Students' university experience and information literacy. Cochrane
Students’ university experience
and information literacy
Associate Director of Education
School of Management & Economics
Queen’s University Belfast
Superficial level – as far as the lecturer is
concerned the students in a class appear to
be similar – same module and level of study
In reality student diversity is now the norm
Students taking a particular module present
a diverse range of characteristics
Different schools / faculties, degree pathways,
periods of study, cultures etc.
Recent years – initiatives to promote
Ideally there should be evidence of
progression as students move from their
first to their final year;
Often there is a gap between rhetoric and
Although a group of students in a class may
study the same module this may be one of
the few things they have in common.
How does a student’s experience of university influence
competence in and attitudes to information literacy?
Case study – small class of 13 students
taking a semester 1 level 3 module
Information collected in two ways:
Details of all students obtained from their online
Personalised questionnaires distributed at the
end of the teaching period;
Each questionnaire listed all modules the student
enrolled for during the degree.
For each module a student indicated
whether they agreed with the following
During the module:
Library staff delivered a session on IL
Lecturer delivered a session on IL
Lecturer provided IL resources on QOL
Student developed IL by undertaking activities
Assignments formally assessed IL
Covered - explicit learner support,
opportunity to practise, assessment;
Five open-ended questions.
Diversity in the cohort
12 local, 1
8 female, 5 male
1 registered with
Enrolled on 5 different
Studies embraced 5
academic years – Sept
2002 to June 2007
1 began in 2002, 5
began in 2003 and 7
began in 20004
At time of survey 51
studied by the
By end of 2006-07 64
studied by the
Diversity of the cohort
Degree Began 02 Began 03 Began 04 Grad 07
BSc Bus Econ 1 1
BSc Mgt +
BSc Mgt +
BSc Mgt + Info
6 – 1
Total 1 5 7 13
Students’ experience of information
Interpreting the ‘map’ (see handout)
22 modules - none of the five elements of
learner support included
21 modules – 2 or more of the five elements of
learner support included
8 modules – 1 element of learner support
Some evidence to suggest that learner support
changed from one year to the next
Students taking Computer Science and
Economics modules less likely to be exposed to
IL than Management modules
Students’ experience of information
Remember – students’ memories are fallible,
consequently the ‘map’ created by their responses
provides a general impression than an accurate
Nevertheless – as far as the case study group is
concerned only 21 out of 51 modules (41%),
completed at the time of the survey, embraced two
or more of the five elements of information literacy
Other issues emerging from the
Lack of explicit learner support from librarians
embedded in modules – perhaps lecturers did not
ask for this;
Limited explicit learner support from lecturers –
perhaps they assume this is someone else’s
responsibility or students are competent;
Minority of lecturers use Queen’s Online to provide
explicit learner support – perhaps assume that
students use library web site;
>50% of students in the case study claim that about
half of the modules required them to undertake;
information literacy tasks – IL does not have to be a
required element of every module;
Students completing certain degrees have greater
exposure to information literacy than students
taking other degrees.
As I developed information literacy at
school / college I encountered no difficulties
during my first year at university when
undertaking information literacy tasks for
seminars / tutorials and assignments.
The majority did not agree with the
statement. Some evidence that students
developed information literacy at school –
responses indicate that they were not
adequately prepared for university.
Statement 1 – students’ views
I didn’t know how to reference. Had never heard of
journals before, never had used them and didn’t
know how to use databases.
At school I studied ‘A’ level IT. As a result I have
some IT skills which assisted me when using online
databases etc. However, things such as Harvard
referencing and information quality were new to
During my first year at university all
lecturers stressed the importance of
developing by information literacy.
The majority of students disagreed with this
statement. There was some evidence that
lecturers in a few modules provided support
for learners in a variety of ways.
Statement 2 – students’ views
At level 1 only two lecturers really placed any
emphasis on information literacy…The other
modules, particularly statistics and economics, to
my recollection did not make any reference to
information literacy, perhaps because they were
100% exam assessed.
…the other three modules required a lot of outside
information so lecturers stressed that in order to get
better marks sources other than the lecture notes
…although journals might have been listed on
reading lists I didn’t know how to access.
During my second year at university I was
given the opportunity to develop my
information literacy in a variety of ways.
The responses show that the majority of
students had the opportunity to develop
their information literacy during level 2.
This was largely due to the more
challenging nature of assignments.
Statement 3 – students’ views
Marketing offered the opportunity to practice
information search and evaluation as did Business
Strategy – assignment topics required detailed
research and stipulated a set number of references.
I was required to write more researched essays and
shown how to use the library’s electronic sources.
However in one degree pathway:
Compared to first year my information literacy skills
did not appear to develop in any new way.
As I am an information literate student
completing course work and assignments
during my final year poses no problems for
Students’ responses indicate that although
they may not regard themselves as
information literate, they feel their skills
have progressed and are improving.
Statement 4 – students’ views
I feel that now I am in my final year I am well
aware and capable of knowing when and why I need
information and how to use and evaluate it. Also,
after completing an assignment for ‘Developing
People for the Future’ I am more confident with
It’s easier looking up databases and referencing is
not difficult any more.
…I still find the Harvard system difficult to grasp.
By July 2007 I will be an ‘information
literate’ graduate, so it will not be
necessary to develop these skills further in
All students in the case study disagree with
this statement. Their comments indicate
that they appreciate the skills they have
developed, but recognize the importance of
Statement 5 – students’ views
I feel that by July 2007 I will certainly be a much
more information literate person than I was when I
began my university career. However, I still feel
there are areas that I could improve upon such as
using a wider range of sources.
When I came to university three years ago I thought
I was information literate. I discovered that I
wasn’t completely aware of some aspects. I feel it
may be the same when I move to the workplace.
Information literacy can be constantly developed
Away from the university
Six students spent a period away from the
Study in another institution, period of
Little evidence to suggest that these
experiences contributed to the overall
information literacy of the students
One student’s comment:
My Business Law module, along with International
Business, required me to carry out extensive
research and use information literacy skills. The BEI
project and presentation used these skills.
Although a small-scale study a number of
tentative conclusions can be draw:
There is great diversity in the student community
and this impacts on students’ university
experiences and their overall learning;
It is likely that learning support mechanisms will
vary greatly between universities, degree
pathways and modules.
The attitudes of academics and librarians to
information literacy have an impact on students’
Ensuring that all students become ‘information
literate’ is difficult to achieve;
Students’ attitudes to and competence in
information literacy depend on a complex range of
Case study highlights the difficulties of ensuring
Evidence suggests that by the time many students
graduate they are more ‘information literate’ than
they were on entering university.