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Encouraging students to improve their IL skills

10 October 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Gus MacDonald

Andrew Shenton’s experience of working with sixth-formers using various information literacy models has led him to develop a generic framework to encourage students to be able to recognise important characteristics and relate them to their own work.

For many years, defining the concept of a ‘model’ has been a challenge that has exercised the minds of academics ranging from skilled lexicographers to scholars in information science. Very often in our field, a model is viewed as some kind of generalised representation of reality and is frequently assumed to take diagrammatic form (as I have stated).1 A model can also be construed as an entity whose characteristics are suitable for imitation.2 When we talk, for example, of a ‘model’ pupil, we are likely to be referring to a learner who serves as a fine example to others. The use of models in various capacities has been an integral component within the programme of information literacy (IL) instruction that I have delivered to sixth formers in my own school for nearly 10 years. In this article, I draw on my experience to explore how teachers of IL can use models that present or embody ideal behaviour.

Scenario One: a specimen as a natural model

The teaching of conventions associated with academic referencing must rate as one of the less stimulating tasks undertaken by those of us concerned with IL in secondary schools. I have discovered over the years that some of the tedium felt by students can be lessened by allowing them as much choice as possible. For example, give ­students the freedom to choose their citation style; they may adopt either the ­author/date system or the numeric approach. Students can also be given scope to determine whether they will consult a handbook, such as Cite Them Right,3 or take a lead from an existing source which then becomes an exemplar. It is important, of course, to ensure that referencing in the source which is being consulted has itself been administered competently. If it is ­suggested that students locate such an exemplar for themselves, the danger arises that they may use a document plucked almost at random from the internet, where citing is either idiosyncratic or incorrect. In these circumstances, bad habits will quickly be adopted. For this reason, I always provide my classes with published copies of ­academic papers I have written myself. Nevertheless, in time students should take on greater ownership of their learning. There is, though, an unfortunate anomaly at work here. We can encourage students to select appropriate examples in order to learn from them but the process of choosing suitable material may itself require a knowledge of good practice that they do not yet have! Models of this kind may be termed ‘natural’ as the material under scrutiny has been created prior to and independently of the teaching and learning situation in which it is being employed. It was not intended or designed to be a model and takes on this status only with time and in the minds of readers, on the basis of its praiseworthy quality.

Scenario Two: a personal model

There are circumstances in which the educator may wish to create their own subjective models, specifically to meet their instructional purposes. The main aim may well lie in emphasising key teaching points that are being made. One of the principal advantages here is that the materials may be constructed with the particular needs of students in mind but the problem emerges that, in certain situations, the work may be viewed by the learners in an ‘exercise’ context rather than as ‘real’. I have prepared a model essay plan demonstrating how I believe a research question formulated by one of the students from a previous cohort might ideally be tackled and have created an exemplary annotated bibliography showing how academic sources may be found, even when investigating a topic that would seem at first glance to be far from scholarly.

Scenario Three: a composite model

Models can also be synthesised from material already in existence. It may be that a published model of how the research process should take place is adopted but the framework is embellished with the addition of elements from other models which are deemed to be pertinent to the needs of users. This strategy offers the advantage of exploiting the strengths of different models. Yet, there is the drawback that any particular philosophy that permeates a certain structure may become diluted.4 It is probably rare, though, for a teacher/librarian to accept a single IL model without making at least a few additions or amendments. Some may come from the individual’s own ideas and result from the experiences they have gained when teaching IL previously. Here the composite is not merely a hybrid of separate models but one that may ultimately be closer to a personal model if the instructor’s subjective augmentations are so great that they outnumber the original features. Other composites, whilst still owing their origins to several sources, are constructed from scratch and lack any basis in existing models. I myself have prepared such a structure after a rigorous examination of essays written by past students, diaries that the youngsters had maintained during the research process and notes that I had compiled during individual tutorials with the learners.5 Concentrating on the skills the candidates had exhibited in their work, I arrived at a breakdown of abilities that I felt could be displayed by an information literate individual with respect to the appraisal of source material. This could serve various purposes. For example, it might provide an assessment tool for the educator or guide the teacher/librarian when planning their interventions. From a student perspective, a learner might use it to plan how they could progress to a higher stage in the skills hierarchy.

Scenario Four: a natural model as inspiration for synthesis

Whilst devising a teaching session on how information should be evaluated, I was fortunate to hear the second episode in Tom Mangold’s radio series Inside The Bermuda Triangle,6 which includes a fine demonstration of how information should be appraised. I soon recognised that it was possible to evolve from Mangold’s analysis of two particular books a series of generic criteria that may be used in a range of situations where the quality of information must be assessed.

The issues may be defined as follows:


What do we learn when the claims made within the source are tested against information from other knowledgeable or interested parties?


Do the interpretations that are reached by the author seem plausible?

How is the work viewed by other experts?

The author and key contributors

What first-hand experience of the phenomena in question does the writer have?

What motivated them? Is the individual concerned with, for example, making money, entertaining the readers or presenting the truth?

Are the author and main contributors noted for their controversial stances?

Do their ideas in other areas seem believable or inspire confidence?


What evidence of research is there, starting with the bibliography and a list of acknowledgements?

How many citations of established sources are offered?

Are experts whose ideas are reported named or otherwise identified?

Are other anonymous people quoted?

Roots and grounding

How far is it apparent that the content is based on speculation rather than facts?

Is any particular perspective or philosophical orientation brought to bear on the events?


Is there an overuse of generalisations such as ‘there seems to be a growing awareness that…’, ‘independent researchers believe…’, ‘several of the most persistent observers…’ or ‘some investigators have suggested…’ with little real weight behind them?


Is any provision made for explanations that differ from those favoured by the writer?


Are there any clues that evidence has been created or embroidered to provide a dramatisation of what might have happened, rather than a factual record?

How far do the author’s claims about their intentions seem to be sustainable when the text is read?

The above breakdown is by no means perfect as a generic framework and criticisms can be made in several areas. Firstly, despite my efforts to develop a tool that is applicable in a range of situations, some of the questions remain too specific either to the books that Mangold was examining or to his overall territory. Detractors may also point to the fact that no attention is given to considerations such as the age of the material and the type of source, which many IL commentators believe to be crucial factors. Nevertheless, where students are given the opportunity to listen to the programme itself, they will experience a largely textbook-quality example of how information should be evaluated and, through the framework, they can be helped to appreciate that many of Mangold’s concerns may be explored in other situations. Certainly, such demonstrations provide students with an insight into how we can develop theory from practice, and the higher order thinking skill of abstracting is one we should seek to promote in learners, especially of post-16 age.

Final thoughts

Models of a range of kinds form a significant weapon in the arsenal of any school librarian. I have explored previously the beneficial effects on learners of displays that feature photographs of celebrities reading who, in doing so, effectively function as models;7 here I have concentrated on how models may be used in IL teaching. The materials employed in this context may already be ‘out there’ and have been prepared independently of the instructional programme. Alternatively, the model may be an amalgam of elements assembled by the educator from different places (including their own minds) to form a coherent whole. Other models may have been created entirely afresh by the instructor, perhaps to emphasise significant teaching points, to provide a means of skills assessment or as a method of promoting learners’ self-development. On the most fundamental level, I have outlined models that serve to encourage imitation on the part of learners; recognising the salient characteristics, students should look to relate these to their own circumstances. Yet, as we have seen, models may also be used as an intermediate stage in the creation of higher level constructs and provide a grounded basis for theory building. nU


1 Shenton, A.K. ‘Models of information behaviour: what are they and how can we construct them from qualitative data?’ Information Research Watch International, February 2006, pp. 2-3.

2 The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Ed. by J. Pearsall. Oxford University Press, 1999.

3 Pears, R. and Shields, G. Cite Them Right: the essential referencing guide. Pear Tree Books, 2008.

4 Shenton, A.K. ‘How do I choose from all these? Selecting a model for information skills teaching.’ School Librarian, 52 (2), 2004, pp. 62-63.

5 Shenton, A.K. A multi-faceted approach to school pupils’ evaluation of information. School Librarian, 64 (2), 2016, pp. 77-79.

6 Inside the Bermuda Triangle. Part two. BBC Radio 4. 30 March 2012.

7 Shenton, A.K. ‘The modelling of reading.’ School Libraries in View, 40, 2016, pp. 6-7.

Contributor: Andrew Shenton

Published: December 2016/January 2017

Related content:
School Libraries Group
Information Literacy Group

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