A Developmental View of Information Literacy

How do students become information literate? That’s a question I have asked myself many times. I’m particularly interested in the relationship between cognitive development and information literacy learning.

Kitchener and King’s Reflective Judgment Model is one way to view information literacy from a developmental perspective. Take a look below:

The 7 Stages of Reflective Judgment 
Stage 1 Knowledge is absolute and self-evident. “I know what I have seen”
Stage 2 Knowledge is certain, can be obtained through direct observation or authorities. “If it is on the news, it has to be true.”
Stage 3 Knowledge can be temporarily uncertain. Absolute certainty is obtained through authorities. “When there is evidence that people can give to convince everybody one way or another, then it will be knowledge; until then, it’s just a guess.”
Stage 4 Knowledge is permanently uncertain and idiosyncratic. “I’d be more inclined to believe evolution if they had proof.  It’s just like the pyramids: I don’t think we’ll ever know.  Who are you going to ask?  No one was there.”
Stage 5 Knowledge is permanently uncertain, but contextually interpretable through “rules of inquiry.” “People think differently and so they attack the problem differently.  Other theories could be as true as my own, but based on different evidence.”
Stage 6 Knowledge is certain within a context, constructed into individual conclusions by comparing objective evidence and opinion from multiple perspectives. “It’s very difficult in this life to be sure.  There are degrees of sureness.  You come to a point at which you are sure enough for a personal stance on the issue.”
Stage 7 Knowledge is relative, though some interpretations are more reasonable than others. Greater truths are based on formal inquiry and evaluation of empirical data. “One can judge an argument by how well thought-out the positions are, what kinds of reasoning and evidence are used to support it, and how consistent the way one argues on this topic is as compared with other topics.”

(Adapted from http://www.umich.edu/~refjudg/reflectivejudgmentmodel.html)

It is believed that reflective judgment develops sequentially, and is influenced by two major mechanisms: experience (e.g. age, education, home environment) and belief system. College freshman typically score between Stages 3 and 4 . College seniors typically score around Stage 4.

This has important implications for information literacy instruction. Consider the following:

  • Is it a good idea to make absolute statements about information sources?
    • “Wikipedia is bad.” “Peer-reviewed is good.” These types of statements perpetuate the idea that knowledge is certain, which doesn’t help the development of students’ reflective judgment. Avoiding absolutisms and replacing them with inquiry-based activities can facilitate the development of reflective judgment. Here are some ideas:
      • Have students compare Wikipedia to something comparable (e.g. Credo Reference), listing the pros AND cons of each source.
      • Have students compare two peer-reviewed articles that critique each other’s findings (such as the more guns, less crime/more guns, more crime academic argument). This makes great material for discussion. It also forces students to face knowledge uncertainty.
  • Are some research topics better than others at helping students develop their reflective judgment?
    • The argumentative paper is the staple of freshman composition courses everywhere. It would make sense that these types of papers could facilitate the development of reflective judgment. However, reflective judgment is situational and a student’s belief system might impede its development if s/he chooses a research topic that s/he already holds very strong beliefs about (e.g. abortion).
      • One solution is to encourage students to select a topic that they want to learn about (not just one they want to argue).

If you look at Stage 7 of reflective judgment, that would seem to be the ultimate stage of information literacy and critical thinking. Yet, Kitchener and King have found that students are nowhere near that stage upon entering or even leaving college. Of course, certain factors such as age and background impact this. But, education itself is a factor. So it stands to reason that providing adequate opportunities for students to actually exercise reflective judgment could facilitate its development. I believe librarians play a crucial role in this, both as advocates of information literacy and collaborators in the design of assignments.


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