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Lehigh University Libraries - Library Guides

TRAC Seminar: Understanding Information

Fall 2018, Greg Skutches

Practicing Information Literacy

We interact with, process, and use information everyday, constantly, and oftentimes unconsciously - news reports, twitter feeds, political campaigns, magazine articles, textbooks, youtube videos, wikipedia, and the list goes on. But what does it mean to be information literate? Perhaps it's easier to describe what the information literate person -- according to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), the information literate individual is able to:

  • Determine what kind of information is needed
  • Access the needed information efficiently
  • Evaluate information critically
  • Use information ethically and effectively

Pretty noble pursuits, but what does all that mean? Use the tabs above to further unpack the concept of information literacy and how you, as a TRAC fellow, can help guide students through their writing process by improving their research and critical thinking skills. 

The production of information follows a process, from research to writing to revision to dissemination. Being conversant with the modes of production and dissemination within a discipline, in all its variant forms, enhances our understanding of its scholarship. Consider the following when working with student research:

  • Is the student making appropriate and effective use of the full spectrum of resources within their discipline? Consider what types of sources are being cited and whether that fits with the student's aims. (For example, if a student's research concerns an event, it may be useful to them to incorporate primary sources such as newspaper articles in addition to secondary sources such as academic articles.)
  • If a student's research resources seem unidimensional and their work lacks dynamism as a result, encourage them (if the assignment allows for it) to go beyond traditional scholarly journals and look for quality, informative resources in other forms. This could be anything from a memoir to a documentary.

Good research begins with a good question, or at least with the spark of an inquiry. Sometimes it's easy for students to get bogged down in the mechanics of information-seeking and forget about the exploration and discovery aspect of research. Doing the following can help a student re-engage with the heart of their research question:

  • Emphasize a student's personal interests in order to create a better sense of immediacy. Ask them why they chose a specific topic, and what interests them about it, and work with them to extract potential threads of inquiry from that interest.
  • Remind them of opportunities outside of the classroom: the Lehigh Library Prize, poster sessions, grant funding, and research forums and symposiums both within and outside of Lehigh.
  • Don't be afraid to do a visual brainstorming activity with a student if their thoughts in their paper seem a bit jumbled and not quite thought-through. 

 

 

Research among most scholarly communities involves sustained engagement with and discourse on ideas over extended periods of time. While scholars look to the past and cite their intellectual predecessors, they also contribute new ideas to the conversation. In order to help guide students toward thinking about themselves as a part of that conversation, consider these questions:

  • What does the trajectory of this idea/issue look like over time? How does it change? Why might it have changed (politics? cultural shifts? technology?) 
  • Is there a dominant strain of thought in this topic? What do alternative voices have to say? Try to get the student to engage with the full spectrum of research on a topic.
  • What new perspective is the student's work adding to the scholarly conversation? Or are they just regurgitating others' ideas? This is a key aspect of the research process, but one many students struggle with.

 

Credibility is a significant hallmark of evaluating a source. We cite researchers or scholars because we believe that their work is based on sound, rigorous research, and thus authoritative, credible, and reliable. But it's important to our audience that we make clear why we are citing that author's work, and that we always maintain a critical eye when interacting with any information source, no matter who wrote it. If a student's work is murky on this point, question: 

  • Who is the student citing? Sometimes, you will come across statements quoting a person, but with no explanation for who that person is or why their work is valuable. Prompt the student with: What are that scholar's credentials, and why are their views important?
  • What does authority look like within a particular discipline? Might other, less "authoritative"  voices be valuable to the student's research?
  • Has the student critically engaged with an information source, or just taken it at face value because of the authority behind it? It's okay to deconstruct authority, or to be critical of a highly esteemed scholar's viewpoint--that is how a scholarly discussion evolves. 
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Information Timeline

Every potential source of information on a subject isn't necessarily appropriate for your research question, particularly if the question involves an event. An important part of figuring out what kind of resources you or a student you're working with may need is considering the information timeline:

 

(Image courtesy of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Libraries)

For example, if a student were interested in writing on the Ferguson trial and aftermath during the Fall 2015 semester, they would be able to find a wealth of information via the internet, news media, and magazines. Articles may even be available in very recently published scholarly journals. It would be difficult, however, to find books, government materials, and reference materials on the subject due to the recency of the event. Keeping this timeline in mind can help shape effective information-seeking practices.

Information Pyramid

When we work with numerical data, or search through databases for information, ultimately we do so in order to produce knowledge, whether within ourselves or for our professional or academic communities. The Information Pyramid visually explains how human understanding progresses from data to wisdom:


(image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)