Andrew Eynon’s Library Blog

A blog about librarianship in Further Education

How FE libraries can help develop critical thinking skills and support independent study

Posted by andrewey on January 8, 2009

Developing critical thinking skills and creating a culture of independent study is seen as central to higher education studies – and it could be argued that it is the development of these abilities which distinguishes study at HE level from that at further education level.

There is an article in the current issue of Journal of Information Literacy: C. Gunasekra ‘Fostering independent learning and critical thinking in management higher education using an information literacy framework’  Vol 2 (2) Dec 2008, which looks specifically at developing critical thinking skills amongst HE level management students. I would argue that some of the skills identified in the article, which are central to critical thinking and independent study, also have relevance to FE students  – so what can be be done by FE libraries to develop these skills?

The article refers to the Australian information literacy standards, which seem very similar to the SCONUL 7 pillars model, but makes particular  reference to collecting and using primary sources of information – which unfortunately is uncommon in FE but the information literacy standards themselves are still relevant.

Firstly students need to know what information they need to find. This can be very difficult for library staff to support if a student is unclear (or not specific enough) about what it is they are required to find information on. However standard library enquiry/interview techniques should produce some search terms/parameters. An excellent guide to library enquiry techniques for frontline staff is Tim Buckley Owens’ Success at the enquiry desk, 5th ed, London: Facet 2006. Interview techniques are also covered on the Applications of ICT in Libraries course.

Secondly, finding the information. This may simply require instruction on the use of the catalogue and it pays to have links on your catalogue to e-books, electronic subscriptions and other useful e-resources.

The weakness with information seeking could be that we rely on promoting the resources we’d prefer the students to use (particularly those we’ve paid subscriptions for) and offering instruction only on those. However the reality is that most students are probably heavily reliant on using Google to find information. Studies (such as those carried out by Ofcom) have shown that young people are very confident using the web but are not necessarily very competent,  so do require instruction on how to search for and evaluate online resources.

Personally, I have always found that information searching sessions work best where the students have something specific to search for, rather than trying to use generic examples. It’s also worth waiting until the students need to search for that information rather than putting on sessions at the very start of a course before they have had time to ‘find their feet’ and may be suffering from ‘information overload’. When delivering sessions the inclusion of subject specific resources is obviously better than relying solely on generic resources such as Infotrac etc but just getting students to follow the relevant Virtual Training Suite tutorial will give the session a more ‘tailor-made’ feel.  

Thirdly, how are students taught to evaluate websites? On the ICTL course for library staff most units involve evaluating online resources in terms of their authority, bias, currency, relevance, level, sufficiency etc. So although library staff may be well versed in evaluating resources how do we encourage students to do so? A simple method is to encourage students to use a checklist, like the one produced by Cardiff University. Cardiff have also produced a very useful flow chart for students to use when searching for information.

Fourthly, collecting and managing the information. This is important to avoid students being overloaded with information and to make sure that sources are correctly cited (and can be located again). Libraries can support this through the use of citation/referencing tools (some of which are free like Citeulike and Connotea) – although this may be too formal for many FE students simply wishing to reference web based sources.

Fifthly, applying the information and comparing/contrasting different viewpoints. This is probably the most challenging skill to teach – HE students at Coleg Llandrillo are encouraged to use Alastair Bonnett’s How to argue, 2nd ed, Harlow: Pearson, 2008 which offers clear advice on presenting an argument and dealing with conflicting viewpoints. 

Finally the students need to be able to understand the context of the information, particularly in terms of issues such as culture, law, ethics, economics and social mores. This is probably best left to teaching staff in order for them to provide the correct contextual information to the students.


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