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?