Mindset change in information literacy education

Information literacy (IL) has been taught in various forms all through my long working career and a long time before that. Early views of necessary learning content were connected with library use, information society skills, and supporting the information searchers’ own lifelong learning.

Technological development around early 1990’s made electronic information sources more reachable to end-users. As a consequence, higher education (HE) teachers started to expect their students to find information for their assignments independently. While assisting students in doing their searches, librarians and information specialists soon noticed that students tried to use natural language in the library and internet search engines. The outcomes of searches of that kind were either empty result sets or abundance of inaccurate hits, which caused a lot of frustration among students. Therefore librarians and information specialists started to deliver their own expertise namely database operation principles and information search skills to students and research personnel.

I believe that efficient information retrieval requires a special ‘information specialist mindset’, which consists of three elements. Firstly, electronic search engines hardly ever look for semantic words. To the search engines, words which in our minds have specific meanings are just character strings.  Bearing that in mind, searchers can more easily understand how words can and should be truncated and combined with each other. Secondly, knowing the contents of information sources, e.g. databases, helps in finding the right kind of information which can then be evaluated according to the desired use. The third part concerns information use according to the ACRL IL standard i.e. the ethical and legitimate use of information by taking into account economic, legal, and social aspects.

The information specialist mindset is still well-founded and the required skills are justified. Banks (2013) states that in the 2010’s Internet has changed the practises of creating, disseminating, and evaluating information. Scientific databases include information for scientists but locating it requires skills mentioned in connection with the mindset. Increasing open publishing allows all to access reliable scientific information but it is scattered among inaccurate and even false information, which should be identified. The 2015 IL framework (ACRL 2015) state that in addition to the previously mentioned IL skills it is important to understand the overall production process of information.

From the engineering viewpoint, design problems have become more complex than before. Solving them also requires a different mindset. One example are new and developed materials, which consist of different elements and behave differently compared with earlier ones. Therefore, some previously used standards do not apply any more. Moreover, sustainability must be taken into account in all research and design tasks which means that engineers can no longer examine their problems only from the viewpoint of their own discipline. The mindset change sets new requirements to engineering education but IL education must also change.

Many libraries struggle with IL education resource problems. How to meet the claims set by increasing student population, new multidisciplinary contents in substance education, and changes in IL education which is trying to find its place and shape in the new HE curricula while the Library’s own resources decrease?

Photo: Jonna Toukonen

In my organization, the basis of the solution to the resource problems is in integrating IL education into substance courses either as online teaching or in form of brief classroom sessions. The IL mindset which is central in IL education emphasizes understanding that students are seeking reliable and the right kind of information to find a solution to their research problem and that information searching is a crucial part of the research process. Searching skills are, of course, necessary but the main point is in the connection of information with the substance. The IL instructor guides students towards the right multidisciplinary and sustainable-centered information seeking by asking them relevant supporting questions.

Do students reach all necessary IL learning outcomes during brief IL education? This was one of the research questions in my doctoral dissertation (Talikka 2018). I studied the effects of brief integrated IL education on, in particular, mechanical engineering students’ ability to understand the nature of research i.e. looking for a solution to their research problem and using the retrieved information to create new information.  

On the mechanical engineering seminar course, which I studied in my dissertation, students wrote a seminar paper and made a poster based on literature search. They were supposed to find the most sustainable materials for a given solution. In the integrated, standard format IL lecture, I emphasized the IL mindset in understanding the multidisciplinary research problem as well as in information searching and in creating new knowledge. The pursued learning outcome was the new way of thinking: Firstly, the students should understand how their research problem concerns partly mechanical engineering and partly sustainability science. They should be able to find the right kind of multidisciplinary material and use it in creating new knowledge. Secondly, search skills were taught according to the letter-chain principle which made it easier to understand how words were truncated and connected to build search queries.

In a blind research, substance teachers gave higher grades for research problem definitions to research group students than they gave to the comparison group. According to my own observations, the number of central, research-problem-related terms was larger in the research group compared with the comparison group. Also the information search methods used by the research group had produced more accurate search results. The citation evaluations proved that the research group used more recent publications among which there was a higher percentage of scientific journals.

Another part of my research concerned changes in students’ definitions of their research problems and the respective information search questions. Students defined them in three stages: before IL education, after the classroom lecture, and when the project was finished. According to the classifications created for this research, students’ definitions of their research problems and information search questions matured towards deeper and more multidisciplinary understanding of the problem. Their papers also included skills, which are listed as key learning outcomes in international quality assurance organizations’ (ASIIN 2011, O’Hern 2012) criteria and the 2015 IL frames (ACRL 2015).

When brief IL education is integrated into mechanical engineering and sustainability science curricula students learn to understand the importance of reliable information and gain abilities to find and use it in solving multidisciplinary problems. One of the central findings in this doctoral study was that it is possible to influence the scientific level of students’ assignments in higher education. IL education can also have and important effect on students’ mindset in significant social matters – in this case recognizing sustainability problems and their solutions.

Based on this research we can also argue that brief integrated IL education saves library personnel’s time when IL lectures and learning assignments are part of substance education. For example, there is no need to allocate time for grading IL learning assignments. Saving time does not concern only the library staff; on multidisciplinary courses teaching time of substance experts is also saved as students appear to acquire knowledge from outside their own discipline when they use information from multiple fields of science.

The IL educators’ mindset also needs to change. In libraries, we tend to think of information literacy as our special expertise. In a way that is the case but taking it only as the library’s expertise leads to keeping IL separated from the substance teaching. The information professionals face a mindset change, because in addition to information expertise, there is an increasing need to familiarize oneself with substances taught in the core organization. To my mind, the IL teachers are HE educators who work side-by-side with other university teachers and who bring their contribution to university education with their information authority.


ACRL, 2015-last update, Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education | Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) [Homepage of Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL)], [Online] [Nov 5, 2015]. Available: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

ACRL, 2000-last update, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education | Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) [Homepage of American Library Association Institutional Repository], [Online] [Nov 15, 2015]. Available: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency.

ASIIN, 2011-last update, SUBJECT-SPECIFIC CRITERIA Relating to the accreditation of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes in mechanical engineering, process engineering and chemical engineering [Homepage of ASIIN], [Online] [May 10, 2017]. Available: https://www.asiin.de/en/quality-management/accreditation-degree-programmes/quality-criteria.html?file=files/content/kriterien/ASIIN_TC_01_Mechanical_Engineering_Process_Engineering_2011-12-09.pdf.

BANKS, M., 2013. Time for a Paradigm Shift: The New ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Communications in Information Literacy, 7(2), pp. 184-188.

O’HERN, C.S., June 27, 2012-last update, Undergraduate Study [Homepage of Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science], [Online] [May 21, 2017]. Available: http://seas.yale.edu/departments/mechanical-engineering-and-materials-science/undergraduate-study.

TALIKKA, M., 2018. Recognizing required changes to higher education engineering programs’ information literacy education as consequence of research problems becoming more complex, Lappeenranta University of Technology.

Text: Marja Talikka

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