Previous Contents Next
Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2009


Building Better Biology Undergraduates through Information Literacy Integration

Brian Winterman
Information Fluency and Assessment Librarian
Teaching and Learning Liaison to the Sciences
Indiana University, Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana

Copyright 2009, Brian Winterman. Used with permission.


Biology undergraduates at Indiana University have often been expected to find information for course exercises or written reports, but the skills necessary to do so are not taught consistently in the curriculum. Other efforts described in the literature have been successful in teaching information literacy skills, but not always in a way that is embedded in the content of the discipline. In this paper the author discusses how collaboration with biology researchers and professors lead to the development of a course to teach biology undergraduates information literacy skills in the context of the research process.

Introduction & Background

The undergraduate program in biology at Indiana University Bloomington has over 1,000 declared majors including BSs (many of whom are pre-med), BAs, and microbiology majors. The program offers a broad range of lecture and laboratory courses in molecular biology, evolutionary biology, zoology, biotechnology, and other areas. Whether in preparation for graduate studies, medical school, or many other professions in the sciences, there is a strong need for these students to learn information and communication skills within the context of their disciplines.

To assist in meeting this need, the Life Sciences Library provides instructional services to biology undergraduates to help them complete assignments and conduct basic information research. Also, the curriculum offers a number of courses that require some writing and presenting, and there are a few biology courses designated by the College of Arts and Sciences as Intensive Writing (IW). However, these efforts alone have not been sufficient to ensure that undergraduates complete the program with the information and communication skills they need.

The ideal biology curriculum would teach students that discovery at the bench or in the field is dependent on existing knowledge and literature; likewise, discovery is only valuable when it becomes part of the literature and the body of knowledge in a field by way of literature or other communications. There needs to be an ongoing conversation between librarians, faculty, and administrators about the needs of the students regarding these skills as well as the methods and practices for teaching these skills. There are currently several obstacles to meeting this goal at Indiana University:

Overcoming these obstacles at a campus level will require a great deal of communication and collaboration among a variety of university departments, offices, and committees. The university community needs to understand that information literacy is not solely in the domain of librarians, rather, that it is a set of educational standards that can be applied by any teacher to enhance an assignment, course, or a curriculum. A university-wide agreement on the meaning of information literacy would be helpful to this end. Also, librarians, professors, writing support staff, and others need to work closely to integrate information and writing skills with existing curricular goals.

The objective of this paper is to discuss recent activities in the area of information literacy at Indiana University's Life Sciences Library and Department of Biology. The author will describe the formation of a faculty and librarian working group to examine information literacy needs in the curriculum, an award-funded research project to assess the combination of an information literacy teaching model with an undergraduate biology course, and the credit-bearing course that was developed as a result. Also, the author will discuss ideas for improving the course, and how new general education policies at Indiana University could improve information literacy education there.

Approaches to Information Literacy

Since the development of the ACRL Standards (ACRL 2000), there has been a broad range of approaches to applying them. Some have taken the position that information literacy is a set of skills or a way of thinking that can be learned on its own and can then be applied to any situation. Others have argued that information literacy should be learned in the context of a discipline. Some librarians and instructors have clearly demonstrated the importance of collaboration by integrating information literacy with specific course assignments and exercises (Brown 2002; Ferrer-Vinent & Carello 2008; Porter 2005). These examples are integral to building a body of knowledge on course-integrated, discipline-specific information literacy. One of the strongest ongoing efforts in discipline-specific information literacy instruction is at University of Alberta, Augustana, where they offer courses on information literacy in 21 different disciplines (Goebel, Neff, & Mandeville 2007).

In her 2002 article, Grafstein makes a strong case for discipline-specific information literacy, faculty/librarian collaboration, and the power of information literacy to enhance critical thinking (Grafstein 2002). She also argues that information literacy should not exist solely in the domain of librarianship, but should be part of the overall educational mission at a university. Particularly for the sciences, there is evidence that information literacy standards are compatible with other national accreditation standards and guidelines, and the ACRL Standards as they currently exist are generic enough to be applied to most science disciplines effectively (Manuel 2004). An extensive survey of information literacy skills of biology students was done in 2006, and the data regarding general information literacy skills is quite valuable (Ferguson 2006). However, in this case, assessment of information literacy standards involving synthesis and incorporation of information was done outside of the context of biology coursework.

Despite the variety of approaches even among discipline-specific approaches, one factor in common is the importance placed on collaboration. Also, some approaches focus primarily on a few standards such as accessing information or citing references properly. While these approaches have been successful in what they aim to accomplish, and collaboration is certainly a key element of the success, they are not holistic approaches to information literacy. The ideal approach to information literacy education would have the standards taught as part of a process, embedded deeply in the disciplinary content, and would include ongoing communication if not collaboration between librarians and faculty.


Early in 2005, the author assembled a working group called BUILD (Biology Undergraduate Information Literacy Development) including the author and a variety of biology instructors. The goal of the group was to discuss the information and writing skills that biology undergraduates should have, roughly assess when and how these skills should be taught, and formulate recommendations for the undergraduate curriculum committee. The final proposal of the working group recommended that information literacy skills should be taught either as a component of certain upper-level courses or as a stand-alone credit course to be taken concurrently with an upper-level course. It was also recommended that the best model for teaching information literacy skills was to have students write research proposals on a scientific problem of their choice.

Also, in late 2005, the author collaborated with Dr. George Hegeman, Professor Emeritus of Microbiology, to study the impact of integrating information literacy instruction with an upper-level ornithology field course. Dr. Hegeman was an ideal research partner because he had previously co-taught a course on biomedical documentation and library research with a librarian. We applied for and received the Herbert S. White Collaborative Award to fund some related travel and hire a part-time graduate assistant. The professor of the ornithology course agreed to let us teach several days of the class during the first eight weeks of the semester. Dr. Hegeman and the author worked with the graduate student to plan our section of the course, and the graduate student taught a portion of the classes. We felt that having a graduate student take a lead role in teaching was essential because of the proximity of academic standing between an undergraduate and a graduate student. In other words, the skills necessary to find information, to read and analyze information, and to write like a scientist may have seemed more attainable to an undergraduate when taught by a near-peer instead of an experienced professor or a librarian. The study and the lessons started in the spring semester of 2006, and based on the recommendations of BUILD, the study was at least informally considered a pilot for a real course.

Before the pilot started, the research group met with the professor to discuss the goals of the study and the class, and to make sure the two complemented each other in a way that would enhance the students' experience without creating more workload for the professor. The existing syllabus already required a field report, so that was the natural component of the class on which to focus our teaching. In order to encourage original and self-motivated research, we ultimately decided to assign a research proposal instead of the regular report. Our guest lectures and exercises were strategically situated into the course schedule and included topics such as the nature and structure of science information, accessing information resources, methods of reading and analyzing journal articles, developing topics and questions, and tips for writing and revising.

Lectures and exercises were scheduled in a sequence that fit the process of writing research proposals. Also, the researchers hoped not only to teach the skills necessary to write a proposal, but also to alleviate fears and apprehension about the process by making it logical and transparent. The students were introduced to the structure of scientific information, methods of accessing information resources, and retrieval of documents by the librarian (the author) first. Then, the biology graduate student gave lectures on the logic and style of research proposals, and led the students through exercises on analyzing information in different sections of sample research proposals. Throughout the pilot, the students were responsible for developing their topics and writing drafts of individual sections of their proposals.

A pre- and post-survey wree administered to students to assess the impact of the pilot. The survey contained 19 questions. The first four asked for demographic information such as class standing, major, and plans after graduation. The next 10 questions tested basic information skills such as selecting the appropriate resources and using keywords strategically in searches. The last five questions asked the students to rank their own abilities to develop a topic, read articles, and write in the sciences.


Out of 17 students who responded to both the pre- and post-test, 14 were seniors and three were juniors. Sixteen were majoring in biology. Five students planned to do graduate research in the future, and the rest were divided evenly between medical school, dental school, other professional schools, and undecided. Predictably, the majority of students showed improvement on the basic information literacy skills questions. For example, once instructed on searching for articles in an index, the majority of students responded favorably regarding questions related to index searching. Likewise, the students demonstrated a gain in understanding of the nature and structure of information because course lectures and discussions were designed to that end. The most interesting results, though, came from the self-ranking questions, which may offer more insight into information literacy learning than the evaluation of quantitative skill sets. There were significant improvements in the students' rankings of their own abilities to find and read articles, express scientific ideas or questions in writing, and form questions for scientific writing:

Survey Question Ranking % Pre-Test % Post-Test

Rate your ability to read and understand scientific journals.










Rate your ability to express scientific ideas and questions in writing.










Rate your ability to form questions for scientific research.













These results in particular are significant because they address more abstract abilities that are difficult to measure quantitatively. Obviously the students were taught the mechanics of constructing research proposals, but because of the methods used and other factors, they recognized improvements in their own abilities. With many professors frequently lamenting the lack of creative thinking, critical analysis, and clear writing in the biology curriculum, these results could be an important indication of ways to remedy shortcomings. While it is difficult to determine without doubt what components of the course, if any, caused these changes in self-perception, the improvement was viewed as a positive thing and was likely a result of the strategic scheduling of the pilot, the nature of the lectures and exercises, and the combination of teaching models. At the end of the course, the professor said she felt that the information literacy and writing components had improved the students' research and writing as compared to students in previous semesters of the same course.

The results of the pilot in addition to the BUILD proposal made a strong case to the curriculum committee to address the need for information literacy education in the curriculum. The pilot and its assessment showed that combining the model of information literacy instruction with a traditional science writing assignment was effective. The BUILD proposal argued that the lack of information literacy components in the curriculum and the shortage of original writing courses could be addressed by offering a course based on the pilot's combination of models. During the Spring semester of 2006, the committee approved the proposal to teach a one-credit hour course every Spring and Fall called L301 Information Literacy in Biology. It was first offered in the Fall semester of 2006 and is still offered every Spring and Fall semester. The committee also agreed to provide a graduate assistant to co-teach the course each semester. The course description in the university catalog of courses reads:

Methods of information search and retrieval, critical evaluation of primary literature, and generation of technical writing skills necessary for research in biology. Work will focus on a topic chosen from an upper-level lecture, field, or laboratory course in which the student must be concurrently enrolled.

The primary goal of L301 is to lead the students through the process of writing a research proposal within the framework of the ACRL standards. The table below lists key topics, concepts, and exercises from L301 with their corresponding standard from the ACRL standards.

ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standard

L301 Activity

Determine the extent of information needed

Students develop a research topic and outline information needs using appropriate information types

Access the needed information effectively and efficiently

In-class exercises train students to perform expert-level searches in indexes, catalogs, and other information resources

Evaluate information and its sources critically

Because their proposals must be persuasive, students are expected to filter the information they find so that only the most important and valid information is cited

Incorporate selected information into one's knowledge base

The research proposal requires that students synthesize existing knowledge of a topic with their own original research idea

Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose

Students present oral reports to their peers, and author several drafts of their proposals throughout the semester

Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally

Students are taught about plagiarism, and are expected to cite their sources in APA style

L301 has been taught three times to date. Enrollment has ranged from 10 to 18 students, and there has been a variety of students in each class, though most have been pre-meds or those who planned to attend graduate school. The fundamentals of the syllabus have changed very little since the first offering, though some exercises have been modified somewhat to be more effective. The course has been a success overall so far, and some students have even adapted their work from the course to obtain research funding for projects.


The collaborative process between the library and the department was effective partly because of good timing and recognized need, but also because of common goals. Specifically, both the library and department continuously strive to teach undergraduates to do better research, write better papers, and ultimately think critically about information. The collaborative process in this case resulted in a credit course, though there are likely multiple outcomes that could be just as effective in meeting those common goals.

While the course has been effective, there are still challenges and opportunities to address. For example, though L301 has been a positive experience for many students and even lead to monetary awards for a few, meeting minimum enrollment is an ongoing challenge. The course is not required, so students must elect to enroll, which means they either recognize the value of the course on their own, or they have to be convinced by a trusted colleague or professor to enroll. Also, a single credit hour counts for very little in an already rigorous schedule for majors; many students simply cannot fit the course into their schedules. One solution could be to develop the course into a three-credit-hour course, and obtain Intensive Writing designation. Many undergraduates would likely appreciate the opportunity to receive Intensive Writing credit in a biology-related course, so enrollment would presumably rise in that case.

There have been some positive developments at the campus and university levels regarding information literacy since the start of this project. Chiefly, in 2006, the governing body of the faculty at IU Bloomington, the Bloomington Faculty Council, drafted and approved a new General Education Policy for undergraduates. Part of the policy includes a "shared goal" of Information Fluency for all schools that would not be required but eventually assessed. The wording of the Information Fluency goal was taken almost verbatim from the wording of the ACRL Standards, so assessment will presumably be based on those standards. The new policy takes effect in fall of 2011, and subject librarians could play a key role in interpreting the policy and assessing its effectiveness in various schools and disciplines. Efforts in the Biology Department like the development of L301 could potentially serve as a model for integrating information literacy/fluency with curricula.


Thanks to George Hegeman for his time and wisdom in designing the project and the assessment tools. Thanks to the BUILD working group for their time, great ideas, and enthusiasm. Thanks to Herbert S. White for making projects like this possible.


ACRL. 2000. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Brown, C. M. 2002. Integrating information literacy into the science curriculum. College & Research Libraries, 63(2): 111-123.

Ferrer-Vinent, I. J., & Carello, C. A. 2008. Embedded library instruction in a first-year biology laboratory course. Science & Technology Libraries, 28(4): 325-351.

Ferguson, J. E., Neely, T. Y. & Sullivan, K. (2006) A baseline information literacy assessment of biology students. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(2), 61-71.

Goebel, N., Neff, P., & Mandeville, A. 2007. Assessment within the Augustana model of undergraduate discipline-specific information literacy credit courses. Public Services Quarterly, 165-189.

Grafstein, A. 2002. A discipline-based approach to information literacy. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(4): 197-204.

Manuel, K. 2004. Generic and discipline-specific information literacy competencies: the case of the sciences. Science & Technology Libraries, 24(3-4): 279-308.

Porter, J. R. 2005. Information literacy in biology education: an example from an advanced cell biology course. Cell Biology Education, 4(4): 335-343.

Previous Contents Next

W3C 4.0