Questions from ACRL: Student proficiency versus student confidence

Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

Last month, I did a webcast for the ACRL virtual conference called “Research is Not a Basic Skill.” It was a great experience (and a great conference!). There were some really interesting questions during the Q&A part of the presentation and I wanted to take some space here to answer some of them a little more fully now that I’ve had some more time to think about them.

So this is the first in what will probably be a series of entries addressing some of the questions I got, starting with one about student proficiency versus student confidence.

How proficient are students with information literacy skills?

Anyone who submits a proposal to an ACRL conference knows that they’re big on audience participation. With webcasts, this usually means some kind of audience survey or maybe a Padlet type thing. I decided to go low tech and just put a bunch of information literacy skills up on the screen at the beginning and ask everyone to rate, on a scale of 1-10, how proficient students are with these skills before they receive instruction.

Here is that slide:

acrl 2019 hosier research is not a basic skill proficiency scale

So here’s where I admit that this was actually the first part of the presentation I messed up. (The others were when I lost my place in my script…twice…and my life flashed before my eyes.) I meant to ask the audience about these one by one, but I ended up just asking “How proficient do you think students are with these skills in general?” which, in reviewing the tape, I saw caused some confusion. Oops.

Anyway, the general reaction was what I’d expected based on asking the same question in past presentations on similar topics: pretty much everyone rated students very low. And there’s always at least one person who asks if they can assign negative numbers. Basically, librarians are pretty sure students don’t know much about this stuff before they come to us to learn about it.

How confident are students about these skills?

The trick is that I then ask everyone to use the same scale with the same set of skills to rate how confident students are with these skills. So, we know how proficient we think students are. How proficient do they think they are?

As you might expect based on the fact that I’m asking this question at all, there’s a pretty big mismatch. If people were asking about assigning negative numbers before, with this question they’re not shy about answering with “11” or some other number beyond the scale of 1-10.

Like so:

acrl 2019 hosier research is not a basic skill proficiency and confidence

(Note: These were not the actual answers given during the presentation but estimates based on general trends in those answers.)

As I talk about in the presentation, this is pretty much in line with what research says, which is that there’s a mismatch between students’ confidence with their research/information literacy skills and their proficiency with those same skills. For some students (but not all or even as many as you might think), the result is overconfidence. They believe they are much more skilled than they actually are. This comes from research by Valeria E. Molteni and Emily K. Chan (1).

Actual confidence versus the appearance of confidence

During the presentation, someone observed that there might be a difference, though, between how confident students say they are and how confident they actually are.

I think this is a really interesting point and it makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider that research (and therefore information literacy) is thought of as a basic skill. So much so that when non-library faculty are asked at what level they would have expected students to master the skills described by the Standards, in a study by Gullikson (2), a lot of them basically said “high school.”

Students must pick up on that, right? They take their cues from their instructors, who tend to portray “library day” as Very Important (Please Take Good Notes) but also A Little Remedial. If this is stuff their professor thinks they should have learned in high school, of course they’re going to act like they already know it. Especially if their peers are doing the same thing.

So, yeah. Students might act confident but that doesn’t always mean they actually are confident.

But that’s just another reason why it’s important to teach them the contextual nature of research.

Research is not a basic skill in any context

In the past, an information literate person was thought of as someone who could successfully carry out a set of standard, basic research skills in an academic or scholarly context. The ACRL Framework has since expanded our understanding of what information literacy is and what an information literate person can do. In its acknowledgement of the importance of context, I think it’s fair to argue that, among other things, an information literate person can now be understood, at least in part, as someone who can recognize and engage with the expectations and conventions of research in a variety of contexts, not just academic or scholarly ones. Just like a successful writer is someone who can engage with different genres of writing.

In a study related to college composition, Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz (3) found that the most successful college writers were ones who recognized themselves as novices at college-level writing even if they had some expertise with other types of writing.

In other words, the students who understood that what they were learning was not just a basic skill.

The whole premise of my presentation (and the article it’s based on…and parts of this blog) is that if we teach research and information literacy in a way that conveys the importance of context to the research process, students and non-librarians and other outside stakeholders might begin to recognize that research is not a basic skill. Because even if you’ve mastered research in one context, you may be a novice in another context.

This might help with the false confidence issue because students might better understand that even though they’ve mastered Google, college-level research may for a lot of them be an area where they’re still learning. Even if they’re seniors. And that’s okay.

So with information literacy, teaching the contextual nature of research might help students who are overconfident (whether or not they say so) recognize that they have more to learn. But it also might help students who are not confident (whether or not they say so) understand that it’s okay to still be learning this stuff.



(1) Valeria E. Molteni and Emily K. Chan, “Student Confidence/Overconfidence in the Research Process,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 41 no. 1 (2015): 2-8.

(2) Shelley Gullikson, “Faculty Perceptions of ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32 no. 6 (2006): 583-92.

(3) Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz, “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year,” College Composition and Communication 56 no. 1 (2004): 124-49.

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