4 Barriers to Participating in Scholarly Communities of Practice

Last week, I explored communities of practice in the context of the new framework for information literacy. Today, I am going to discuss the barriers that may keep students from actively participating in scholarly communities of practice. Recognizing such barriers is important because when students aren’t participating within their communities of practice, they aren’t learning. That affects more than information literacy.

Here are the barriers, with discussion about strategies for overcoming them:

  • Problems with motivation.

Learning-wise, students are motivated by different things, both extrinsically and intrinsically. This affects goal orientation. Students’ goal orientations are also situation-dependent (i.e. subject-dependent), so they can hold multiple goals simultaneously.

Extrinsically motivated students tend to be performance goal-oriented. This includes performance approach (motivated to appear competent) and performance avoid (motivated to avoid appearing incompetent) orientations.

Intrinsically motivated students tend to be mastery-goal oriented. This includes mastery approach (motivated to learn) and mastery avoid (motivated to avoid misunderstanding) orientations.

Whether extrinsically or intrinsically motivated, the motivational problems come from the mastery- or performance-avoiding students. These students avoid participating in the classroom, which means they also avoid participating in communities of practice. Avoidance means fewer opportunities for these students to practice their IL abilities.

How can we integrate these “avoiders” into an IL community of practice? Reference services is one way. Think of this as a tutoring approach. The library (for many) is a non-threatening environment, so in a one-to-one reference transaction, students do not have the burden of feeling incompetent in front of their teacher or peers. This gives librarians the opportunity to help turn performance- and mastery-avoiders into performance- and mastery-approachers.

  • Lack of self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to accomplish a task or goal. Students with poor self-efficacy don’t ask for the help they need.

As with motivation, self-efficacy is situational. For example, a student might have poor self-efficacy when it comes to Biology, but strong self-efficacy when it comes to Art History. This impacts motivation, so the student will likely avoid participating within the communities of practices that make up the subject areas where he or she has poor self-efficacy. That in turn negatively impacts the student’s development of IL abilities within those communities of practice.

How can librarians address poor self-efficacy? Once again, through one-to-one reference transactions. Students with poor self-efficacy will not seek out help on their own, so in courses where IL abilities are particularly important, classroom instructors should be strongly encouraged to send their students to consult with a librarian during the research process. As students become more comfortable asking for help, their self-efficacy will improve. Over time, consulting with a librarian will become an IL practice for these students.

  • Low transfer of learning

Transfer of learning refers to the ability to transfer a set of skills or knowledge from one situation to another. This has important implications for information literacy since it is practiced differently within different disciplines.

Transfer of learning of information literacy from one community of practice to another requires what is called “high road transfer.” For example, in order to transfer IL abilities successfully from a general core college course to a specific disciplinary course, students need to approach the task mindfully, looking for common connections between the two communities of practice. This is an abstract, meta-cognitive process and quite difficult to achieve. Most students are only able to transfer the more procedural skills of IL successfully (e.g. database searching). This is called “low road transfer.”

How can librarians help students transfer their IL skills when transitioning from core courses to major disciplines? A meta-cognitive teaching strategy such as the think aloud protocol is one way. Think aloud is a strategy that can be used both during reference transactions and in the classroom. Scaffolding is another approach that can help students make connections between the IL practices they are familiar with and the IL practices of the new specific discipline.

  • Poor reflective judgment

Reflective judgment is a developmental process, and quite possibly the biggest barrier for students to become participants in IL communities of practices. Information literacy requires a high level of reasoning skills. Based on King and Kitchener’s Reflective Judgment Model, most students enter college in the pre-reflective stage of reasoning (i.e. knowledge is absolutely certain) and exit college with only having entered the quasi-reflective stage (knowledge is uncertain). More than anything, this affects IL teaching strategies and the design of learning environments.

Librarians can help students along this road of reasoning development by creating situations that expose students to ill-structured information problems (i.e. project-based or inquiry-based learning). The more exposure students have to such ill-structured situations, the more experience they get at exercising their IL abilities within a scholarly community of practice. Opportunities to participate in original research projects can be a particularly valuable experience for students at this stage.


7 thoughts on “4 Barriers to Participating in Scholarly Communities of Practice

    • Makes you wonder if the combination of a general public with largely average (and below average) reasoning skills, combined with a boat load of information and misinformation on the Internet has caused some of this retreat into enclaves of anti-scientific thought and motivated reasoning. This is why we need more librarians – though it does create a conundrum when trying to teach info lit.

      • The internet is notorious for letting people construct little bubble worlds of information, enabled by facebook likes or google search algorithms tailored to a person’s past preferences. It ensures a self-reinforcing feedback loop, and given our brains’ inclination toward confirmation bias (and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance), putting the THE facts in front of people is unlikely to change their minds.

      • I think there are a lot of factors involved, and in saying that I don’t mean to discount mean scientific illiteracy. As you point out, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and we do all have to deal with motivated reasoning. But I think it is also sort of systemic in our use of information technology/networking. The internet lets people build these little bubbles of pseudo-reality via facebook likes and Google search algorithms that show content and search results based on past preferences. I think that creates a sort of self-reinforcing feedback loop. If every time I go to Google I get Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield, I am NOT going to get an accurate picture of the state of the science regarding vaccine safety and efficacy. In a way, the technology that we are using plays into…or even preys on our own psychological/biological impulses to avoid cognitive dissonance. To be honest, I am not sure how librarians can address these issues…because it is insufficient to think that putting correct and accurate information in front of patrons will automatically make them accept it or even necessarily understand it.

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