Teaching to threshold concepts in information literacy

I’ve been reading and re-reading the first draft of ACRL’s revised framework for information literacy (http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/?page_id=133). I’ve got lots of thoughts forming, and I’ll make a point to draw them together. But today, as I read further, I found myself wanting to map the initial three threshold concepts to our existing instructional output in Champlain College. I’m really glad that I did this – I attended the open forum held during ALA Midwinter, and have been reading the reaction to the new framework online. It seems that some are concerned about the terminology. I think it will be key for ACRL and/or our industry to highlight to each other the great work that we’re all currently doing with threshold concepts and metaliteracy. I’m sure I’ll come back around to terminology as I think more about the framework. Mapping the Scholarship is a conversation threshold concept to one of our first year lessons highlighted to me that I’ve already been teaching threshold concepts. I’ve just never uttered the phrase “threshold concepts” to my students.

The annotated bibliography – a need for threshold concepts if ever there was one

Here in Champlain, we’ve recently wrapped up our Spring 1st year teaching round. Of all our information literacy lessons, first year spring sessions are one of the most “traditional” that we teach. We teach directly to an annotated bibliography assignment that students write based on the concepts of communities in their interdisciplinary curriculum. During one of my sessions I started by asking students why they thought their professor had tasked them with writing an annotated bibliography. The death stare ensued. Being completely comfortable with uncomfortable silence (and adept at using it as an effective pedagogical tool), I switched my question up to asking them if they could think of an example in their chosen profession where they might have to do a similar exercise. More silence. I called on any marketing majors in the room to help me find examples of using market research to bring a product to market, and with that it seemed to click. Suddenly, the annotated bibliography wasn’t a fruitless exercise that involved a frantic treasure hunt in the library – it was a real, tangible thing that they could see themselves having a stake in. So much so, that a creative media student raised her hand and asked me to help her figure out how the annotated bibliography could apply in the creative fields. When I offered grant proposals as a possible solution, I could see her pondering. And thus began our conversation about how an annotated bibliography was not a checklist of sources – but a collection of some of the best works about a topic, that outlines to the reader, a conversation in published form.

Now, I love annotated bibliographies – they position information literacy front and center, right? But I also hate them. All too often, they become a checklist exercise, where students come to the reference desk and say “I need A BOOK about the Puritans – it can’t be a website, or a journal. It has to be a book, because my professor says I need books, and journals and maybe one website”. It becomes a glorified treasure hunt of our resources. But they never need help finding the website, right? Because a website is easy to find, no?

So, back in my classroom, when I send students off to find source types for the annotated bibliography, and in light of our conversation that an annotated bibliography is a conversation, I challenge students not to find “just” a website, but to find a website that adds to that conversation. I encourage them to think about the voice that they might find exclusively, or more commonly on the web. They look at me for a few moments, and I give them an example. “If I’m researching online gaming communities, what perspective am I able to find online that is unlikely to be found in a scholarly journal article, or in a book, or perhaps a newspaper article?” And in all cases, students were able to tell me that the voice of the gamer, or the first hand experience, would be the unique perspective. Or, if we’re looking at historical communities, we can get to a similar perspective through primary sources online. By moving the emphasis away from format and towards the perspectives in a conversation, students actually begin seeking, selecting and interpreting information for purpose, and not out of some assignment obligation. “Would I rely solely on the gamer’s online blog? Not in a million years!” I say. “That’s when I might seek out the scholar’s voice in our conversation”.

Because research is a conversation. And we want all the voices, right?

Reading the new framework, and seeing the Scholarship is a Conversation threshold concept specifically, I have heart that our industry is attempting to take a look at the real problems our students encounter on their road to information literacy. And I think we might be able to see that these threshold concepts relate to the exact issues that we help students with all the time.


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