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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2013

What I've Been Reading

Cognitive Development and Reflective Judgment in Information Literacy

Michael Fosmire
Head, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Technology Division
Purdue University Libraries
West Lafayette, Indiana

Copyright 2013, Michael Fosmire. Used with permission.

This essay launches a new column for Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, "What I've Been Reading." The purpose of the column is to provide a venue for encouraging research into practice. Librarians write up and disseminate research, but does it have any effect after it is published? How can we tell that something that sounds good in print actually works? This column provides a venue for feedback and increased visibility for particularly interesting research findings (both old and new) and especially how they are applied in new environments.

The overall structure of the column is to introduce one or a couple of related articles, provide some commentary on the main points or conclusions of the papers and their relevance for ISTL readers. If you have some examples of how you've implemented some service or approach to sci-tech services, that is great, but not required. If you have been influenced by a particular paper that has caused you to change how you teach, provide services, or just your outlook on sci-tech librarianship, then you might want to write an item for this column.

This column is a bit more formal than a blog post or re-tweet of an exciting article, showing some depth of analysis and context; for example, mention of other published work that was affected by the paper. Maybe the easiest way to explain this is through an example, so here goes a first attempt at "What I've been reading..."

Over the last year, I've been thinking about reflective judgment and cognitive development as it relates to information literacy. Rebecca Jackson (2008) provides a cogent summary of these concepts and provides the basis for What I've Been Reading. Fundamentally, Jackson looks at the appropriateness of different ACRL Information Literacy outcomes and performance indicators as they relate to the cognitive level of undergraduate students. From that analysis one can determine which outcomes are best to target for first-year or senior-year students and insights into how to facilitate student growth from one cognitive level to the next. In my own practice, I've been more careful to tailor my own activities, grounding concepts in concrete examples and focusing on discussion and engagement with the implications of concepts, rather than expecting students to immediately see applications of what I've been presenting.

Jackson references William Perry (1970), who studied the cognitive development of undergraduates at Harvard and Radcliffe, and Patricia King and Karen Kitchener (1994), who have studied reflective judgment of students at a variety of institutions. They found many students enter college in a dualistic state (or beginning multiplicity), that is, they believe there is a right and wrong answer, and there is a definite correct answer to any question. If one does not know the answer, it is merely because one hasn't found it yet. Authorities, with a capital "A", according to Jackson (2007), have all the answers, and if they don't they aren't Authorities. A typical question students ask in this stage is "what is the right answer?" In the library setting, this corresponds to, "tell me where the answer is, don't make me look for it." Students have little patience for a robust reference interview, because they know the information exists, and the librarian is just being difficult (or incompetent) by not handing it to them directly. This often mirrors what we think of as characteristics of a K-12 education, working problems from textbooks, multiple choice exams (which have one correct answer), and an authority figure, the teacher, who knows all and is beyond doubt.

Over the course of their undergraduate education, students mostly move to the multiplicity stage, where they understand that uncertainty exists, but have limited ability to resolve that uncertainty. Frequently, in this stage students say "it's all a matter of opinion" and may refuse to argue that one opinion is more valid than another. Students in this stage will gather evidence to support an argument, but will typically ignore information that contradicts their belief, only gathering information that supports their viewpoint. In later stages of multiplicity, students do try to think critically, but mostly out of an attempt to please their professors or other authorities. Some students reach a stage of relativism, in which they understand that knowledge and values are contextual and they themselves actively construct knowledge and meaning out of the information they gather and their own experiences.

Jackson stresses that epistemology does play a role in students' cognitive development, and students may take a dualistic view in one discipline (for example, the sciences) but not another, where students think absolute knowledge is more uncertain (for example, the humanities). If science and engineering students believe knowledge is absolute, which is often the impression that students get in the course of their early studies when the focus is on practicing computational techniques for problem solving, then they will be less likely to critically evaluate information sources in that field. They may treat new information as one more thing to learn, rather than to determine whether those findings are consistent with prior knowledge, self-consistent within the paper itself, or if the evidence presented is sufficient to draw the conclusions the authors do.

This mismatch of instructional and student capability plays out in other fields as well. I attended a recent physics education seminar, wherein the speaker explained how instructors tend to teach at the "formal reasoning" level, i.e., abstract thinking, that they are more comfortable with, while most students are still concrete reasoners. The fundamental mismatch of cognitive level of presentation was seen as a huge barrier for students learning first-year physics, and when content was presented at the appropriate level, student achievement drastically improved. So, there should be comfort for librarians that tailoring our instruction to the "proximal zone of development," as Vygotsky (1978) terms it, that is, pitched to stretch students to develop new skills, but not at a level beyond their ability to process, can lead to effective student growth. If students are expected to master a concept too far above their current level, typically that leads to intense frustration, anxiety, and can even lead students to regress or reject higher cognitive skills in reaction to their negative experiences.

Jackson provides a map of ACRL IL outcomes and the cognitive development level expected of students to meet those outcomes. This can help librarians to determine when the right time to target different outcomes, and how to scaffold those outcomes to help students master those skills without undue frustration. To take a straightforward example, Outcome I, Performance indicator 2: The information literate student constructs and implements effectively designed search strategies, Jackson writes: "A dualist can learn to type a keyword or a get the needed information. Constructing an effective search strategy requires the ability to understand the context of the information need and to be able to relate the various concepts that may be involved in a complex subject. Therefore, relativists (and possibly multiplists, but not dualists) could be expected to perform this activity effectively."

More ambitious outcomes, like evaluating sources of information, need to be heavily scaffolded at the beginning of the undergraduate curriculum. Thus, checklists of quality criteria, asking students to identify authors, having students pick the best source from a collection they've gathered according to those criteria, and facilitating discussions about the trustworthiness of a piece of information provide tools and pathways to internalize an evaluative approach toward information. Simply outlawing "web sites" as some faculty do, tends to confuse students, as they might consider online journals or e-books as web sites and not be able to differentiate reviewed information from less formal information sources such as blogs or commercial sources.

In my own practice, I've experienced challenges with engaging students in the appropriate use of information. In the sciences, at my institution we have a Science and Society course that librarians have co-taught with science faculty for several years. One of the foundational principles of the course is that there exist "wicked problems," that is problems for which there is not a purely technological solution. Students need to synthesize perspectives and knowledge from a variety of disciplines, connecting the dots and balancing pros and cons of technologies, values, and economics when trying to find effective solutions to problems. These activities can be very daunting for students, so structuring assignments to separate different disciplinary factors before the students synthesize concepts and make value judgments about the problem as a whole ease that transition. For example, we ask students to write reflections every week to reflect, synthesize, and condense their impressions of the content in that discipline that we introduced and talked about (including papers they've found on their own related to the topic of the week). By offering feedback on these reflections, we reinforce the notion that knowledge is constructed on top of previous experiences, and we encourage students to make connections from their own observations of the world to the information discussed in class. In this way, we model knowledge creation, building a structure for integrating knowledge that students can apply in their final policy paper assignment.

From the engineering side, capstone design projects are the ultimate complex problem that requires knowledge gained beyond the textbook. We are still finding the best way to implement progressive information literacy skills. We've started with having students plan their knowledge management strategy at the beginning of a project, focusing on the convenience and functionality of different systems to convince them of the importance of using one of the systems (an approach I learned from Jon Jeffryes at University of Minnesota). We also have students go through an "information audit," so that they see where gaps in information exist. The audit asks students to categorize information they know and need to find out in a variety of areas, including intellectual property and prior art; stakeholder needs, both implicit and explicit; safety and legal requirements; potential materials that could be used and their properties; and economic, political, or cultural issues that might impact their final designs. Again, breaking down a complex concept, like an overall literature review, into component parts, and discussing why each facet of the audit is important, what sources could inform that facet, and how to resolve differences of opinion of information gathered from different sources all help to advance students" cognitive development.

Overall, I've found it useful to have a theoretical construct to help make sense of my experiences teaching students, especially undergraduates from first year to senior. I'm not advocating that this model is the perfect way to understand the behavior of students, and, as critical thinkers, we all should be constantly analyzing whether a model reflects reality and where shortcomings might exist. Borrowing from the language of the scientific method, a model is only as good as its ability to predict outcomes and behaviors, and once a new model is created that does a better job, the old one is abandoned. In the same way, it is important to have a foundation or perspective to help make sense of what"s going on the classroom, at the same time, constantly analyze whether what you are observing is consistent with the model, or if you need to shop around for another model (or develop your own).

Anyway, that's What I've Been Reading.

Jackson, R. 2007. Cognitive Development: The Missing Link in Teaching Information Literacy Skills. Reference and User Services Quarterly, Summer 2007, 46(4), 28-32.

Jackson, R. 2008. Information Literacy and Its Relationship to Cognitive Development and Reflective Judgment. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 114:47-61.

King, P.M. and Kitchener, K.S. 1994. Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W.G., Jr. 1970. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. Austin, Tex.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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