversations within their discipline or field. They recognize that providing appropriate attribution to relevant previous research is considered an obligation of participating in this conversation. As they develop their information literacy, students should learn to see themselves as contributors to these conversations. However, they may first need to learn the "language" of the discipline, such as accepted research methods, standards for evidence, and forms of attribution, before they can fully participate. 

Understanding this concept will help students better evaluate the relevance of specific information sources, to make sense of many of the requirements of scholarly practice, and better understand the expectations around their own role in the conversation. (ACRL, 2016)

For additional information view the Scholarship as Conversation video. 

Searching as Strategic Exploration

Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring evaluating a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate directions. The information searching process is a complex process influenced by cognitive, affective, and social factors. While novice learners may only use a limited number of search tools and strategies, experts understand the properties of various information search systems and make informed choices when determining search strategy and search language. Expert searchers shape their search to fit the information need, rather than relying on the same strategies, search systems, and search language without regard for the context of the search.

Students who understand this concept will be able to make appropriate decisions about where and how they search for information in different contexts. (ACRL, 2016)

For additional information view the Searching as Strategic Exploration video. 


Information Literacy Learning Bottlenecks

Bottlenecks are where some students in a course may struggle, get stuck, be unable to complete required tasks, or move forward in their learning (Decoding the Disciplines; Middendorf & Baer, 2019). Information literacy-related bottlenecks can come in many forms. Some of the most common are outlined below and emphasize core concepts. 

Understanding Expectations for Research Assignments

Research or inquiry-based assignments are those in which students are required to find, analyze, and use various information sources to explore an issue, answer a question, or solve a problem. Although they are common assignments, they can be sources of frustration for both you and your students.

You are likely expecting students to:

  • Approach research as an open-ended and inquiry-driven process (Research as Inquiry)
  • Be an active participant (provide an argument, make an interpretation) in the ongoing conversations related to their topic (Scholarship as Conversation)

However, these expectations may be unfamiliar to students who are more accustomed to the idea of research as a process of compiling and summarizing information on a topic. Additionally, effectively completing research assignments requires a wide range of knowledge and skills that novice learners may not yet have developed.

Students who can effectively complete these assignments:

  • Are familiar with academic jargon (e.g., scholarly journal, literature review) and understand the meaning of the various actions often required as part of these assignments (e.g., analyze, illustrate, interpret)
  • Can distinguish between expectations for different types of research or inquiry-based assignments (i.e., can recognize the different goals of an empirical research paper, a literature review, or an annotated bibliography)
  • Can formulate research questions by considering missing or conflicting information from the existing conversation 
  • Possess the necessary background knowledge or disciplinary knowledge that allows them to navigate ongoing scholarly or professional conversations related to their topic
  • Think of themselves as capable of contributing to academic or professional conversations

Related core concepts

  • Research as Inquiry
  • Scholarship as Conversation

Related teaching strategies

  • Clarifying Expectations for Research Assignments
Selecting Search Tools and Search Strategies

With so many different search tools and resources available, determining where to search for information and executing an effective search can be difficult. Identifying an appropriate search tool, crafting an effective search statement, and using initial results to guide search revisions takes significant knowledge of the properties and functions of various search tools.

Effective searching also requires students to understand the complex nature of the search process. Novice learners may, for example, approach searching as a linear process intended to find a specific number of sources as quickly as possible, rather than a strategic and complicated process for finding relevant information (Middendorf & Baer, 2019).

Students who can search effectively:

  • Understand how various information system, such as search engines and databases, are organized and function
  • Determine when to use a search engine or a more specialized or academic database or search resource 
  • Are familiar with the databases or search tools that are most relevant for their specific discipline or information need
  • Use different types of search language and search options as needed 
  • Revise their search strategy as needed, based on initial results, and seek assistance from information professionals
  • Demonstrate flexibility and persistence, and understand that initial attempts do not always produce adequate results 

Related core concepts 

  • Searching as Strategic Exploration
  • Research as Inquiry

Related teaching strategies 

  • Teaching Information Searching 
Evaluating Information Sources

Evaluating information to identify credible sources that are relevant to their topic or research question and are appropriate for their information need is one of the most difficult challenges students face. It requires significant knowledge of various types of information sources and their characteristics, the processes by which information sources are produced and disseminated, the factors that provide or temper authority or credibility, and an understanding of how context can impact these other factors.

Students who can evaluate information effectively:

  • Are motivated to find credible and relevant information sources; maintain an open mind when considering information from multiple perspectives 
  • Can identify/distinguish different types (e.g., journal articles, news articles, book chapters, blog posts) and categories (e.g., scholarly, popular, professional) of information sources
  • Can define different types of authority, such as subject expertise (e.g., scholarship), societal position (e.g., public office or title), or special experience (e.g., participating in a historic event) 
  • Understand how the creation processes for various information sources can impact the way the source may be valued
  • Assess information with a critical stance
  • Use indicators of authority to help determine the credibility of sources while recognizing the factors that can temper authority
  • Have an awareness of how their own worldview may impact how they perceive information 
  • Recognize that information sources may be perceived or valued differently depending on the context

Related core concepts

  • Authority is Constructed and Contextual
  • Information Creation as a Process
  • Information Has Value 

Related teaching strategies

  • Teaching Source Evaluation
Using and Citing Sources Ethically

Using information sources ethically is one of the most crucial habits that students need to develop, but it can also be one of the most challenging that students face. More than being able to master the basics of citations, students need to understand why information is valuable and learn to navigate the complex rules, regulations, and expectations around information use.

Students who use information ethically:

  • Recognize the various ways in which information can be valuable (e.g. financial, political, personal)
  • Demonstrate respect for the time, effort, and skill needed to create knowledge; give credit to the ideas of others through appropriate attribution
  • Demonstrate understanding of and the ability to use of the methods of attribution that are appropriate to their discipline or field
  • Are familiar with concepts such as intellectual property, copyright, fair use, plagiarism, the public domain, and open access
  • Critically consider what personal information they share online and make careful decisions about how they publish or share their own information products 
  • Understand that everyone does not have equal access to information or the equal ability to share information  
  • Recognize how citations are used as part of ongoing scholarly or professional conversations​​​​​​

Related core concepts

  • Information Has Value
  • Scholarship as Conversation

Related teaching strategies

  •  Teaching Ethical Information Use 


Teaching Strategies and Activities

Information literacy cannot be taught in a single instruction session or even a single course. Instead, it develops throughout a student's academic career. No instructor is expected to incorporate all the core information literacy concepts or address every potential learning bottleneck in a single course. However, there are many small steps that you can take to support students' developing information literacy.

The following approaches provide an overview of some helpful strategies that you can use to help your students overcome information literacy-related learning bottlenecks.

Clarifying Expectations for Research Assignments

You can take several steps as you (re)design your research or inquiry-based assignments to support increased student learning and reduce the misunderstandings that are common between students and instructors.

Reflect

  • List all of the steps that students will need to take to complete the assignment. You may be surprised at how many there actually are! This can help you to identify steps that may be challenging for students but you may have initially overlooked because of your own familiarity with the research process.
  • Identify the core concepts, such as Scholarship as Conversation or Research as Inquiry, that may be behind your expectations for the assignment.
  • Question your purpose for including certain requirements, such as requiring a specific citation style or that students use specific types of sources. What are your requirements contributing to student learning in the course?

Act

  • Discuss the purpose of academic research and the goals of your specific research assignment with students.
  • Define any academic jargon (such as "scholarly" or "peer-reviewed") and your action words (analyze, trace, illustrate).
  • Clarify the distinctions between different types of research or inquiry-based assignments, such as the difference between a literature review and an annotated bibliography.
  • Describe the types of sources that you consider to be appropriate or inappropriate for the assignment and explain why.
  • Be sure that any requirements you have for sources align with the purpose and context of the assignment. For example, be careful not to expect students to use scholarly sources for topics where scholarly research may not exist.
  • Provide step-by-step instructions and model the steps of the research process.
  • Scaffold large research assignments by breaking them down into more manageable chunks and providing feedback after each part.
  • Have a colleague or student review your assignment instructions, note anything that seems unclear, and highlight any jargon that may need to be explained. This can be even more helpful if it is a colleague outside of your discipline.

Sample Activity

Have students complete a quick activity in which they analyze the assignment instructions. Have them:

  • Summarize what they must do 
  • Identify any unclear terms
  • Highlight key requirements
  • Discuss their responses together to identify any initial misconceptions about the purpose or process for the assignment
Teaching Information Searching

There are many things you can do to help students become more adept at information searching:

Reflect

  • Identify the core concepts, such as Searching as Strategic Exploration, Research as Inquiry, and Information Creation as a Process, that may be contributing to students challenges with information searching
  • Question the assumptions that you may be making about students' pre-existing skills and knowledge related to the search process, especially in areas such as:
    • The difference between a search engine and a database, and when it is appropriate to use one or the other
    • The databases or search tools that are most commonly used in the discipline
    • How to create an effective search statement or use databases options and limiters (advanced search, Boolean operators); how to revise a search when needed

Act

  • Recommend specific search tools. With so many tools available, including hundreds of research databases available through University Libraries, students may need guidance for where to go to start their search.
  • Recommend that students use the Subject Guides available through University Libraries to identify relevant search tools and resources.
  • Provide analogies or examples to help students enhance their understanding of the search process (Middendorf & Baer, 2019).
  • Model the search process by showing how you would go about searching for information on a topic or question relevant to the course.
  • Build reflection on or discussion of the search process into the assignment.

Sample Activity

As part of a research assignment, have students complete an outline or screencast video in which they describe or demonstrate how they would go about searching for information on their topic and use the results to guide a discussion of effective search strategies.

 For an example of how you can address bottlenecks related to information searching, see:

Teaching Source Evaluation

To help students with source evaluation, steps you can take include:

Reflect

  • Identify the core concepts, such as Authority is Constructed and Contextual or Information Creation as a Process, that may be contributing to challenges students experience when evaluating information
  • Question the assumptions that you may be making about students pre-existing knowledge or skills, especially in areas such as:
    • The various factors that contribute to, or temper, source authority or credibility (many students have erroneously been taught to use surface factors, such as domain name or the look of the site, to make decisions about source credibility)
    • How to differentiate between types (e.g. news articles, websites, scholarly journal articles, social media sources) and categories of information sources (scholarly, professional, popular)
    • The role context plays in determining the authority needed
    • The types of information sources that are considered authoritative or credible in your field
  • Consider why you might require specific types of sources. If students can or cannot use specific sources types, is there a clear reason why?

Act

  • Clearly outline your expectations for appropriate sources for your assignments and explain your reasons for these requirements
  • Clarify the distinction between terms such as credible, relevant, and scholarly
  • Model the process that you take to determine whether or not you find a source to be credible and appropriate
  • Provide evaluation criteria and outline steps that students can take or questions they need to consider as part of the source evaluation process
  • Avoid teaching students to rely on surface-level cues to determine credibility, such as: 
    • The domain name (.com, .edu)
    • The professionalism of the site
    • The information provided in the About Us page
  • Encourage students to consider factors such as the authority of the author or publisher,  motivation for publishing the source,  relevance of the source to the research question or topic, and the appropriateness of the source for the context
  • Encourage your students to practice lateral reading, where they read across multiple sites as part of the source evaluation process—for example, searching for the author or publisher or site sponsor via a search engine to learn more about them rather than remaining on the same site. For more information, see What Reading Laterally Means (Caulfield, 2017).

Sample Activity

  • After receiving instructions for a research assignment, have students work together to develop class guidelines for evaluating sources, with recommendations for the types of sources that would or would not be considered appropriate to use

Other resources to support lateral reading include:

Strategies for Teaching Ethical Information Use

Reflect

  • Identify the core concepts, such as Information Has Value or Scholarship as Conversation, that may be contributing to challenges students experience when using information ethically
  • Question the assumptions that you may be making about students pre-existing knowledge or skills, especially in areas such as:
    • The expectations for when and why attribution is required in academic research
    • The expectations for attribution in your discipline or field
    • Locating the information needed to include in a citation
    • Reading a citation to identify relevant information
    • The distinctions between plagiarism and copyright infringement
  • Consider your purpose for requiring a specific citation style. While there can be good reasons for insisting on specific styles, doing so can also create an unnecessary burden, especially for students outside of your discipline.

Act

  • Identify the key aspect(s) of the citation process that you want to emphasize when it comes to grading (i.e. is it more important that students have the citation format perfect, or that they are using their sources effectively?)
  • Provide resources, such as the University Libraries' Citation Help Guide, to help students develop their citation skills, especially if requiring a discipline-specific citation style
  • Practice "reading" citations with your students—many students may struggle to identify the different parts of a citation
  • Teach students to use sources/citations to locate additional citations (forward and backward citation tracing)
  • Talk with your students about the ways that scholars and researchers use sources and citations to document and engage with the conversation(s) on their topic and establish their own credibility. Emphasize citation as part of the process of engaging in scholarly and professional conversations.

Sample Activity

Provide students with a relevant sample article from which all citations have been removed or redacted. Discuss how the lack of citations contributes to their ability to evaluate the article's credibility and use the article effectively to answer a question or learn more about the topic.

Examples

References