Information Literacy as Foundational: Determining Competence
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The Journal of General Education 52.4 (2003) 253-265



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Information Literacy as Foundational:

Determining Competence


Finding, accessing, and determining the credibility of information are skills most of us would deem necessary for the college educated person, if not the average citizen, to possess today. At the same time, educators, as well as constituents of educational institutions are asking for better and more sophisticated assessment instruments of learning to gauge the progress of our students (Erwin, 1991; Erwin & DeMars, 2002; Ewell, 2000). This paper is about a computer-based test of information literacy that purports to measure these skills.

The requirement of technology skills is bursting into general education curricula at colleges and universities around the globe. While much discussion is about what are the necessary technology skills for the college educated person, a number of institutions are assessing information literacy, which includes technology skills but is broader in scope (ACRL, 2000). Information literate individuals employ technology to retrieve, manage, and present information, but more importantly, they are able to discern when information is needed, develop efficient search strategies, and critically evaluate the information. A foundation in information literacy equips college graduates with skills essential for self-directed learning, sound decision-making, and active citizenship. The Presidential Committee on Information Literacy described information literacy as being "central to the practice of democracy" (ALA, 1989). The Association of College and Research Libraries has formulated conceptual standards for information literacy competence in higher education (ACRL, 2000) that have been endorsed by the American Association for Higher Education. Educators (Sellen, 2002) would agree that searching and finding information has always been important but is even more important when this information today is in electronic form. Besides the proliferation of information being stored in various [End Page 253] databases, the volume of new information added to our knowledge base is increasing at a rapid and unprecedented rate. Briefly, the Information Seeking Skills Test (ISST) is a computer-administered test measuring the ability to find and evaluate information.

Institutional Context

The ISST is a competence test required of all freshmen at James Madison University (JMU). Soon to be classified a Doctoral/Research University - Intensive institution, JMU is a Commonwealth of Virginia supported school of about 15,000 students and over 700 faculty.

Identification of Learning Outcomes to be Assessed

Information literacy is a formal and integral part of JMU's competency-based General Education program (Cameron & Feind, 2001; Reynolds, Allain, Erwin, Halpern, McNallie, & Ross, 1998). These essential skills equip students for college level research and provide a foundation for lifelong learning. The General Education Committee, composed of faculty and a librarian, identified two broad learning objectives for first-year students. Students will be able to:

  1. Formulate and conduct an effective information search that includes a variety of reference sources, such as encyclopedias, library catalogs, indexes, bibliographies, statistics sources, government publications, and resources available on the Internet; and
  2. Evaluate information sources in terms of accuracy, authority, bias, and relevance.

Librarians, with input from faculty, defined these broad objectives more specifically and operationally. To demonstrate information literacy, students should be able to: 1) describe services typically available in libraries; 2) choose appropriate reference sources for a particular information need; 3) search library catalogs, research [End Page 254] databases, and the Internet effectively; 4) evaluate sources in terms of accuracy, authority, bias, and relevance; 5) employ an efficient search strategy for a research paper or speech; and 6) apply information ethics by citing sources appropriately and observing copyright. Students learn these objectives through a locally developed web-based instruction program for information-seeking skills called Go for the Gold, which is composed of eight instructional modules with accompanying exercises that are scored electronically. The objectives are measured by the ISST.

In addition to the first-year assessment, librarians and faculty members in over a dozen majors with assistance from Center for Assessment and Research Studies (CARS) assessment specialists have written learning objectives and developed instruments to assess discipline-specific information literacy skills.

Overview of Assessment...