Problems with Evaluating: (Part 3) Threshold Concepts

The concept of “evaluating” information runs throughout the existing ACRL Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education. They highlight the different ways we teach students about information at different points in the research process. Here are the primary points:

Standard one: The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.

  • Performance indicator 2:  The information literate student identifies a variety of types and formats of potential sources for information.
  • Outcome C: Identifies the value and differences of potential resources in a variety of formats (e.g., multimedia, database, web site, data set, audio=visual, book).
  • Outcome D: Identifies the purpose and audience of potential resources (e.g., popular vs. scholarly, current vs. historical).

Standard two: The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.

  • Performance indicator 4:  The information literate student refines the search strategy if necessary.
  • Outcome A: Assesses the quantity, quality, and relevance of the search results to determine whether alternative information retrieval systems or investigative methods should be utilized.
  • Outcome B: Identifies gaps in the information retrieved and determines if the search strategy should be revised.

Standard three: The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.

  • Performance indicator 2: The information literate student articulates and applies initial criteria for evaluating both the information and its sources.
  • Outcome A:  Examines and compares information from various sources in order to evaluate reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness, and point of view or bias.
  • Outcome B: Analyzes the structure and logic of supporting arguments or methods.
  • Outcome C: Recognizes prejudice, deception, or manipulation.
  • Outcome D: Recognizes the cultural, physical, or other context within which the information was created and understands the impact of context on interpreting the information

Of course, the problem with these standards, performance indicators, and outcomes is how do you transform them into something that is teachable? More importantly, how do we take this list to faculty members?  I’ve wrestled with these questions for many years. This is a problem that ACRL has also acknowledged in their call to edit these standards. They are recommending a set of standards that are more simplified and more connected to practice.

Lori Townsend, Korey Burnetti, and Amy R. Hofer have suggested a move away from standards and a move toward threshold concepts which are more attuned to practice (see Townsend, L., Brunetti, K., & Hofer, A. R. (2011). Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 11, 3, 853-869).

“…threshold concepts are the core ideas and processes that define the ways of thinking and practicing for a discipline, but are so ingrained that they often go unspoken or unrecognized by practitioners” (Townsend, Brunetti, and Hofer, 2011, p. 854).

In terms of “evaluating” information, Townsend, Brunetti, and Hofer suggest a couple of threshold concepts that shed useful light on the topic. These are:

Format as Process
“A threshold concept relating to format, then, would focus on the student understanding that format is the result of a process. Information is packaged in different formats because of how it was created and shared. Shifting the focus from the end product to the pattern of events which define information production fundamentally changes the conversation” (p. 861).

Authority is Constructed and Contextual
“An authority threshold concept makes explicit the idea that authority is both constructed and contextual, based on evaluative criteria specific to the situation. An understanding of this concept enables students to critically examine a sources–be it a Wikipedia article or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding–and ask the relevant questions about its origins, context, and suitability of the information need of the moment” (p. 863).

A list of information literacy threshold concepts would necessarily include additional concepts focusing on the “evaluating” information concept (teaching students about information) beyond these. I include these because they were included in the 2011 Townsend, Burnetti, and Hofer article.

It is no secret that the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force (of which I am a member)  is looking at information literacy threshold concepts as an alternative framework for understanding learning related to information. When I consider “evaluating” information and the decade spent teaching students about information, I find these threshold concepts to be refreshing. They do not assume a mechanical process that is disconnected from reality. They also flush out understandings that are vital to successfully making decisions around information.

(Note: This post is not connected to any role I may have as a member of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force. My thoughts do not necessarily represent the thoughts of the committee.)

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.