50 Shades of Information Literacy

Information literacy can be found hidden in every corner of every discipline out there. It’s not always called information literacy and it does not always look the same. In that way, information literacy is very similar to complex reasoning skills. And some would argue that they are in fact the same.

If you think about it, every discipline requires a certain set of reasoning skills. On a broad level, these skills fall under the umbrella of inductive and deductive reasoning. But under that umbrella, you’ll find an enormous subset of reasoning skills. There’s social reasoning, legal reasoning, conditional reasoning, statistical reasoning, creative reasoning, academic reasoning, critical reasoning, historical reasoning, et al… And when you delve into the details of each reasoning skill, what do you find? Something that resembles information literacy. In other words, information literacy is a multifaceted reasoning skill. There are many shades of information literacy.

Take historical reasoning for example. The historical reasoning model could easily serve as a model for information literacy. Here’s what it looks like:

Susan De La Paz, “Effects of historical reasoning instruction and writing strategy mastery in culturally and academically diverse middle school classrooms.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), (2005): 139–56.

The first time I saw this, I had an AHA moment. This is how information literacy can and should be integrated into a History course. It could also be used more generally in a Composition course focused on primary sources.

If we start viewing information literacy as a multifaceted reasoning skill, it becomes much easier to find a model for it that is tailored to a specific discipline. This is an entirely new perspective that changes the focus from the characteristics of information sources to the information content itself. Characteristics provide clues, but decision making is based on reasoning that is rooted in a specific discipline.

By tackling information literacy through the lens of disciplinary practices, I think we will make greater progress in improving students’ information literacy skills. Even better, it provides new opportunities for librarians to integrate information literacy across the curriculum, and for students to practice those skills within an authentic context.



14 thoughts on “50 Shades of Information Literacy

  1. Hi Amanda,
    This is a really great find/discovery–thank you for sharing it! I see the historical reasoning model you shared comes from an article in the Journal of Educational Psychology. If I wanted to, say, hunt up the reasoning models for various undergraduate disciplines, what would you suggest are the best places to look for these? And, a related Q: this historical reasoning model and others like it: are they, to put it frankly, universally accepted and somehow “endorsed” by the disciplines in question? I ask because I’m putting together a conference presentation about disciplinary frameworks as a means to information literacy collaboration between academic librarians and teaching faculty. I’m drawing more on frameworks like (paraphrased): “Competencies that All Psychology Majors should have at the completion of their major” (this actually exists on the APA site, but I forget the exact name of it–it will be one of my examples though). This idea of disciplinary models of *reasoning*, though, is incredibly applicable to what I’m doing, but I’m just not sure how to go about hunting up examples short of an extensive lit review in educational journals. Just curious if you have any insight of a specific source (say, disciplinary associations for what I was referring to above) where I could poke around and try to find some of these models, and, if you get the sense that the models are universally accepted in each discipline. Thanks in advance!
    –Donna Witek, The University of Scranton

    • Hi Donna,

      You might want to start with The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning (ISBN: 0521531012). That will give you an overview of research and models for reasoning and related areas.

      For articles, try ERIC and PsycINFO — keywords: reasoning AND teaching methods. You’ll find articles (and plenty of examples) on models and teaching strategies for various types of reasoning skills. You’ll also find A LOT of articles because there are so many types! Keep in mind that reasoning, critical thinking and problem solving are sometimes used interchangeably. Also, don’t just focus on higher education. K-12 literature has a wealth of good examples that are easily transferable to higher ed (like the article I cited).

      I think one of the problems in higher education is that faculty are teaching reasoning skills intuitively, not intentionally [because they generally do not have a background in educational psychology or cognitive science]. So for example, while the concept of historical reasoning is universally accepted in the history discipline, some may call it historical thinking and some may only recognize that they are teaching it when you describe what it is. Other disciplines are undoubtedly the same, although certain exceptions exist such as clinical reasoning in the health sciences. What is interesting to me is that the health sciences is one of the few places where information literacy has gained prominent attention (e.g. nursing). Maybe that is because models and strategies for clinical reasoning are clearly recognized (that’s a good example to use!).

      The competencies angle actually works quite well, but you’ll find that learning outcomes are stated very broadly (e.g. critical thinking, problem solving). That’s okay because information literacy IS a critical thinking and reasoning skill, and is required for problem solving. I think part of the strategy is to move away from discussing information literacy as what most faculty consider basic research and library skills. Instead discuss it in terms of critical information literacy (information content not just sources). Here’s a good article that describes where I’m coming from: (http://westmont.edu/_offices/provost/documents/Senate/Full/2009-2010/Discipline-Based%20Approach%20to%20Information%20Literacy.pdf)

      Good luck!


      • I know my original comment and your response was months ago, but I just wanted to thank you for your attention to my question! Lots of good information here 🙂

  2. Interesting post and graphic…however this is not a new revelation. There has been content-based information literacy initiatives for some time. The C Bruce ‘informed learning’ has been focused on this for several years. The, perhaps, obvious question is how and why would anyone try to teach information literacy outside of a discipline/subject context?

    • You’re right Hal. Constructivist approaches to learning have been around for a long time. Like Bruce, I see information literacy from a socio-cultural context, but view it as a critical thinking/complex reasoning skill instead. In that light, I agree with the need to teach information literacy within disciplinary practices. However, I see no need to design the curriculum from an informed learning perspective if it’s already being taught within the construct of a reasoning or critical thinking model. Instead, I think it would be simpler to identify existing models and integrate information literacy within them.

      “The, perhaps, obvious question is how and why would anyone try to teach information literacy outside of a discipline/subject context?”
      This same debate exists for critical thinking and problem solving skills. Those skills obviously differ by discipline, but research has shown that they can be taught generally (Bruning, Schraw & Norby). The same argument can be made for information literacy, and we are teaching undergrads general info lit skills on a daily basis. The big problem is that students are neither getting adequate opportunity to practice those skills, nor are they getting adequate instruction on how to bridge those skills into new subject areas (and bridging is key to successful transfer). A case can be made for a general to discipline-specific approach, as students transition from general ed courses to their disciplinary majors. That approach would align well with standards such as AAC&U’s LEAP initiative.

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