Do We Need a Bigger Carrot?

I coordinate the instruction program at my library, and I spend an enormous amount of time contemplating ACRL Information Literacy Standard 3: “The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.” I feel that it’s one of the most critical standards for our students to learn; it’s important for their work in college, their careers, and their everyday lives.

I have two primary opportunities to work with students on evaluating information – in our English Comp I one-shots and in our 3-credit information literacy course. And they could not be more different. In the one-shots I can devote maybe 15-20 minutes, tops, to discussing doing research on the internet, during which we usually discuss and evaluate the sources they’ve found while searching the internet during our session. In the credit-bearing course I spend two entire classes just on evaluation after having spent several weeks discussing the production and distribution of information, during which we’ve touched on issues of quality and credibility.

Despite the increased focus in our course on evaluating information, many students still gravitate to Google and other search engines. They’re most comfortable searching the internet, and they rightfully claim that using Google is faster — just type in your search terms and bingo, millions of results. It’s the aftermath of that Google search that’s sometimes still a sticking point. We’ve talked a lot in class about the research process; I emphasize that research takes time: time to figure out a search strategy and time to iterate, because no one finds exactly what they need on the first try. But it can still be really difficult to convince students to move away from that first page or two of websites, to dig deeper to find expert sources, to try library resources when they need scholarly information.

One reason for this might be the perceived benefits of finding high-quality information compared to the time it takes to find. If a student uses a “bad” source in his assignment, what are the consequences? Even when faculty take subtract points from an assignment for poor quality information, how much of the student’s grade can realistically be pegged to the sources students use? In a 5 page research paper that requires 5 sources, if a student uses 1 or 2 mediocre sources from one of the limitless content farms on the internet, how many points will she lose? The paper’s content, clarity of writing, grammar, mechanics, in-text citations, the list of references: all are factors in an assignment’s grade, too.

And if the grade isn’t compelling enough to convince students that it’s worthwhile to make the effort to find the best information out there on their research topics, what will?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

7 thoughts on “Do We Need a Bigger Carrot?”

  1. This is a version of a conversation I’ve been having with my co-liaison to the College of Business. We spend an awful lot of time at the freshman level, teaching students how to find and evaluate business information. We also tangentially cover citing. What we find is that many faculty after the freshman level do not even do what you describe. Then we run into them their senior year and they get a professor who holds them accountable. By then they’ve forgotten what we taught them!

    I’m not sure what the solution is. Getting faculty buy-in across a given discipline looks good on paper. However, the reality of actually achieving that is quite hard. In fact, for about three years we had buy-in at the freshman level but even that is changing now–partially due to a changing curriculum and partially because there is a new coordinator.

  2. I suspect that many instructors don’t follow up citations in student work, and I know that most of them do not assign a specific reading list and follow up on whether students have used it. It’s easier for them not to… just as it’s easier for students not to do in-depth research.

    It seems to be of no importance to the students whether the information they get is correct or not. It seems to all be just a game. That they will have to use research skills later in their educations, or in life, and get it right, is something I try to convey but am not sure how to do so successfully.

  3. If you ever have a chance, go to a workshop put on by the professors involved with The Citation Project:

    Fascinating AND frightening. Students use their sources even more poorly than we think.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I’m teaching a semester-long course on critical thinking, with a big research paper attached to it. Students have to provide arguments as to whether their chosen sources are credible, based on all of the criteria we talked about in class. They STILL fall back into “It’s a good source because it’s on my topic” and looking for short-cuts: (If it’s a scholarly journal article it’s credible; anything else is not.)

  4. Project Information Literacy has a new report that speaks in detail about how undergrads evaluate sources. I think they care more than we might think. They don’t necessarily know how to evaluate sources, but they report that they do try. I think the report shows that we need to look at this issue on a whole-education basis, not course by course or assignment by assignment.

  5. It does often seem to me that students are overwhelmed when they try and evaluate the information they find. Thanks for those links, Candice and Barbara (oh how I wish PIL had an RSS feed so I could automagically find out when their new reports are released!). I hadn’t heard of the Citation Project before — looks like fascinating research.

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