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* Information Literacy

This white paper was compiled by members of the UW Colleges Library Council, Dyan Barbeau (UW Sheboygan), Kelley Hinton (UW Waukesha), and Kelly Johnson (UW Fox Valley).  It provides an overview of the definition of information literacy, its importance, what the research shows about students' information literacy, and resources for assessing information literacy skills.  

Review the information and resources and visit the opportunities to reflect and respond to this white paper.

What is Information Literacy?

Information literacy is the ability to locate, evaluate, and use information effectively. According to the Association of College and Research Libraries, an information literate individual is able to:

  • Determine the extent of information needed 
  • Access the needed information effectively and efficiently 
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically 
  • Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base 
  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose 
  • Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally.


Why is Information Literacy Important?

Increasingly in today’s world, information literacy is both a core and critical skill to be able to quickly assess information from a wide variety of sources. While future means and methods of accessing information cannot be predicted, information literacy will grow in importance as information proliferates in volume, scope and on a global scale.  Moreover, information literacy skills are key outcomes of a college education as recognized by accreditation agencies and employers, who seek individuals with these skills. See “Raising The Bar: Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake Of The Economic Downturn.” The Association of American Colleges and Universities has included information literacy as an essential learning outcome in the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative.


Are College Students Information Literate?  

In spite of a growing recognition of the importance of information literacy, multiple studies have found that students are lacking in these core skills.  See, for example, “What Students Don’t Know,” a two-year, five campus study by Illinois academic libraries, which found that a majority of students lacked skills running the spectrum of the research process: from selecting key terms, conducting effective database searches, and even failing to use Google efficiently and effectively.  Compounding the problem is students’ confidence in their technological skills, which they confuse as research skills.  See, for example, "Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age."  Employers also have noted that while their new hires exceeded their expectations in terms of technological proficiency, they did not have the research skills the employers expected.  The employers in one study found that the new graduates primarily used search engines to find quick answers, even when the question required in-depth research that used sources other than search engines.  For more information, see “Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace."


How Can Instructors Foster Information Literacy Skills?

The importance of strong information literacy skills to a student’s continuing success creates a need for faculty to participate in ongoing instruction.  Traditionally, faculty played a limited role in teaching “research skills,” believing instead that students were taught these skills in high school or by college librarians and/or that students “learned by doing” when completing a research assignment.  See, “All Together Now: Getting Faculty, Administrators, and Staff Engaged in Information Literacy Assessment.”  However, the old “one-shot” approach to research instruction in high school or college and the completion of a research paper in English 102 does not provide enough experience for students to develop competency of higher level information literacy skills outlined by the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of American Colleges and Universities and numerous commissions and associations in higher education. Rather, students need multiple lessons, experiences and opportunities to find, evaluate and use information to become information literate.

In addition to providing ongoing literacy instruction, faculty and instructors play a crucial role in communicating the importance of information literacy to their students.  Discipline specific assignments illustrate information needs and their importance in every field of study.  These necessary skills are reinforced in the context of an assignment.  In “All Together Now: Getting Faculty, Administrators, and Staff Engaged in Information Literacy Assessment,” a long-term study of information literacy in higher education, assignments were reviewed for their relation to information literacy concepts.  Key findings included:

  •  “Six in 10 handouts recommended students consult the library shelves - place based source - more than scholarly research databases, the library catalog, the Web, or, for that matter, any other resource.”
  • “Only 13% of the handouts suggested consulting a librarian for assistance with research.”
  • “Few of the handouts (14%) that directed students to use the library’s online scholarly research databases…specified which database to use by vendor or file name from the hundreds that tend to be available.”
  • “Details about plagiarism, if mentioned at all, were scant and tended to emphasize the disciplinary recourse instructors would take against students who were caught in acts of academic dishonesty.”
This study highlights how assignments can teach, or fail to teach, information literacy skills.  It also demonstrates the need for faculty to highlight the role of the academic librarian in helping students with their research.  Because students frequently seek research assistance from their instructors, it is important that faculty appreciate their role in information literacy development. The article “Assigning Inquiry: How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students” provides helpful guidance for how to assess, reinforce, and improve the way information literacy is represented in assignments and assessment activities.

A greater emphasis on information literacy does not equate to a loss of class time.  As illustrated above, faculty and instructors can assist in developing information literacy simply by modifying their approach to research and information retrieval, evaluation, and use.  The UW-Colleges’ librarians offer a wide array of resources and services to assist faculty in this important task, as further outlined below.


What is the Library’s Role in Fostering Information Literacy Skills?

Each campus library offers a number of options to provide information literacy related services, which include opportunities for instruction, collaboration and support: 

Library Instruction

Library instruction sessions are developed and taught by librarians, often in collaboration with instructors, to further develop students’ information literacy skills.  Sessions can be customized to match course content as well as designed to meet students’ specific research/information needs.  Sessions may cover a wide range of research and critical thinking skills and often represent diverse instructional methods including hands-on activities, modeling/demonstration, group exercises, discussion etc.

Research Courses/Workshops/Embedded Librarians

Beyond or in addition to library instruction sessions, some campuses offer semester-long information literacy focused credit courses taught by librarians.  Workshops, community outreach programs, presentations and other forms of instruction designed to advance participants’ information literacy skills are also an important part of information literacy education on many campuses.  Recently, academic libraries have explored embedding librarians in research-heavy courses to allow for on the spot library instruction.

Curriculum Development

Librarians often work collaboratively with instructors to incorporate information literacy skills into course content/existing assignments or projects and/or suggest language regarding assignment expectations, learning outcomes etc.


Librarians may develop and utilize formal or informal information literacy assessments related to library instruction sessions or create and/or implement larger scale assessments to determine students’ proficiencies with information literacy skills.

Research Aides/Learning Objects

Librarian-created research aides (including Research Guides and Library Course Pages), online tutorials, handouts and other learning objects offer another means of promoting information literacy skills.  These materials are often created in consultation with instructors and/or departments. See, e.g., UW-Colleges’ Research Guides and Library Course Pages.

Research Consultations

Librarians work with students individually on a walk-in or appointment basis to help students with research and to develop or strengthen research skills.  Students may also get help via email, phone, instant messaging, Facebook etc. 


Reflect, Respond, or Interact

After reading this white paper on information literacy, consider the following questions:
  • What does information literacy "look like" in your discipline?
  • What level of information literacy skills do you expect students to have in your courses?  How do those skills vary or build on skills from previous courses or courses in other disciplines?
  • What learning outcomes for your courses involve information literacy?  If you had to add information literacy to your course outcomes, how might you describe competency in this skill for your courses?
  • What assessment activities do you assign that require students to use information literacy?
  • How can you more effectively incorporate information literacy into your assignments? Teaching? Class time? Course design?
  • What questions do you still have about information literacy?

Feel free to post your responses to these reflective questions on the VLTC blog, respond via Facebook or Twitter, or email a response to vtlc@uwc.edu.

Additional Considerations: Implications for Assessment

How is Information Literacy Assessed?

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has developed a rubric for assessing information literacy across all disciplines as part of their "Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education" (VALUE) series, which is reprinted below with permission from Assessing Outcomes and Improving Achievement: Tips and tools for Using Rubrics, edited by Terrel L. Rhodes. Copyright 2010 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. For more information, please contact value@aacu.org


The VALUE rubrics were developed by teams of faculty experts representing colleges and universities across the United States through a process that examined many existing campus rubrics and related documents for each learning outcome and incorporated additional feedback from faculty. The rubrics articulate fundamental criteria for each learning outcome, with performance descriptors demonstrating progressively more sophisticated levels of attainment. The rubrics are intended for institutional-level use in evaluating and discussing student learning, not for grading. The core expectations articulated in all 15 of the VALUE rubrics can and should be translated into the language of individual campuses, disciplines, and even courses. The utility of the VALUE rubrics is to position learning at all undergraduate levels within a basic framework of expectations such that evidence of learning can by shared nationally through a common dialog and understanding of student success. 

Framing Language 

This rubric is recommended for use evaluating a collection of work, rather than a single work sample, in order to fully gauge students’ information skills. Ideally, a collection of work would contain a wide variety of different types of work and might include research papers, editorials, speeches, grant proposals, marketing or business plans, PowerPoint presentations, posters, literature reviews, position papers, and argument critiques to name a few. In addition, a description of the assignments and instructions students received is vital to provide the complete context for the work. Although a student’s final work must stand on its own, evidence of a student’s research and information gathering processes, such as a research journal/diary, could provide further demonstration of a student’s information proficiency and for some criteria on this rubric would be required.


Information Literacy "VALUE" Rubric 
for more information, please contact value@aacu.org 

Information literacy is "the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively and responsibly use and share that information for the problem at hand." - The National Forum on Information Literacy 

Evaluators are encouraged to assign a zero to any work sample or collection of work that does not meet benchmark (cell one) level performance.

Student is able to...









Determine the Extent of Information Needed

Effectively defines the scope of the research question or thesis. Effectively determines key concepts. Types of information (sources) selected directly relate to concepts or answer research question.

Defines the scope of the research question or thesis completely. Can determine key concepts. Types of information (sources) selected relate to concepts or answer research question.

Defines the scope of the research question or thesis incompletely (parts are missing, remains too broad or too narrow, etc.). Can determine key concepts. Types of information (sources) selected partially relate to concepts or answer research question.

Has difficulty defining the scope of the research question or thesis. Has difficulty determining key concepts. Types of information (sources) selected do not relate to concepts or answer research question.

Access the Needed Information

Accesses information using effective, well-designed search strategies and most appropriate information sources.

Accesses information using variety of search strategies and some relevant information sources. Demonstrates ability to refine search.

Accesses information using simple search strategies, retrieves information from limited and similar sources.

Accesses information randomly, retrieves information that lacks relevance and quality.

Evaluate Information and its Sources Critically

Thoroughly (systematically and methodically) analyzes own and others' assumptions and carefully evaluates the relevance of contexts when presenting a position.

Identifies own and others' assumptions and several relevant contexts when presenting a position.

Questions some assumptions.  Identifies several relevant contexts when presenting a position. May be more aware of others' assumptions than one's own (or vice versa).

Shows an emerging awareness of present assumptions (sometimes labels assertions as assumptions). Begins to identify some contexts when presenting a position.

Use Information Effectively to Accomplish a Specific Purpose

Communicates, organizes and synthesizes information from sources to fully achieve a specific purpose, with clarity and depth.

Communicates, organizes and synthesizes information from sources.  Intended purpose is achieved.

Communicates and organizes information from sources. The information is not yet synthesized, so the intended purpose is not fully achieved.

Communicates information from sources. The information is fragmented and/or used inappropriately (misquoted, taken out of context, or incorrectly paraphrased, etc.), so the intended purpose is not achieved.

Additional Reading & Resources:

UW Colleges Libraries Information Literacy Policy

Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for College Students

Hart Research Associates. Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning In the Wake of the Economic Downturn - A Survey among Employers Conducted on Behalf of The Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2010. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.  

Head, Alison J., and Michael B. Eisenberg. Assigning Inquiry:  How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s CollegeStudents. The Information School, Univ. of Washington, 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. Project Information Literacy. 

Head, Allison. Learning Curve: How CollegeGraduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the WorkplaceThe Information School, Univ. of Washington, 2012. Project Information Literacy.  

Head, Alison J., and Micael B. Eisenberg. Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age. The Information School, Univ. of Washington, 2009. Project Information Literacy. 

Head, Allison J., and Michael B. Eisenberg. Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age. The Information School, Univ. of Washington, 2010. Project Information Literacy. 

Kolowich, Steve. “What Students Don’t Know” Inside Higher Ed. 22 Aug. 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. 

Oakleaf, Megan, Michelle S. Millet, and Leah Kraus. “All Together Now: Getting Faculty, Administrators, and Staff Engaged in Information Literacy Assessment.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 11.3 (2011): 831–852. Project MUSE. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. (UWC Library login required)

Rhodes, Terrel, ed. 2010. Assessing Outcomes and Improving Achievement: Tips and Tools for Using Rubrics. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. See, VALUE Rubric, attached hereto.

Weiner, Sharon A. "Information Literacy: A Neglected Core Competency."  Educause Quarterly: n. pag. Web. 29 Apr. 2013. 


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