Transferring information literacy practices: implications for teacher librarians and teachers

Peer reviewed article

Dr James E. Herring is a Lecturer in Teacher Librarianship, School of Information Studies, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga.

Introduction

This paper reveals original insights about the value students place on information literacy practices and the extent to which students might transfer these practices across time and across the curriculum.

It presents findings of a study which explored the views of Year 7 students, teachers and teacher librarians in three rural schools in NSW. Key implications are that teacher librarians should revise the way information literacy is taught in schools, and that teacher librarians, teachers and school management should actively discuss the transfer of information literacy practices in their schools.

After outlining the aims and areas of exploration of the study, it critically reviews aspects of the literature on information literacy and transfer, reviews the methodology used, presents key findings and discusses implications of the study for teacher librarians and teachers.

Aims and areas of exploration

The aims of the study were to examine the views of Year 7 students, teachers and teacher librarians on students’ information literacy practices, and to examine the views of students and staff on the extent to which students were likely to transfer these practices across the curriculum and across time. As the study used the constructivist grounded theory method (Charmaz, 2006), areas of exploration (as opposed to research questions) were identified. These areas were:

  • How students, teachers and teacher librarians viewed information literacy practices.
  • The extent to which students viewed these practices as helpful when gaining knowledge about a topic and completing an assignment.
  • How students, teachers and teacher librarians regarded the potential transfer of information literacy practices.
  • The extent to which students viewed themselves as transferrers of information literacy practices across subjects and across time.

Literature review

Definitions of information literacy

There is no agreed definition of information literacy in the school context and, outside the school context, the debate continues as to what might constitute information literacy. Langford’s (1998, p. 59) questions, Is it [information literacy] a concept or a process? … Or is it a new literacy that has been transformed from existing literacies to complement the emerging technologies for which the Information Age students must be skilled? remain relevant today.

Definitions by Doyle (1994), Abilock (2004) and Kuhlthau (2004) refer to information literacy as encompassing ways of thinking, attitudes and skills, as opposed to a set of skills which students learn and implement step by step.

This author defines information literacy as a critical and reflective ability to exploit the current information environment, and to adapt to new information environments, and as a practice. This definition includes the aspect of transferring abilities from one context to another, which earlier definitions have not addressed.

Information literacy practice

In the workplace context, Lloyd (2010, p. 249) argued that, using Schatzki’s (2002) theories, information literacy may be viewed as a dispersed practice that hangs together as a bundle of information focused activities that are constituted within larger integrative practices.

Information literacy practices by school students constitute the information related activities in which students are reflectively engaged both in school and outside school. Thus, the term information literacy practice, in the lives of school students, does not merely represent students engaging in activities such as Web searching or information evaluation; rather, it implies that the students actively reflect on the use of these activities (for example, by selecting particular search strategies and rejecting others). This focus on information literacy practice views information literacy as more than a set of skills or a process to be followed.

Lloyd (2010) argues that in schools, information literacy is often viewed as set of skills or steps to be followed, and the use of information literacy skills models such as the NSW Department of Education and Training model (2007) may reinforce this view. By using the term information literacy practice, teacher librarians and teachers will still be teaching students skills and techniques such as concept mapping, question formulation and note taking, but these will be seen in the context of students being taught to take a wider view of information literacy. Students who are practitioners will reflect on the use of skills and techniques and will be more likely to transfer their practices across subjects.

Information literacy research

There is a plethora of literature relating to aspects of information literacy in schools, but many of the articles are practice-based and often lack an empirical research base. In schools, the key researcher in information literacy in recent times has been Kuhlthau (2004; 2007) whose research broke new ground by emphasising affective aspects, such as students’ thoughts and feelings when engaged in information seeking. A second key influence is Limberg (2006; 2008) who urged teacher librarians and teachers to focus on meaningful learning, and not just information seeking.

Research into the use of information literacy skills models was carried out by Wolf et al (2003) on the Big 6 model, and by Herring (2006) on the PLUS model, and showed that most students valued the use of a model, although some students found that the model being researched did not suit their learning style. Information literacy research has also focused on information seeking (Myers et al, 2006; Bilal et al, 2008), question formulation (Herring, 2009), and plagiarism (Williamson et al, 2007).

One aspect of information literacy that has not had much attention is the question of whether students might transfer information literacy practices across subjects and time. Herring and Hurst (2006) explored aspects of transfer in a primary school, and Herring and Bush (2009) examined factors which might lead to the creation of a culture of transfer, in relation to information literacy.

Transfer

In the field of education, the issue of transfer has been researched and debated for over a century, but there is no agreed definition of transfer. Royer, Mestre and Dufresne (2005) defined transfer as a term that describes a situation where information learned at one point in time influences performance on information encountered at a later point in time, with influences being a key term, that is, transfer is not merely the repetition of behaviour. There are many types of transfer identified (Haskell, 2001), with near transfer (relating to similar situations) and far transfer (different situations) being the most common. Haskell (2001), Fogarty and Pete (2004) and Royer et al (2005), argue that transfer should be studied in context, and should encompass environmental, cognitive and sociocultural perspectives on transfer. The present study took a sociocultural view of transfer, and Royer et al (2005) took a similar view, arguing that transfer studies should take account of the influence of the wider environment (e.g. places and people). Haskell (2001) argued that unless a culture of transfer existed in an educational context, then transfer was unlikely to happen.

Methodology

This study’s theoretical perspective is sociocultural. This perspective (Lloyd, 2007) studies learners within their environment, and recognises that social and cultural factors will impact on how learners construct knowledge. Limberg (2010, p.84) argued that Researchers adopting a sociocultural perspective of learning have highlighted social aspects and the need to focus on the situatedness of information literacy. Thus this perspective takes into account the context in which research participants work or learn.

The study adopted constructivist grounded theory as its methodology. Taking a constructivist approach implies that the researcher views knowledge as constructed by learners, and that the researcher interprets (as opposed to reports) the constructions of reality offered by participants. For example, where students in the study discussed their information literacy practices, they were constructing a version of their experience, not reporting it in total. Grounded theory was developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967), but has since been developed by others, including Strauss and Corbin (1998) and Charmaz (2006). This researcher followed Charmaz’s (2006) constructivist approach to grounded theory. Charmaz (2006) argues that key aspects of constructivist grounded theory, which makes it different from objectivist (Bryant, 2003) versions, are that constructivist grounded theorists view the researcher not as someone who analyses data with complete objectivity, but as an interpreter of data; and that grounded theory does not emerge from the data, but is constructed by the researcher who interprets the data, which the researcher collects through active interactions with research participants.

The study took place in three secondary schools in rural NSW and each school has a full-time qualified teacher librarian. In each school, one Year 7 class was selected after discussions with the principal and teacher librarian. A total of 75 students took part in the study. Data was collected from student diaries, student questionnaires, and interviews with students, teacher librarians and teachers in the three schools. In the interviews, teacher librarians and teachers were asked about their students’ previous experiences of information literacy, what aspects of information literacy they taught, what expectations they had of students, and whether students were likely to transfer information literacy practices.

Students completed diaries in Term 3 of the school year, when they were studying topics and completing an assignment, in History. Students were given advice by the teacher librarian and teachers in each school about aspects of information literacy, including brainstorming, concept mapping, information seeking, evaluation of information, concepts and ideas, note taking and assignment writing. The emphasis was on students gaining meaningful knowledge from their use of learning resources.

In Term 4, students were reminded of the information literacy advice given in Term 3 but no formal guidance was given. At the end of Term 4, when they had completed studying topics in Science (school A), Japanese (school B) and English (school C), students completed a questionnaire. In each school, near the end of Term 4, interviews were conducted with two groups of four students, and with four individual students. Convenience sampling (Johnson & Christensen, 2007) was used to select students. Interviews were conducted with teachers and teacher librarians at the start of Term 3 (individual teachers and teacher librarian), at the start of Term 4 (individual teachers), and at the end of Term 4 (groups of the teacher librarian and three teachers in each school).

Data from the diaries, questionnaires and interviews were analysed and interpreted by the researcher using constructivist grounded analysis (Charmaz, 2006; Pidgeon & Henwood, 2004). A number of substantial categories were identified by the researcher. These categories (e.g. students valuing concept mapping) were used at the theoretical sampling stage of the study. Theoretical sampling takes the form of the researcher returning to the research participants and asking them to comment on the substantial categories which have been identified. In each school, one group of five students and one group of the teacher librarian and four teachers was interviewed for the theoretical sampling.

Findings

The main findings of the study, which are discussed below, include:

Valuing information literacy practices

A minority of students (c10–15%) actively valued information literacy practices and could reflect metacognitively on their own learning. These students could be viewed as proactive practitioners. Most students (c80–85%) saw value in information literacy practices, but took a more reactive approach, which meant that they were often reluctant to implement these practices, unless they were told or encouraged to do so by the teacher librarian and teachers. This group could be viewed as potential practitioners. A very small minority (less than 5%) did not see value in information literacy practices, as they appeared unable to understand the concepts relating to such practices. These students could be viewed as non-practitioners.

The three groups of students, which overlapped in different contexts, demonstrate that most students did value information literacy, and were able to implement skills and techniques (e.g. question formulation) if they were motivated to do so.

Being engaged

The proactive practitioners were engaged in their own learning, and this did not depend on particular teaching methods. Most students could be engaged in their own learning and information literacy practices, where there was more evidence of student-centred teaching and assignments. The small minority were not engaged in their own learning.

The data from the study showed that the majority of students had the potential to be reflectively engaged in their own learning but were not motivated to do so. The reasons for this lack of engagement included school culture, in which students saw themselves as groups being taught, as opposed to individuals who learned, and a lack of motivation due to assignments which did not challenge students.

Transfer

When students could see value in transfer, and if teacher librarians and teachers actively encouraged students to continue to value transfer, more students were likely to transfer information literacy practices. Most students in the three schools were unlikely to transfer information literacy practices across time and subjects, unless a culture of transfer was established in the schools. A culture of transfer in these schools could only be established if transfer was seen by school staff and by students as a high priority for the school curriculum, and there was both formal and informal discussion of transfer. This discussion needed to take place not only between school staff, but between staff and students.

Discussion

The findings of the study are discussed in relation to:

  • valuing information literacy
  • transferring information literacy practices
  • developing a culture of transfer.

Valuing information literacy

In this study, the term value relates to the importance of, and benefits to be derived from, information literacy practices. A minority of students saw value, for example, in evaluating information sources found on the web, but they did not do so merely from a utilitarian point of view. A utilitarian view might involve the students in seeing information source evaluation as a means of identifying key sources, which would gain them better marks in an assignment. These students saw value in information source evaluation as an information literacy practice, and they were able to reflect on the benefits of this for their own learning, and also to consider how other students evaluated learning resources. The research data showed that those students who actively valued information literacy practices, expressed this value in terms of benefits to their own learning, but also in terms of motivation. This group of students argued that when they developed information literacy practices, they not only acquired new skills (e.g. how to develop a concept map), but were motivated to use, and reflect on the use of, these skills.

One of the apparently contradictory findings of the research was that, while most students argued that they saw value in information literacy practices, only a minority were willing or motivated to implement these practices, without prompting by a teacher librarian or teacher. Almost all students, for example, recommended that the students, who followed them into Year 7, should learn about and actively use information literacy practices such as question formulation or self-evaluation. Thus while most students believed that they saw value, they were unwilling, or were not motivated, to realise the benefits from this value.

The majority of students appeared to take a received practice view of information literacy practices. This view reflects an attitude amongst students that a school functions by teachers and teacher librarians instructing students not only on what they are learning, but also on how they should learn. School culture therefore, is important in this respect, and it was clear that some students took a different view of school culture from that of their teachers and teacher librarians. An example of this was that some students stated that they did not need to construct a concept map in Term 4. When asked about the definition of need, these students stated that it was not required by the teacher or teacher librarian, so they did not feel that they had to develop the map. It can be argued that these students only saw potential value in information literacy practices.

As noted above, a very small minority of students saw no value in information literacy practices. For example, these students could see no connection between question formulation and information retrieval. Their failure to understand that there might be value in, for example, effective reading for information and knowledge, meant that they failed to implement information literacy practices. While teachers and teacher librarians agreed that this very small minority of students existed, there did not appear to be strategies to deal with this lack of understanding.

A review of the literature shows that, while authors such as Kuhlthau (2004) and Limberg (2008) addressed a range of issues in information literacy, the question of whether students did or did not value information literacy practices, is not discussed in any detail.

Transferring information literacy practices

In terms of students transferring information literacy practices that they had acquired, or had reinforced, in Term 3, in all three schools, three groups emerged. These groups were similar to those who valued, or did not value, information literacy. The first group were those students who actively valued information literacy, and also saw value – both utilitarian and cognitive – in transferring information literacy practices. For example, these students had learned the benefits of effective searching, and they actively transferred the skills and practices involved in effective searching, to their learning activities in Term 4. This group took a reflective view of transfer, that is, they saw it as useful when they were completing their assignments, but they took a wider view also, viewing transfer as beneficial to their own understanding and new knowledge creation. This group of students can be viewed as actual transferrers.

The second group – the majority of students – who stated that they believed that transfer was beneficial, and that future students in Year 7 should engage in transfer, nevertheless were reluctant practitioners of transfer. This group of students took the view that it was the responsibility of teachers and teacher librarians to remind students of the value of transfer, or instruct the students to transfer skills and practices. They appeared not to be motivated to transfer.

On this issue of responsibility, the teachers and teacher librarians in the study were divided on this issue, and many saw transfer as the responsibility of the students. Some students pointed out that, while they were encouraged to transfer some aspects of subjects e.g. mathematical formulas or scientific facts, neither teachers nor teacher librarians encouraged the transfer of aspects of information literacy such as concept mapping, question formulation or reading for understanding. This group of students may be termed potential transferrers.

The third group – a very small minority – did not engage in transfer as they lacked the ability to understand any potential value in transfer. This was similar to their inability to value information literacy practices. This group can be termed non-transferrers.

Developing a culture of transfer

In all three schools, it was clear that there was no culture of transfer. Students noted that teachers did not use the term transfer, and school staff argued that, while transfer had been discussed informally in each school, there was no policy on transfer, and no active initiatives. All staff, however, agreed that transfer was one of the fundamental aspects of secondary education. Teacher librarians and teachers agreed that a more formal approach to transfer was needed in each school, but added that, in addition to this, there needed to be active discussion of transfer between staff, and between staff and students, at all levels. The situation in these schools reflected Haskell’s (2001) argument that a culture of transfer was a key element in determining whether students would or would not engage in transfer.

Implications for teachers and teacher librarians

There is no attempt by the author to generalise the findings of this study, but it may be worthwhile to consider potential implications for teacher librarians and teachers. One of the observations of the researcher was that, in all three schools, there were a number of assumptions made by teacher librarians and teachers about information literacy practices. For example, there were widespread assumptions that students would see value in these practices, would implement these practices across the curriculum, and would transfer practices across time. Anecdotal evidence from other schools visited by the author suggests that such assumptions may be widespread. These assumptions however, were rarely discussed by school staff. The first implication of the study for teacher librarians and teachers is that there may be a need in schools for a debate about information literacy practices, and the related assumptions. It might be profitable for information literacy to be discussed both formally and informally amongst staff, with the aim of information literacy becoming a part of the whole school culture.

The second implication for teacher librarians and teachers is that there appears to be a need for teaching students not merely a set of what might be agreed as information literacy skills, and what might be viewed as the how of information literacy. If all students are to actively value information literacy practices, there is a need for them to be taught about the why of information literacy e.g. how developing information literacy practices can benefit students in making them more effective learners. The findings of this study suggest that, at present, information literacy in schools targets the more able/more motivated students who already produce efficient school assignments.

The third implication for teachers and teacher librarians is that there appears to be a need for a more formal debate about transfer of information literacy practices in schools. This does not just mean the formation of a policy on actively promoting transfer, useful as this would be, but it implies that a culture of transfer needs to be developed in schools. If a school had a culture of transfer, all staff would have a heightened awareness of the importance of transfer, and there would be a focus on transfer across the curriculum, and across year groups in the school.

Conclusion

Teacher librarians, who have a cross curricular view of information literacy in school, would appear to be ideal candidates for initiating discussion on information literacy practices and transfer in schools. The implications of this study for teacher librarians include a need for teacher librarians to revise the methods they use to develop information literacy practices in their schools; a need for discussion between teachers, teacher librarians and school managers about the transfer of knowledge, skills and practices across the curriculum, as a preliminary to a discussion of the transfer of information literacy practices; and an open discussion between teacher librarians, teachers and students about developing a culture of transfer in their schools.

References and further reading

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Keywords: information skills;

How to cite this article: Herring, J. 2010. ‘Transferring information literacy practices: implications for teacher librarians and teachers’, Scan, 30(3)

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