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.

Why Discovery Tools Are a Bad Idea for Beginning Researchers

The other day, I came across a pre-print article for C&RL that looked at the search effectiveness of different discovery tools, including EBSCO Discovery Service, Summon and Google Scholar. Even though EBSCO came out on top, the authors noted that students were generally incapable of evaluating sources and they relied heavily on default settings. That doesn’t surprise me.

I’m all for one-stop shopping in research. I do it myself. Google Scholar with library links is much less cumbersome than individually searching the dozen or so databases that cover ed tech and library literature. But I’m an information expert, a master of search strategies, and highly capable of analyzing my results. I also know when to go into an individual database for further research. And that’s the problem with discovery tools – they require a higher level of skills than novice researchers possess.

There are four roadblocks that make discovery tools a bad idea for beginning researchers:

  1. Poor search strategies. We all know how bad students are at developing strong search strategies. It takes practice, and they are accustomed to the ease of Google searching. Until discovery tools perfect semantic searching (and they haven’t), strong search strategies are key to finding the most appropriate information. Beginning researchers are still developing those skills.
  2. Information overload. I’ve talked about this before. Too many results lead to cognitive overload. This is particularly problematic for novice researchers (they’re overwhelmed). It’s one reason why students tend to select sources from the first page of results.
  3. Reflective judgment. I posted about this last week. There are seven stages of reflective judgment. Beginning researchers are typically in stage 3 when they enter college. This impacts both critical thinking and information literacy. The C&RL study found that students tended to place their trust in the authority of the search tools because of uncertainty in evaluating sources. That should be expected of a student who is still in stage 3 of reflective judgment.
  4. Reading comprehension. I don’t think this is talked about enough. Reading is the basis of all learning, and reading comprehension impacts the entire research and writing process. According to a 2006 study by the American Institutes of Research, only 38% of 4-year college students are graduating with proficient levels of literacy (23% for 2-year college students). Proficient literacy is defined as “reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences.” Proficient literacy is essential for information literacy. Read the full report here.

So what’s the best one-stop shopping alternative to discovery tools? For beginning researchers, I prefer Credo Reference or any of the Gale databases (e.g. Student Resources in Context, Opposing Viewpoints). And I’m betting that most librarians out there already know this. In my own experience, these are also the databases that students tend to go back to once they discover them. Why? Because they are well-designed and just-right for the developmental level of beginning researchers. They are also topic-driven, so much more relevant.

With so many databases out there, knowing where to start is a challenge. Discovery tools are the attempt at remedying this. But they’re a bad idea for beginning researchers for all the reasons above. I think it’s a much better idea to encourage faculty to scaffold (limited) database suggestions into the design of their research assignments.