Caitlin McLemore
A teacher and a student study a document on a laptop.

In 2016, Stanford History Education Group conducted a study that showed students at the middle school, high school and college level all demonstrated “bleak” reasoning skills. More than 80% of middle school students could not tell the difference between an advertisement and a news article on Slate. In similarly poor results, less than 20% of high school students were able to critically evaluate an online image related to the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Few college students were able to critically evaluate the content and source of a Twitter post on gun control.

The same researchers conducted a similar study in 2019 to see if students’ skills had increased with growing national interest in these types of skills. Again, they found that despite the increased interest, most students still struggled to navigate online information and media sources. 

The researchers argued that the gaps in students’ skills occur because education does not advance at the same pace as technology. Schools do not update their curriculum to reflect the rapid development of information technology and ubiquitous access to information. Furthermore, teachers also struggle with navigating today’s digital landscape.

Information literacy includes the skills necessary to find, evaluate and use information “effectively, efficiently, and ethically.” Media literacy focuses on the critical analysis and responsible use of messages in multimedia. Stanford History Education Group focuses on civic online reasoning, mainly to emphasize the social and political impacts of information and media literacy. With all these different yet interconnected definitions, the importance is that students (and teachers) need to learn how to find, evaluate and use information and media in the digital age. As Alan November, an international leader in education technology, remarked in his talk at the ISTE 2018 conference, information literacy is “the single most unintended consequence of connecting schools to the internet.”

So what can we as educators do to address the gaps in students’ information and media literacy skills? Because information literacy is critical to life in the digital age, it should be incorporated into all subject areas. That means it should be discipline-based, or connected to curriculum within a specific subject area. Rather than a stand-alone course that teaches information literacy without any connection to existing content or curriculum, a discipline-based approach connects students with relevant resources and provides opportunities for meaningful, context-based discussions. Teacher-librarian collaboration can also be a vital component of information literacy skills development. Teachers can act as content experts and librarians can support the teachers as information experts, guiding students through the research process.

Read ISTE's Fact Vs. Fiction.

What does a discipline-based approach actually look like? How can teachers and librarians work together in the classroom? At Harpeth Hall, a college preparatory girls school in Tennessee, I designed a week-long instructional unit to examine these questions. The unit focused on the specific information literacy skills of evaluating online information sources. 

In eighth-grade social studies classes, students participated in Checkology, a virtual platform from the News Literacy Project. It has interactive lessons to teach information and news literacy skills and offers free and paid versions. To encourage student engagement and increase motivation, the platform includes interactive elements and gamification features such as badges, points, and class leaderboards. Students completed the following Checkology lessons: Arguments and Evidence, Practicing Quality Journalism, Understanding Bias, and Misinformation. After completing each lesson, the teacher and librarian facilitated whole-class discussions regarding that lesson’s content. Then, once students completed all four Checkology lessons, they applied their new knowledge by doing a research project. Students researched a historical figure that either challenged or upheld the status quo. They used resources provided by the librarian, but also had to find and choose at least one source independently.

Before and after the instructional unit, students took a 10-question survey to test their skills. They took the ninth-grade Evaluate Sources and Information subtest of the Tool for Real-time Assessment of Information Literacy Skills. Based on the survey results, there was a significant difference in students’ scores, indicating a positive change in students’ ability to evaluate online information sources. Classroom observations and student focus groups also indicated that students’ skills developed over the course of the instructional unit. Overall, students enjoyed their experience, and the teacher-librarian collaboration clearly benefited students’ ability to evaluate online information sources.

Information literacy skills instruction should not be limited to one grade level or subject area, but rather a continuous part of a students’ learning experience. It should connect with the curriculum through a partnership of classroom teachers and academic librarians, as both provide critical contributions to student learning. The information search process is a complex one that requires individuals to actively engage with information to make meaning. 

As one student noted: “Just one thing on Checkology wouldn’t make you an expert on something. You kind of have to use that and continue to build off of it and grow so it can really stick in your brain until you fully understand something.”

What are some other resources for teaching information literacy skills?

Hopefully this article provided a glimpse into teaching information literacy skills in the classroom and provided some useful resources for implementation. As Stanford History Education Group noted, “If we don’t act with urgency, our students’ ability to engage in civic life will be the casualty.”

Looking to deepen your teaching practice? Explore the book Stretch Yourself.

Caitlin McLemore, Ed.D., is an award-winning educational technology coach, author, and consultant who works with students and teachers at all levels to ensure meaningful technology integration and to create and implement transformative learning experiences. Caitlin has worked at several independent schools, including Shorecrest Preparatory School, Harpeth Hall, and Currey Ingram Academy.  She is also the co-author of the ISTE-published book Stretch Yourself: A Personalized Journey to Deepen Your Teaching Practice.Follow her on Twitter @edtechcaitlin and check out her website blankcrayon.com.