Fostering Critical Thinking and Information Literacy Skills: An Inquiry into What Librarians Could Do to Support Students

Critical Thinking blog (1)

Since I have been teaching critical thinking and informal logic online for a number of years now (and I have a first-hand account of how both courses are beneficial for students in many different ways), as well as having taught several library orientations at Touro College, I have become curious regarding how aspects of critical thinking skills could be fostered and applied to the arena of information literacy, and how both aspects could be beneficial to our students’ information needs.  And rather than relying on the information literacy prevalent on various websites, I want to explore the topic with few outside sources, free of influence from such sites.  Hence, the aim of this short essay is an inquiry into the overlap and/or intersection between information literacy, critical thinking, and the ways such an inquiry into both areas could be beneficial to our students.

So as to gain an understanding of the overlap between critical thinking and information literacy, it would first be beneficial to give working definitions of both concepts.  First, let’s begin with the concept of information literacy.  According to the American Library Association (from here on: ALA), it is defined as:

[…] a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.’  (“ALA” Information Literacy Competency Standards)

While working the reference desk, it becomes apparent students already possess, perhaps in an incomplete and/or much less advanced manner than librarians, some, if not all of these skills, though in varying degrees.  The first step in being an effective librarian, in my opinion, is to first aid the student in developing their information needs in the form of probing and “shaping” questions, assuming they are having difficulty with this (which they many times have).

Students obviously have some idea about what they need—be it books, articles, websites and etc., though may have a difficult time articulating those needs to the reference librarian for many different reasons.  What I believe is one of the most important communication skills a librarian possesses so as to fulfill the information needs of the student, is to give a thorough reference interview of the student, so as to determine how to fulfill these needs.  Perhaps, then, the most important thing a librarian may do during the course of the reference interview is help the student formulate and refine his or her question(s)–assuming, of course, the question(s) is (/are) unclear regarding what information he or she is looking for.  Once the reference librarian has a concise, accurate and focused question or set of questions to work with, he or she may now begin to supply the student with his or her information needs.

What is partly at play with the information literacy definition given by the ALA is for the student to have a clear and precise formulation of what information is needed, which is something I have found that is not always the case working at the reference desk.  Of course, this is all part of the reference interview process–perhaps the most significant vehicle the librarian has for aiding the student obtaining his or her information.  Once the librarian has clarity and precision regarding the information need(s) of the student, the next logical step is to aid the student in locating the information, also a process which is not always easy to do.

What I find to be particularly intriguing regarding the above ALA definition is the additional component of evaluating the information, for this component does indeed intersect with the arena of critical thinking.  For now, let’s hold off on the last component of” using the needed information effectively”.

Now what is critical thinking, and how can it be applied to information literacy?

There are in fact several working definitions of critical thinking, though, throughout the past several months, I have been working with some of the definitions set forth by two prominent authors in the field: Scriven, Paul and Elder. One definition may be formulated as follows:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness… (“The Critical Thinking Academy” Scriven, M. and Paul, R.)

What I believe is important to take away from the above definition, though there are several important takeaways beyond the scope of the limitations of this essay, is the idea of applying some of the concepts of critical thinking to information literacy–this aspect is especially important when it comes to giving a reference interview, one-on-one interactions, and delivering orientations.

If we next examine additional remarks given by the ALA, one may observe reasons for the compelling need of sound critical thinking skills:

[…] increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability.  […].  The sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complementary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively.  (“ALA” Information Literacy Competency Standards)

The last sentence quoted above I believe clearly demonstrates the need for our students to possess strong critical thinking skills.  Moreover, what may be the core issue at stake with regard to the reference librarian’s aid in delivering information effectively, is how to simultaneously foster both skills of information literacy and critical thinking in our students.  This is indeed a crucial component for our students since, in order for them to become information literate, we also need to simultaneously foster their own critical thinking skills.  Unfortunately, I have no quick and easy solution regarding this issue, and I welcome suggestions and/or comments; though, I believe the place to begin is to first gain insight into this intersection and/or overlap, the significance of students’ possessing such skills, and attempting to foster both skills while engaging with their various information needs.

Contributed by Mark Balto, Assistant Librarian @ Midtown Campus


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