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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2011
DOI: 10.5062/F45Q4T1S

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[Board Accepted]

Look Beyond Textbooks: Information Literacy for First-Year Science Students

Gabrielle K.W. Wong
Reference Librarian
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Library
Clearwater Bay
Hong Kong

Copyright 2011, Gabrielle K.W. Wong. Used with permission.


This paper describes classroom activities to help students understand the publication cycle and the characteristics of major publication channels (textbooks, books, encyclopedias, and periodicals) for first-year physics students. When designing these activities, the author considered the intellectual development characteristics and the epistemological view of first-year students. These activities help students appreciate how information is refined and repackaged along the publication cycle. Through understanding the varieties of information sources, they learn how to choose the appropriate sources to meet their information needs. Although the activities were created for physics students, they can easily be modified for students in other fields of study.


Information literacy is a core part of the skill set for critical thinking and life-long learning and has become ever more important in the university curriculum. In particular, the first year of study in a university offers the best timing and opportunity for librarians to help students build the foundation of life-long learning. First-year students, especially those in the science disciplines, are in an early stage in their development of intellectual ability and epistemological view. Thoughtfully designed information literacy teaching accelerates their development, and assists them to prepare for meaningful learning.

This paper proposes an approach to information literacy teaching that aims at facilitating students' development of intellectual complexity and epistemological view. Four classroom activities for first-year physics students are designed with such an approach. These activities introduce the concept of publication cycle, emphasize the transformation of information from primary to secondary sources, and illustrate how information sources serve different information needs. After the class, students are expected to be able to:

  1. Describe the characteristics of the publication channels: book/textbook, encyclopedia, newspaper article, magazine article, and journal article.
  2. Select information sources for common learning tasks.

The activities stimulate science students to see knowledge as growing and dynamic, rather than certain and simple. In particular, they position textbooks as only one of the many information tools for learning, instead of being the only source of subject knowledge.


The author was invited to offer a single session to introduce information literacy to all first-year physics majors. To take advantage of this opportunity to have contact with students, and to maximize the impact of the session on their learning, the author analyzed the characteristics and learning needs of this group of students. She believes that introducing the concept of the publication cycle to students not only covers a variety of information sources that are novel to first-year students, but also facilitates students' intellectual development to better prepare them for university learning.

Literature Review

"The significance of information literacy education lies in its potential to encourage deep, rather than surface, learning, and in its potential to transform dependent learners into independent, self-directed, lifelong learners "(Bruce 2004). In library literature one can find many different approaches to information literacy. The assessment of one's information needs, searching and use of information for learning call for higher-order thinking skills including analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Using Bruce's words again, "successful information literacy programs do not only focus on teaching information skills, they focus on designing learning experiences that require the use of information skills" (Bruce 2004).

In her study of students' perceptions and experience of information literacy, Maybee points out that "[t]o enhance student information literacy, educators should be attempting to guide learners to conceptualize information use in a variety of ways, which learners could then use to address their various information needs." She concludes that "[u]ndergraduate information literacy training that focuses on a list of skills or attributes is inadequate and does not thoroughly address students' information literacy needs" (Maybee 2006).

Bruce postulates seven conceptions of information literacy: information technology, information sources, information process, information control, knowledge construction, knowledge extension and wisdom (Bruce 2007). The conceptions reveal a progression from finding and retrieving information as something apart from the self, to formulating and changing information and incorporating the information into the self (Orme 2008).

More and more information literacy frameworks place their emphasis on developing critical thinking and reflective practice (Johnston and Webber 2003).

A major challenge of exposing science students to the complexity of information literacy is their perception of information environment and information use. The Millennial generation expects the task of finding information to be trivial. Science students, in particular, tend to have high confidence in dealing with technology. Nevertheless, they do not fully comprehend the complex world of networked information. Simard alludes to a gap between students' perceived and actual skills, and these perceived skills are in themselves a barrier to students' learning (Simard 2009). We must remember that it is not primarily technical skills that make effective Internet users, but rather the reflective and conceptual capabilities that are part of the character of the information literature (Edwards and Bruce 2002).

At the same time, academic requirements in science curriculum may not encourage students to be information literate. The subject content in their study tends to be more structured and less ambiguous than their peers who study in the fields of social sciences and humanities. Leckie and Fullerton point out that "[I]n engineering and the other sciences, students may primarily use standard texts for as long as the first two or three years of study, and thus do not begin to develop information retrieval skills until their senior year, or even graduate school" (Leckie and Fullerton 1999).

Without course requirements that drive information research, most science students rely on shallow information strategies, such as locating definitions of terms by quick web searches. Such research activity hampers students' ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the quality of the information they cite. Critical thinking is inhibited, context is often lost, and reliability and validation of sources are tenuous (Nentl and Zietlow 2008).

Students' learning life continues after their university years. Callison et. al. observe that "[e]ngineering is an increasingly interdisciplinary field. Real world problems that future engineers will face will require them to combine knowledge and understanding from several fields outside their specific area of engineering and outside of engineering itself. While it is not reasonable to expect engineers to have mastery over all subjects, it is reasonable to expect them to be able to find and analyze relevant information as needed" (Callison, Budny, and Thomes 2005). The same observation applies equally well to science graduates.

Librarians in different institutions have developed a number of information literacy programs for science students. Many were designed for students in biology and chemistry. For instance, in a college senior-level cell biology course, a series of assignments were developed to take students through the stages of literature awareness and bibliographic searching. Through collaboration with faculty, the information literacy component was embedded in the context of a specific, course-related task (Porter 2005). Another example can be found at Indiana University, where librarians used a three-part series of instruction sessions in an introductory biology course. The program guided students to understand how textbooks knowledge came from construction and revision of observations and experimental results of scientists (Petzold, Winterman, and Montooth 2010). Huerta and McMillan co-teach science library research/writing courses for undergraduates. They aim to help students make distinctions between scholarly and non-scholarly sources as well as science secondary and primary sources (Huerta and McMillan 2004).

Classroom Activities for First-Year Physics Students

The concept of the publication cycle illustrates how information flows from the form of primary research to secondary sources. Understanding the cycle and the various publication types encourages students to explore a multitude of sources along the cycle of knowledge creation. The concept is particularly important for first-year science students as they tend to rely almost solely on textbooks in their learning. An exposure to primary sources, knowledge in its "raw" form, the process of information dissemination, and the path of knowledge consolidation enriches students' learning process; it facilitates the progression from a relatively simplistic epistemological view to a more complex one, enhances upward movement on the intellectual development spectrum, which in turn builds up the foundation for meaningful, reflective university and life-long learning.

Four classroom activities designed for first-year physics students introduce the main publication channels (textbooks, books, encyclopedia and periodicals) and the concept of publication cycle. Students are led to:

  1. Compare textbooks, books, and encyclopedias as information sources.
  2. Compare newspapers, magazines, and research articles.
  3. Map the information flow from primary to secondary sources.
  4. Explore information needs in various scenarios.

These correspond to the second and third conceptions in Bruce's facets, namely, information literacy as information sources, and information literacy as information process. To conduct all four activities, an instructor needs one-and-a-half to two hours of class time.

The activities incorporate components that elicit students' existing concept of information sources. Discussion aims to introduce new concepts that contrast and build on existing ones. Each activity consists of three parts:

The structure of these activities is similar to the engineering students' class developed by Quigley and McKenzie, which consisted of four parts: a mini-lecture with visual aids, a group discussion activity, a demonstration and task-based activities (Quigley and McKenzie 2003).

Activity 1: Compare Textbooks, Books and Encyclopedias as Information Sources


This activity introduces books and encyclopedia articles as information sources; it lets students compare the characteristics of textbooks, books and encyclopedia articles.


First-year science students rely heavily on textbooks as their source of learning materials. In the introduction, the instructor helps students to understand that university-level learning involves more than remembering facts that they obtain from textbooks. In a university, learning activities and course output often require students to compare viewpoints and support their own conclusions or beliefs. Therefore, relying solely on textbooks is far from enough for fulfilling requirements in most courses they are going to take. The instructor introduces the concepts of assessing an information source in terms of three aspects: the timeliness, topic coverage, and level of scholarship. To help students make reference to them, the instructor frames them as the "three dimensions" of information sources.


The instructor gives the students a textbook title, a book title, and an encyclopedia article on radioactivity. Students are asked to compare the three sources using the "three dimensions."

To make the activity more manageable, the instructor focuses students' attention on one aspect of the subject, namely the discovery of radioactivity. Students are also guided to explore the table of contents of books, and the article outline and section headings when doing the comparison.

After discussion in groups, students share their findings with the whole class.

Summing-Up Discussion

The instructor ties together the findings of the groups. She would cover key observations such as:

The instructor may elicit students' thinking about what all these mean for an information user. For example, she may ask students to name an appropriate source if a student wants to obtain a quick background understanding of a topic.

Activity 2: Compare Newspapers, Magazines, and Research Articles


This activity introduces the concept of the periodical. It provides an opportunity for students to compare different types of periodical publications; and guides them to infer how these sources meet different information needs.


The instructor uses print magazine issues to illustrate the idea of periodicals: magazines, newspapers and journals. Students are more familiar with popular magazines; the instructor uses this pre-existing knowledge to illustrate the concept of "article" as "information entity." They also learn about referring to articles using citations.


The instructor provides selected articles from a newspaper, a popular science magazine, and a journal relating to the discovery of the remains of Copernicus, the 16th Century astronomer who changed people's world view by proposing the heliocentric system. Students are asked to compare the three articles using the three dimensions, and place the articles on a publication timeline.

Again, students work together in small groups, and share their thoughts with the whole class.

Summing-Up Discussion

The instructor sums up findings from the groups, highlighting key points such as:

Collaborating with the whole class, the instructor constructs a publication timeline. She relates students' observations to Activity 1, guides them to see how articles usually cover a specific aspect of a topic when compared to books, and discusses how this affects whether one chooses books or articles to meet an information need.

This is also a good opportunity to talk about the structure and major sections of research articles. However, the instructor should decide whether and how to cover this point depending on time available and students' interest.

Activity 3: Map Information Flow from Primary to Secondary Sources


This activity leads students to put information sources they examined in earlier activities into the context of primary and secondary sources. It introduces the concept of publication cycle.


Using the timeline constructed in Activity 2, the instructor explains the positions of the three sample articles. She introduces the term "primary source," and illustrates why articles in periodicals are usually classified as "primary."


The instructor asks students to consider the publication timeliness of books, textbooks and encyclopedias. She guides the class discussion by highlighting the publication intentions and processes of different sources, and how these factors affect the timeliness. While working with the whole class, she places them on the publication timeline.

Summing-up discussion

The timeline construction naturally leads to the concept of "secondary source." The instructor guides the class to list their findings in the previous activities about the three dimensions of different sources, and observe how information is gradually tested, discussed, and consolidated into knowledge along the publication cycle from primary to secondary sources.

The instructor emphasizes how university learning and life-long learning require a wider choice of information sources to support. She leads students to recognize the needs to explore "upstream" along the publication cycle, rather than limiting themselves to getting facts from textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias.

Activity 4: Explore Different Information Needs in Various Scenarios


This activity provides opportunity for students to apply what they learned in the previous activities to match various information sources with information needs.


The instructor summarizes observations from the previous activities. She points out that in different learning contexts, students' information needs can be evaluated using the same three criteria.


Students examine the following learning scenarios prepared by the instructor:

They are asked to team up to perform two tasks:

  1. Assess the information needs of the student in each scenario by checking:
    • Is technical information or general information required?
    • Does the student need specific, detailed information or an overview?
    • Does it matter to the students how old or recent the information is?
  2. Determine what information sources are most appropriate in each scenario.

Students share their choices; they are encouraged to explain the reasons behind their choices, and to comment on choices of other groups.

Summing-up Discussion

The instructor summarizes students' choices in each scenario. She emphasizes that more than one information sources are often preferable in most learning contexts. She then connects students' pre-existing knowledge of the library catalog, databases, and web search engines, and frames these as different search tools for different sources. She takes this opportunity to direct students attention to other information literacy efforts by the library such as classes, web guides, or tutorials in the library.

Class Reflection

To sum up the whole learning experience, the instructor asks the students to do a reflective exercise which consists of a few simple multiple-choice questions about the characteristics of the information sources covered in the class; and an open question that invites students to describe in their own words what they learned in the session. This exercise is not meant to be an assessment for teaching effectiveness or learning outcomes. It guides students to reflect on and describe the learning experience using their own words; it thus helps them to internalize the concepts, and create meaning out of the learning.


First-year university students are in an early stage of their intellectual development. They see knowledge as a collection of facts, their instructors as authorities, and textbooks as the best information sources for learning. This view does not help them to see the importance of being information literate. This is particularly the case for science students whose subject content tends to be less ambiguous, and the problems more structured. Following the constructivist approach in designing an information literacy program for first-year students to assist their development in intellectual and epistemology development, the author describes four class activities that aim to help physics students to see how information subsides to knowledge through the concept of publication cycle. The activities introduce major publication types for different information needs, and hence broaden students' choices of information sources for learning.

These activities can be easily modified for other subject areas; the activity structure can also be applied to teaching other aspects of information literacy, such as information evaluation and ethical use of information.

When librarians consider students' intellectual development and epistemology view, and design information literacy teaching using a constructivist approach, library teaching can have a great potential in helping students develop intellectually, and hence become productive members in the learning society of the 21st century.


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