Friday, 8 May 2015

Developing information literacy skills within undergraduate programmes, by Richard Waller, Peter Knight & Julie Beard

1. Background

“Information literacy” is a term used to encapsulate the various skills required to make effective and appropriate use of information resources (e.g. Johnston & Webber, 2003). These skills include for example the location, evaluation, management and effective use of different types of information resource that are referred to as the “Seven Pillars of Information Literacy” ( ).

Engaging effectively and confidently with advanced sources of information such as journal articles is crucial to success within many degree programmes. As such, information literacy is specifically identified as one of Keele’s essential “Graduate Attributes” ( ). The development of information literacy skills enables students for example to:

  • Develop a more comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the subject.
  • Recognise the surprising amount of debate inevitably associated with academic progress.
  • Identify developments at the research “cutting edge”.
  • Place their own research within a clear academic context.

A key problem here is that school leavers commonly lack a number of these essential skills having been largely “spoon-fed” information or having relied almost exclusively on easy-to-access sources such as Wikipedia (Mittermeyer, 2005). This can hamper effective transitions from school or college to University, and therefore the development of information literacy skills should be considered a priority within the early stages of the degree programmes that require their use.

2. Integrating information literacy training into degree-level curricula
Key information literacy skills such as the use of online search tools and referencing skills are commonly covered within the early stages of many degree programmes. However, the tendency for these skills to be covered in a discrete and often fragmented fashion can hamper their development and lead to a “tick box” approach. Johnston & Webber (2003) consequently argue that to be effective, information literacy education should be integrated more fully into the curriculum, ideally through their inclusion within credit-bearing modules.

This Solutions resource describes how this has been undertaken within Geography teaching at Keele with the support of the library and the Faculty Liason Librarian. This resource reflects an end product of a 2012 Teaching Innovation Project that considered the ways in which the information literacy skills of new students could be developed in order to bridge the gap between school and university.

Curriculum context and structure

Focus group discussions undertaken as part of a previous teaching innovation project that sought to identify barriers to engagement with journal literature (see Waller & Knight, 2012) suggested that information literacy skills should be addressed at the very start of the degree programme to develop effective practice from the outset. These skills had previously been covered within a year 1 “Geographical Skills” practical as part of an extended library introduction delivered by the Faculty Liason Librarian. The coverage was, however, limited to two sessions separated by a number of weeks. Following the recommendations of Johnston & Webber (2003), the decision was taken to give information literacy greater prominence within this compulsory year 1 module by covering the issue as the first key theme within the practical programme. This involves the delivery of four two-hour sessions that conclude with a summative “consolidation exercise”.

A summary of these sessions and the associated resources is provided below. The resources relate to the host geography module but could easily be adapted to the requirements of any programme with the assistance of the Faculty Liason Librarian. The key information literacy skills addressed within these practical sessions are addressed in greater detail within a HEA Student Study guide entitled “Enhancing Students’ Information Skills”. Whilst this is geared towards students undertaking geography, geology and environmental science, the majority of the content is generic and is again of potential use to any degree programme. [PDF – WallerSchultz2015]

Practical Resources

Session 1: Introduction to information literacy and key resources

The opening session provides an introduction to the concept of information literacy, its constituent skills and their relevance to degree-level study. [Resource, PPT FILE – S1]

The session also incorporates an introduction to the library and its facilities that includes a demonstration of basic search skills that showcase online reading lists, the library catalogue and the search facilities for Electronic and Print Journals. The primary activity involves the completion of a workbook that provides the opportunity to practice these key skills. [Resource, PDF FILE – S1]

Session 2: Searching & Browsing

The second session builds upon the basic search skills covered in session 1 and addresses the more advanced skills required to locate relevant journal literature. The session is largely based around the completion of workbook that covers the use of search engines and gateways (e.g. Google Scholar), bibliographic databases (e.g. Web of Science) and electronic journal collections (e.g. JSTOR). It also considers the formulation of appropriate search phrases using key terms, quotation marks and Boolean operators. [Resource, PDF FILE – S2]

Session 3: Locating and evaluating information

The third session considers how to make the most effective use of the “hits” resulting from a literature search. A key focus is the assessment of the reliability and credibility of sources. This includes an exercise that requires students to critically appraise a diverse range of resources that cover the same subject area.

The session also covers the effective management of information and the use of reference managers. It also considers the effective reading skills required to locate the information required quickly and efficiently. [Resource, PPT FILE – S3]

Session 4: Information Literacy Challenge

The concluding session provides some final advice on common problems such as what to do when the article you need is unavailable. [Resource, PPT FILE – S4]

The session culminates in the completion of a “information literacy challenge” that constitutes the summative assessment for this practical programme. In this way the sessions are integrated into the assessment regime of the module. [Resource, PDF FILE – S4]

3. Student feedback

Student feedback on this new practical component has generally been very positive with one student commenting:

“The teaching of referencing and databases on which to search journals was excellent and helped greatly in the transition to university.”

This highlights the important role the development of these skills can play in facilitating transitions into HE study and the importance of addressing them at the start of a degree programme. Their coverage within a sequential series of two-hour practical sessions appears to be an effective format that allows the coverage of key concepts and the incorporation and completion of interactive tasks.


Johnston, B. & Webber, S., 2003. Information literacy in Higher Education: a review and case study. Studies in Higher Education, 28, 335-352.

Mittermeyer, D., 2005. Incoming first year undergraduate students: How information literate are they? Education for Information, 23, 203-232.

Waller, R.I. & Knight, P.G., 2012. Overcoming the barriers to the use of journal articles with the geosciences. Planet, 25, 27-32.

Creative Commons License
Developing information literacy skills within undergraduate programmes by Richard Waller, Peter Knight & Julie Beard, Keele University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.