What do we teach them and what are they learning? Evaluation and assessment of the information literacy skills of science students

Susan M. Jones, Leon Barmuta, Julian Dermoudy, Regina Magierowski, Jon Osborn, Jane Sargison, Richard Dearden, Christine Evans, David Waters


Information literacy ‘enables learners to engage critically with content and extend their investigations, become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning’ (Council of Australian University Librarians 2001). Such skills are, therefore, a key element of undergraduate learning, a foundation for research activities, and a basis for lifelong learning within the workplace. A number of key generic graduate attributes can collectively be described as information literacy skills (ILS). These include:
• a capacity to recognise the need for information and determine the nature and extent of the information needed;
• a capacity to access required information effectively and efficiently;
• the ability to evaluate information and its sources critically; and
• the ability to create new knowledge by integrating prior knowledge and new understandings.

The acquisition of such skills is an integral part of becoming a professional scientist, and there is an increasing impetus to include more overt teaching of such skills within the undergraduate degree (Parker 2003). It is acknowledged that the most effective learning outcomes occur when generic skills are an integral part of teaching within the discipline and taught to all students in a structured and progressive manner (Shapiro and Hughes 1996). Indeed, based on their own experiences of teaching ILS within the School of Zoology at the University of Tasmania (UTas), Dearden, Jones, Richardson and Barmuta (2004) have suggested that students’ acquisition of ILS should be incremental, iterative, embedded and assessed, as also proposed by Lupton (2002). Yet how can we determine what skills our students already possess, and at what level? And how can we best teach and assess their learning of information skills within the context of our own discipline?

In this project we aimed to address these questions. In collaboration with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Library staff, the project team developed a multipart survey to test students’ current knowledge, skills and practice against the Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework (ANZIL) Framework standards. We surveyed students in all three undergraduate years to see if their knowledge and skills improved from years one to three, as a result of transferring skills acquired at lower levels into higher undergraduate levels. Second, we wished to investigate whether there are discipline-specific differences in students’ ILS. We therefore focussed on three schools that we anticipated might have rather different expectations of their graduates regarding ILS: Computing, Engineering and Zoology. Students in the first two disciplines are highly likely to be enrolled in specialist degrees, while Zoology students are most likely to be enrolled in the more generic BSc.

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