Teaching is the core of the Libraries' work. Over the past decade academic librarians’ teaching has evolved from traditional orientation and database demonstration sessions to information literacy, which stresses concepts such as the critical evaluation and use of an ever-changing array of materials. Grinnell’s librarians want to reach more students, develop a curriculum to improve our students’ learning, and expand information literacy instruction beyond Tutorial into upper-division courses. Numerous Grinnell faculty, students, and administrators have expressed support for these goals; and consistent with the College’s strategic plan, each goal emphasizes integrative, inquiry-based learning.
The Key Challenge
Our challenge is to find the best balance among our teaching-related activities that will allow us to advance information literacy at Grinnell College. These activities include Tutorial instruction, course-integrated instruction, co-curricular programming, and reference and consultation services, among others.
Information literacy instruction and reference service are opportunities for Grinnell’s librarians to help students learn how to discover, use, and evaluate appropriate sources for academic work. Each of Grinnell’s librarians participates in teaching formal information literacy sessions. The majority of these information literacy sessions are provided to students during their First-Year Tutorial, the only course that all Grinnell students are required to take. The purpose of Tutorial is “to illuminate methods of inquiry rather than to master disciplinary material, to give special attention to writing and to critical analysis of texts . . . and to provide initial preparation in techniques of research” (http://www.grinnell.edu/Offices/studentaffairs/acadadvising/tutorial). Tutorial topics vary. Recent topics have included “Biotechnology: Bountiful Harvest or Bitter Harvest?” “Walls, Doors, and Mirrors: Immigration Policies and Politics in the Contemporary U.S.,” and “The Language of Color: Practice and Perception in Culture and Art.”
More than thirty different sections of tutorial are offered each fall, and a librarian works with each class one or more times. The Tutor and the librarian collaborate to plan these information literacy sessions, customizing sessions to the assignments and readings in that tutorial. The result is that Grinnell’s eight librarians teach a total of approximately fifty unique information literacy sessions in tutorials each fall.
Each library faculty member also serves as a consulting librarian to academic departments and concentrations and provides information literacy sessions for courses in those liaison areas. As with Tutorial, the goal is that these sessions be developed collaboratively between the librarian and the course instructor. However, the realities of changing course offerings, teaching assignments, and faculty rosters sometimes make realizing this goal difficult. Because Tutorial takes instruction precedence each fall semester, Grinnell’s librarians have not been able to offer as many 100- through 400-level instruction sessions as they — or disciplinary faculty members — would like: on average we teach 15 of these sessions each fall and spring semester. However, the librarians have been able to accommodate every faculty request for disciplinary instructional sessions, regardless of the semester.
Each of Grinnell’s librarians also participates in providing reference services. Librarians are available to provide face-to-face, telephone, and virtual reference assistance for 63 hours per week (see Appendix 6). Virtual reference services are provided both through e-mail and, as of the fall 2007 semester, through instant messaging (IM). During the 2007-08 academic year the Libraries experimented with but did not promote the IM reference service. Beginning with the fall 2008 semester, posters around campus and ads in the Scarlet & Black, the student newspaper, have been used to raise faculty and student awareness of this option for reference service.
Students who require deeper research assistance can sign up for a Library Lab, which is “an individual research appointment initiated by a student . . . or a small group of students to pursue research on a specific topic. A librarian will prepare prior to the appointment and then meet with the student(s) . . . to discuss and walk through the steps of the research process" (http://www.lib.grinnell.edu/services/librarylab.html) We provided 134 of these sessions in the 2007-2008 academic year. All of the librarians also participate in providing Library Lab instruction.
The Libraries also offer for-credit coursework as part of the information literacy program. Each semester for over thirty years the Grinnell College Libraries have offered Library 100 (Library Research Techniques), a semester-long, 2-credit course which enrolls an average of seven to ten students. A range of students take Library 100, including first-year students and graduating seniors from all three academic divisions. International students and Posse Scholars also frequently enroll in the course (http://www.possefoundation.org/ )
In spring 2008 and spring 2009, the Libraries offered a 4-credit special-topics course, "How Disciplines Construct Knowledge," in collaboration with the College's Writing Lab. This is a writing-intensive course intended to introduce students to the different norms that prevail in different disciplines for writing, use of evidence, and organization of scholarly communication. On the one hand, it is a practical course that helps students understand how — and why — the way they should write a philosophy paper (for example) is different from the way they should write a paper in economics or chemistry. In a liberal arts curriculum, this understanding is important for all students. On the other hand, it is a conceptual introduction to disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity that helps frame the College's Expanding Knowledge Initiative. Student response has been positive, and several members of the disciplinary faculty have participated as guest lecturers. A key question facing the Libraries is whether to seek regularization of this (or some similar) 4-credit course, or whether our time and energy are better directed to other ways of supporting student learning.
Meeting the Challenge: What We Can Do
A. Develop learning goals and a curriculum for information literacy instruction spanning the college’s three divisions, reaching first- to fourth-year students
The Libraries are fortunate to work with all incoming first-year students in Tutorial sessions. However, we now need to plan Tutorial information literacy sessions based on a common set of goals; doing so may help us find more instruction time with classes and students beyond the Tutorial. Appendix 8 shows a draft of a curriculum that would integrate library sessions into each Tutorial. Using this curriculum, students would progress through a research process before, during and after a library Tutorial session.
In order to explore an information literacy curriculum for introductory courses in academic majors, methods classes, seminars, and MAPs, during spring 2009 consulting librarians will meet with faculty in a small number of departments to:
- Consider the possibility of building informal "profiles" of critical information literacy expectations specific to students majoring in these disciplines and identify a variety of opportunities for introducing students to these concepts.
- identify courses or a sequence of courses in which progressive information literacy instruction could be integrated. The actual teaching of this material could be provided by departmental and/or library faculty members.
B. Establish priorities within our information literacy work
Because we need to offer a variety of learning opportunities for our students, librarians want to teach in different settings: tutorial and disciplinary instruction sessions, Library Labs, credit classes, and drop-in reference work. The reality is that we have only so much time to dedicate to teaching. To ensure that our instructional contacts are well-chosen, we need to:
- Articulate the goals of each instructional option (Tutorial, Library Lab, reference desk, credit classes, etc.) and clarify how each contributes to our overall information literacy program.
- Establish the degree to which each instructional option will be emphasized based on factors such as their effectiveness and popularity among students, and the talents and experience of librarians.
C. Develop a range of online options for information literacy instruction
Librarians can work with disciplinary faculty and Curricular Technology Specialists to develop a set of online instructional modules for individual students and classes. A module is a Web-based learning tool that provides an explanation of a topic, a research strategy, a resource list, exercises, or an online tutorial. These modules can focus on:
- Topics from our Tutorial curriculum (e.g., forming a research question);
- Topics that appear on our departmental information literacy profiles and curriculum; and
- Topics that librarians identify as advanced research needs: primary sources, numeric and spatial data, legal information, government information, copyright and information ethics, and images and other media.
These modules would both update and extend the Libraries’ current set of instructional guides (http://www.lib.grinnell.edu/research/InstructionGuides/index.html). Librarians and/or course instructors could provide formal instruction for a module during a single or a short sequence of sessions, in Tutorial or thereafter. These teaching tools could also be used during reference work, by faculty, or by students using our Web site. However, we want to be mindful of the need for ongoing maintenance and technological support for these online modules, as well as the need to ensure that their design promotes student engagement and comprehension.
D. Increase our capacity to offer more Library Labs while maintaining the quality of the service
For both librarians and students, Library Labs have been a successful model of outreach, instruction, and reference service. In 2004, librarians held 110 Library Lab appointments; if current patterns hold, 250 Library Labs will be conducted during the 2008-09 academic year. Library Labs are popular with students at all levels, from first-year students wanting to learn how to search disciplinary databases to MAP and seminar students needing help finding the sorts of specialized primary sources necessary for advanced inquiry-based learning.
It is clear that individualized instruction is an effective method of teaching research processes to students, but Library Lab preparation can be very time consuming. On average, a librarian will spend 50 minutes preparing for a Library Lab and 50 minutes face-to-face with the student during the consultation. Thus, completing 250 Library Labs this academic year would represent a commitment of over 400 librarian-hours. The Libraries have considered other options for these labs—such as offering a for-credit option, as is done in the Math and Writing Labs, or providing consultations in popular campus locations during midterm and final exam periods. We need to offer services students want. But we also need to consider that expansion of this service will take up a more of the librarians’ available time.
E. Train public service supervisors and student staff to provide basic information services
During a one-week sampling period in fall 2008, Burling circulation supervisors and student staff members answered 30 reference questions; this figure extrapolates to 450 questions a semester and 900 per academic year. These statistics make it clear that our circulation supervisors and student staff should be supported in providing high-quality basic information service when a librarian is not on call or at the reference desk. Additionally, Grinnell’s librarians are receiving fewer in-person questions than ever at the reference desk. The librarian at the desk receives, on average, approximately two questions per hour during the 43 hours per week that the Burling reference desk is staffed. Moreover, many of the questions received at the reference desk are not truly “reference” questions that require the assistance of a professional librarian. For example, many questions relate to students having difficulty locating a specific book in the stacks or needing a staff member to retrieve a pay-per-view article. Well-trained circulation, Listening Room, and student staff could help with these questions.
A revised reference model could rely on trained circulation and student staff members to provide directional and basic information service whenever Burling and Kistle libraries are open, with fewer hours of librarian-staffed reference desk service in Burling. For questions that the circulation and student staff cannot answer on their own or by referring a patron to a source on the Libraries’ Web site, a librarian would be on-call during normal business hours.
If this service were offered it would need to be monitored, and the circulation and student staff would need to receive regular training and refreshers. The potential negative impacts of reducing reference-desk hours would also need to be considered. If not available at the reference desk, those librarians whose offices are located in parts of the building that are closed to the public would be much less accessible to students. We may want to consider rearranging offices to place more librarians on the more heavily-trafficked first floor, where they would more frequently come into contact with students. We might also need to maintain drop-in reference hours during busy periods of the semester.
F. Continue to explore and promote virtual reference services
The increasing importance of virtual reference (email and IM) may ameliorate some of the issues with decreasing reference desk hours. When students are e-mailing or instant messaging a librarian to ask straightforward questions, the librarian is equally accessible wherever she might be. More complex questions are still best addressed face to face, so when a student e-mails or IMs, the on-call librarian can still suggest an in-person meeting, either immediately or at a later time. Since we introduced IM reference in the fall of 2007, usage has been increasing, but we do not yet have enough experience with it to draw firm conclusions about its utility.
G. Evaluate the role of librarians staffing the reference desk
Once we better understand the effectiveness of our virtual reference and public desk basic information service, we can consider the role of librarians staffing the reference desk. We will need to evaluate, for instance, our reference statistics and the number of hours librarians are on the reference desk before changing our present service model.
Strengths To Build On
Information literacy is an explicit goal of the College's first-semester Tutorial, and a tacit goal of much of the curriculum. The focus of the Strategic Plan on deepening the College's commitment to interdisciplinarity and to inquiry-based learning are also consistent with an integrated information literacy program. (Strategy #1, Increase the emphasis on inquiry-based learning and broaden our liberal arts curriculum," Grinnell College Strategic Plan, 2005: (http://www.grinnell.edu/files/downloads/StrategicPlan050205.pdf). Moreover, Grinnell's librarians are well-regarded on campus as collaborators in the teaching program, and our information literacy planning can draw from the experience and understanding they bring to teaching and reference work. Science librarian Kevin Engel, for example, developed an approach to teaching information strategy and sources tailored to science education; Special Collections Librarian Catherine Rod helped develop and co-taught the 4-credit course on disciplinarity and writing, "How Disciplines Construct Knowledge;" and Richard Fyffe is exploring the connection between information literacy, critical information studies, and scholarly communication.
The active role of librarians in teaching the introductory Biology course (Biology 150) represents a promising avenue for integrating critical inquiry into disciplinary courses. Kevin Engel works with each section of Biology 150, an introductory course required of all students intending to major in biology. This is a hands-on course in which students work collaboratively and begin to learn to act, think, and communicate like scientists. Students in different sections investigate different topics in biology, but practice the same sets of skills.
Such introductory courses are an important venue for teaching discipline-specific information literacy skills. Students in other disciplines would be better prepared for inquiry-based learning if their introductory courses also contained a similar, tightly-integrated information literacy component.
To initiate campus discussion of the place of information literacy in disciplinary learning, we drafted a white paper in spring 2008 that proposes “that ‘information literacy’ be understood in [an] expansive sense, as critical reflection on the methods, norms and significance of inquiry” (Richard Fyffe, Sarah Purcell and James Swartz, “’Information Literacy,’ Critical Inquiry, and the Mission of Grinnell College: A Proposal.” See Appendix 7) . The paper has been reviewed within the Dean's Office and — with this self study as broader context — will be proposed to the Instructional Support Committee for further discussion later this spring or during the fall. It introduces the critical information literacy program that Grinnell’s librarians want to create: a program that both draws on and expands our profession’s standards and that is well aligned with the tenets of liberal arts education.
In addition, we have expanded the traditional scope of library instruction to include quantitative and spatial data through recruitment of a Data Services Librarian. This librarian works with faculty and students across the curriculum to help identify datasets appropriate for student research and learning, and to help faculty manage existing datasets. In this respect, we are extending "information literacy" beyond the discovery and evaluation of textual sources to include information of many kinds that is increasingly brought together in interdisciplinary learning — often in digital formats.
The Libraries’ Information Literacy Planning Committee meets bi-weekly to discuss and plan program development. The committee is headed by the Readers Services Librarian and includes two to three other librarians as core members; for the remaining librarians, this is an optional meeting. During the first half of the fall semester when librarians are busy with tutorial instruction, this meeting includes regularly scheduled discussions of our teaching. To better understand the needs and preferences of the campus community, this committee could include student and faculty representatives, at least periodically.
As we strive to improve our teaching, librarians can observe some of our faculty colleagues teach and then discuss what we have seen. This collegial outreach could help us learn methods for structuring instruction sessions and assessing students’ learning in addition to strengthening our ties to individual faculty and departments.
Weaknesses and Constraints to Overcome
The major constraint in achieving the Libraries’ goals for information literacy instruction is limited staffing. Moving beyond Tutorial to offer an active information literacy program in all twenty-six majors and twelve interdisciplinary concentrations would be a serious commitment of time. The Libraries must take this fact into consideration and be careful to expand their information literacy offerings at a sustainable rate. Creating a sustainable, expanded information literacy program will likely involve cutting back on other activities in order to devote more time to instruction.
In addition, the Libraries' lack of a formal relationship with the Curriculum Committee may limit our ability to integrate an information-literacy perspective into ongoing discussion of the curriculum.
Special Issues: Assessment
Assessment of the Libraries’ information literacy programs and reference services currently takes two main forms: collecting statistics on the usage of these services and gathering feedback from students and faculty (including the library faculty) on their impressions of the quality of these services.
The Libraries have two feedback forms: a paper form that can be given to students at the end of a formal information literacy instruction session, and a Web-based form where students can provide feedback about their Library Labs (http://wm.grinnell.edu/library/lblbfdbk/). The librarians themselves can also provide useful impressions on the effectiveness of our reference services and information literacy program. An organized framework to gather the librarians’ impressions could be formulated and implemented in order to better capture this information.
The Research Practices Survey (RPS), which measures students’ knowledge of and attitudes towards the research process, is another potential method of assessing the information literacy program. In August of 2008 incoming first-year students took RPS for the first time. In the future, this survey will be administered to each incoming class. It will also be given as an exit survey to fourth-year students beginning in 2011, allowing us to see how much students have increased their research skills and confidence during their four years at the College.
The expectations we help academic departments articulate will identify departmental goals for information literacy. We can then work with departments to determine if these goals are being reached.
Return to Grinnell College Libraries Self Study