Taking the LEAP [Initiative]

The AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) is a “national advocacy, campus action, and research initiative that champions the importance of a twenty-first century liberal education.” The LEAP initiative has developed a set of Essential Learning Outcomes that they consider to be necessary for a 21st century liberal education. Information literacy is one of those outcomes. Currently, eight states are participating in the LEAP States Initiative.

My familiarity with LEAP comes from the University of North Dakota (where I am finishing up my IDT degree, albeit online). UND has adopted the Essential Learning Outcomes for their undergraduate education, and I wanted to give some insight into how it’s working. At UND, the Essential Learning Outcomes are called Essential Studies which are categorized as Communication, Diversity, Thinking and Reasoning, and Information Literacy. These four learning goals are supposed to be integrated across the curriculum into approved general education courses, and students are required to complete courses that meet these goals.

This sounds ideal, and I don’t think anyone can argue with the importance of the goals (and the inclusion of information literacy!).

The problem is (and this comes from a complaint my PSY 501 professor made when we were discussing the program in a class), faculty are getting little to no support on how they are supposed to integrate, let alone evaluate these skills in their courses. This makes me question the effectiveness of the program. It also illustrates the integral role that administration plays in the education of their students. Faculty support is everything, and in order to implement a cross-curricular program such as Essential Studies, administration needs to make integration and assessment equally consistent. And both instructional technologists and librarians play a central role in making this happen.

That being said, the LEAP Initiative does provide a wealth of resources that can assist faculty with implementation. However, many faculty are probably unaware of these resources (or maybe they don’t care). That’s where librarians and instructional technologists come in. Both parties need to promote these resources with faculty, and push for universal adoption of them across all courses within the Essential Studies program. You simply can’t successfully implement a program such as this without some level of standardization. After all, that is what LEAP is — a set of standards. And standard learning goals typically require some type of standard assessment.

Standardization is something librarians are very familiar with (e.g. ACRL Information Literacy Standards). But LEAP Initiative aside, how many librarians are providing faculty with qualitative assessment tools that can be used to evaluate information literacy outcomes in their courses? Focus tends to be more on assessments that are multiple choice in nature. While multiple choice is very useful and easy to implement, it tends to be more suitable for lower levels of learning. It is very difficult to create multiple choice tests that capture higher order thinking skills such as synthesis and evaluation. Rubrics are more suitable for that. And that is something that needs to be addressed in the library field. Check out the LEAP rubrics to see an example.

The higher order thinking skills of information literacy are almost indistinguishable from critical thinking and complex reasoning skills. So much so that standardized tests such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) are potentially suitable to measure information literacy outcomes as well. Take a look at a sample test. With the CLA on the horizon as a standardized assessment that all undergraduate students will be required to take, it will be interesting to see how well students perform on it. So far, studies that have assessed students with the CLA have found them seriously lacking in critical thinking and writing skills (read Academically Adrift). That also reflects directly upon information literacy.

A lack of critical thinking skills among students (and I include information literacy in this) is very worrisome to a lot of people in higher education.The solution many institutions have adopted is a set of standard learning outcomes like LEAP. And that’s great, except for the fact that implementation is often left up to faculty, with little direction or support. I think that’s why information literacy instruction sometimes feels like treading water. Librarians know what needs to be taught, but are trying to take it on themselves. Information literacy across the curriculum requires faculty training , faculty support and faculty integration. I call that “teaching the teachers.” But, in higher education that can be a treacherous road to travel (egos, you know;).



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