Selected Resources: A Collaborative, Trilateral Approach”

You may not be aware of this, but every year the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee puts out two lists of Selected Resources, one focused on teaching methods and instructional design and the other focused on assessment. These lists feature articles and other materials that have been published the previous year that are worthy of note. It’s a resource that doesn’t get as much use or attention as it should, so I’ve decided to assign myself the homework of making my way through each item on last year’s lists and write about it here.

Today we’re all about “A Collaborative, Trilateral Approach to Bridging the Information Literacy Gap in Student Writing” by Trenia Napier, Jill Parrott, Erin Presley, and Leslie Valley.

Disclosure: I am currently a member of the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee, which selects and evaluates materials for the Selected Resources lists. I played a role in the selection process and reviewed several of the items that ended up on the final list as part of that process.

What it’s about

I think it’s safe to say that pretty much everyone who’s involved with information literacy instruction in some way, shape, or form is familiar with what the authors here call the “bilateral approach” to collaboration between libraries and academic programs or libraries and writing centers to try to enhance information literacy instruction. Here, the authors explore a “trilateral approach” between the writing center, the first year writing program, and the library that involved scaffolding writing and research workshops within first year composition courses. The article details how they pulled this off and presents data showing a positive correlation between their efforts and students’ ability to integrate sources into their research essays.


Something we all agree on

What I especially liked about what the authors did here is that they chose a specific aspect of information literacy to focus on trying improve. Specifically, college students’ struggle to effectively integrate sources into their research-related writing. This is an aspect of information literacy that librarians don’t often get to have much influence over unless we teach our own courses. We teach students how to find and evaluate information rather than how to use it because that’s what fits best into the models of instruction we usually have to work with. The ability to integrate sources is also something of a gray area, as far as whether that’s really information literacy territory or composition territory. But I think this just goes to show once again how intertwined the two are, though they’re often treated as two separate areas of learning.


Attempts to collaborate are often one-sided

In their literature review, the authors point out that bilateral approaches to collaboration between libraries and, most commonly, writing programs tend to be one-sided. They show this by citing a study that reveals that most (if not all) research that is published about these collaborations appears in LIS journals rather than journals on pedagogy in rhetoric and composition. It does seem to me that even though we all generally agree that students are terrible at certain aspects of research, it’s always librarians who are begging for space in other departments’ programs in order to teach students what they need to know to get better at this stuff. And even when librarians are given that space, they are very much beholden to the departments that they collaborate with. Like, it’s up to those departments to decide whether or not the program is working and whether or not to continue with it.

At least, that’s what happened at my former institution when, after a single year of a partnership between the library and the first year composition program, it was found that students’ information literacy skills were still not where they should be. Rather than try to find ways to improve the new model, the writing program faculty decided to just go back to the old one: one-shot sessions for everyone. The same thing seems to happen with a lot of similar programs that are written about in the LIS literature: even many of the successful programs seem to end or fade away after a couple of years.

The authors seem to have an advantage here in that one of them is both the university librarian and an associate director for the writing center. First, it’s kind of amazing that one person plays both of those roles. Second, I imagine because there’s one person in both of those roles, there’s more willingness to continue to refine the approach rather than abandon it. The importance of making needed changes when something isn’t working is emphasized by the authors throughout the article.


One shot-sessions: everyone’s a critic

A quote:

“Most librarians and composition instructors are familiar with the trope of setting aside a day in class to take students to the library, where a librarian meets them (probably for the first and only time), shows them some databases, answers a few question, and then is never seen again. While the basic onus for introducing students to the library’s resources may be met in this situation, the students have not increased their facility with information, the instructor has not met any pedagogical goals for helping students use sources meaningfully, and the librarian has not had any meaningful interaction with students or texts” (p. 125-126).

I want to frame this passage from the article and hang it on my wall. It just so perfectly captures the futility I personally feel whenever I’m planning or presenting a one-shot session (as opposed to teaching a course). The only thing this quote is missing is the frustration of working with course instructors who either clearly don’t find value in these “library days” or who do value it but in a way that feels condescending, like they don’t really take seriously what I do as a professional or feel that it is on the same level as what they do.

Anyway, the authors’ suggested solution here is to do a series of scaffolded workshops in which what students learn from the writing center workshops builds on or feeds into what they learn in the library workshops. Their description of how this works wasn’t entirely clear to me, but I think what they’re trying to get at is something like “interleaving”  which has been shown to be an effective way of learning. I still think it puts the librarian in the situation in a kind of less-than position, but at least it addresses the specific issues they call out in the quote above.


Why it’s important

At the end of the article, the authors weigh the amount of time and effort a three-way collaboration like this takes against what they call the “limited success” that they had seen up to that point. I think the most important message here is that a lack of spectacular results shouldn’t mean immediate abandonment of the collaboration but instead a willingness on all sides to make needed changes in order to improve results over time. And frankly the fact that they saw any improvement at all in students’ ability to integrate sources is pretty impressive.

And I’m definitely getting a frame for that quote.

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