Learning from Student Learning: A Librarian-Instructor's View of Her Information Literacy Class

Article excerpt


This article is a sequel to "Stronger Students, Better Research: Information Literacy in the Women's Studies Classroom," published in Feminist Collections v.25, no.4 (Summer 2004), and available online at http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/WomensStudies/fc/fcwilkinson.htm. It will summarize my experiences and insights based on three more semesters of teaching an experimental, three-credit course now entitled "Gender and the Research Process.


The course started out in 2004 as "Women's Studies Research in the Information Age." It originated in women's studies literature and the ideas of information literacy. To reach a larger audience of students, I expanded its focus in 2006 to the even broader area of gender issues and information and retitled it "Gender and the Research Process."

The students spend the semester involved in various aspects of the research process. This includes framing research questions related to their subject of choice and learning to identify what the characteristics of a good subject actually are. They learn methods of searching for information, deep reading, problem-solving models of research, critical evaluation of information sources, greater sophistication about the genres of publishing, and an appreciation of the services and expertise of the people available in libraries who can facilitate a person's research process.

The course is customized to the students' interests, and so long as their topics have something to do with the socially imposed roles of men and women, the students may choose their own research subjects. They learn several definitions of gender so that they can grasp the cultural imposition of sex-role stereotypes and integrate this into their evolving research process and learning. Many of the tools the students learn are based in the social sciences, although if they are interested in the sciences or humanities, they'll learn to use appropriate sources in those disciplines. Everything else is about the research process and the students' increasing ability, over the semester, to make meaning for themselves through guided learning. You could say the course is fundamentally about learning to learn. By digging deeper and deeper in the resources they find as they do the experiential learning assignments, the students learn the decision-making processes necessary to acquire pre-qualitative and pre-quantitative research competence.

It's my way of teaching "information literacy"--broadly defined as the set of abilities that allow a person to recognize when information is needed and to act effectively and efficiently on that need. The course is also about the ethical applications of information--avoiding plagiarism, understanding the social context from which information comes, and respecting intellectual property created by others.

In 2002, Carleton College's librarians developed an elegant statement, now posted on their website, about the characteristics of a fully informed, information-literate individual in today's complex world:

  An information literate person has to develop a sophisticated
  relationship with information by fostering appropriate expectations
  for information sources, effective search strategies, critical
  evaluation of information sources, and respect for the intellectual
  work of others.

This emphasis on developing a student's relationship to information, appropriate expectations for it, and evaluation skill, matches the fundamental course results I seek.

Questions and Emerging Answers

At the end of "Stronger Students, Better Research," I posed several questions that I would like to answer here:

* Will my hybrid classroom, with its community information stations stacked with examples of feminist publications and URL lists, catch on as an immersion method?

* Will my "process approach" to teaching research have staying power? …