Personalised approaches to teaching information literacy


How adept are your students at finding and using information? Dr Andrew Shenton discusses a personalised approach to fostering information literacy.

Much advice is available to teachers wanting to instruct their pupils in how to find and use information. Indeed, a wide range of models devoted to information literacy (IL) has existed for many years.

Typically, these list for educators the relevant skills to be taught, while indicating to learners the steps they should take when faced with any major task that necessitates locating and exploiting information. 

In his book Improving Students’ Web Use and Information Literacy, James Herring makes a somewhat radical suggestion, however. He raises the possibility that youngsters may be encouraged to develop their own IL models. There are several benefits of this approach – pupils are given the freedom to create a framework that suits their preferred learning style, reflection is promoted, and the prospect that the skills in question will be transferred across subjects and retained over time is increased.

This article offers some ideas that will help youngsters to devise such a model. The stages outlined below provide a possible structure to stimulate thought and self-analysis – they are not intended to be a definitive set of steps that should be imposed.

Phases of Facilitation

1. Identifying roles

Information needs are associated with the roles people assume in their lives. An individual may fulfil the functions of, for example, citizen, consumer, employee/manager, son/daughter, parent, carer, voluntary worker or hobbyist.

While the range will be narrower for a teenager, it is unlikely that their roles will be restricted to that of a school pupil. An appropriate starting point for the formulation of a personal model lies in helping youngsters to define their own roles.

Since these reflect the specific circumstances of that individual, thinking in this direction can assist the person to lay the foundations of an overall IL model that is peculiar to them.

2. Reflecting on information needs

Here the learners explore how, by taking on certain tasks that pertain to the roles they have noted, they have had to deal with emergent needs for information. Pupils may consider how, in their own cases, each such need that they have experienced recently first arose. The needs identified may be categorised.

3. Ascertaining information requirements

Based on their recollections of the “need” scenarios considered above, learners here specify the qualities they expect to be inherent in the desired information. The attributes will vary to some degree according to the situation involved but where the youngster is able to isolate and record the typical characteristics that are necessary, this encourages them to take a proactive stance with regard to information requirements when conducting a future search during which the model is consulted, rather than merely respond to what is retrieved.

4. Exploring information-seeking

Information-seeking is the action taken by an individual in order to satisfy a recognised information need. There are two key dimensions: where/what (the environment in which the activity takes place and the nature of the resources involved) and how (the strategies and skills applied by the user).

One approach to considering past information-seeking action is to address what was done in both respects by the individual acting on each of the needs identified in stage two. 

This fourth phase also provides an opportunity for the learner to think broadly about other information environments that may be of help, the range of options available in terms of the resources that are accessible, and other tactics/skills that may be needed to find the information and ensure that what is ultimately selected satisfies the requirements reported in stage three.

5. Addressing information capture

Here the individual casts their mind back to the events that immediately followed the location of suitable information in the scenarios recalled. Was this material reproduced for later consultation, through, for example, photocopying, scanning or printing out? 

The making of notes may be a slightly different form of activity as it often marks the beginning of the individual’s attempts to relate the material to their existing knowledge base and thus their record effectively adds value to the information that has been discovered.

6. Recording information use

Information use encompasses how material that has been identified as appropriate is exploited so as to resolve the situation that led to the pursuit of information. 

It may mean creating a tangible end-product, like an essay, making a decision or tackling a problem. If, however, information was sought simply because of a desire to know, the achievement of the informed state forms the culmination of the information use phase. 

Where the stage of information use is multi-faceted, as may be the case if a lengthy academic assignment is to be produced, it could be necessary to break it down so that typically occurring sub-tasks are delineated.

The role of the teacher

Work on the pupil’s part to create their own IL model consists of three elements: 

  • Deconstruction: Interpreting the individual stages of information behaviour in terms that are relevant to them personally.

  • Reflection: Recalling and examining specific experiences from their lives that pertain to the phases identified.

  • Abstraction: Forming overall generalisations derived from patterns that have been detected in relation to their own situations.

The cognitive demands of model construction are substantial and pupils may well need particular support when generating the abstractions. The educator may ask the learner to consider from the outset a range of situations with which they are familiar and note commonalities; an alternative approach lies in inviting the person to concentrate initially on one situation known to them, identify the issues that the scenario illustrates and expand their understanding in the light of their other experiences.

In helping to guide thinking, the teacher must take care not to offer so detailed a framework that the pupil need do little more than fill in a few strategically placed gaps. If the ultimate structure is to be a truly personal model of IL, then obviously scope must be allowed to ensure that it is genuinely rooted in the youngster’s own ideas.

Final thoughts

The purpose of this article has been to suggest some issues for consideration by learners when they construct personal IL models; educators familiar with the literature may well be keen to incorporate extra prompts derived from existing IL frameworks or research on information behaviour.

The form that is taken by the model must be intuitive to the learner. Many models are conveyed diagrammatically and, in schools where mind-maps, for example, are championed, the youngster may want to set down their model in a manner that allows them to draw on the skills they have already developed in this area. 

In addition, educators in institutions that advance particular techniques for thinking may wish to highlight links between these and the processes associated with IL. Making the appropriate connections helps the school to demonstrate the widespread applicability of the advocated techniques and enables the pupil to understand elements of IL in terms with which they have become familiar.

This article has addressed the early stages involved in the construction of a personal model of IL. Herring envisions that the outcome is not static but is developed by the pupil while they progress through their time at school. It should be refined and enriched by the person as they undergo new experiences. 

In short, any personal IL model amounts to a work in progress, and is not concerned with providing a definitive statement.

  • Dr Andrew K Shenton is curriculum and resource support at Monkseaton High School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a former lecturer at Northumbria University.


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