Posted by: alinesoules | October 10, 2014

In Praise of the Unsure

info_litThe world seems to be more oppositional than ever these days:  either/or, yes/no, right/wrong.  People seek easy answers, but forget that there are questions and issues that are better served by more complicated considerations.  Information literacy is one discipline where clarity can only be achieved through a consideration of multiple and complex perspectives.

When discussing evaluation in my information literacy course, for example, students often tell me that if information appears on a .com site, it’s bad, but if it appears on a .org or .edu site, it’s good.  This formula begs the issue and enables students to avoid engaging in the process of assessing whether information is valid, whether parts of it are valid, whether it’s questionable, whether it’s invalid, or whether it needs more exploration and verification.  The formula allows them to bypass the evaluation process and deep thinking.

I used to think that students in the U.S. engaged in this a or b approach because they had grown up in a country ingrained in an either/or political system of two parties, but I see more of this desire for an easy answer in students from other countries, too.

I try to remember my own student days and wonder if I was more “absolute” in my youth.  I suspect I was, but my university experience was filled with assignments that forced me to minimize this tendency.  We wrote papers, usually twenty to forty pages in length, our exams were structured in essay format, and I never saw a multiple guess or fill-in-the-blank exam until I got to the U.S.  Even then, as I was a graduate student by that point, I didn’t write one myself.

Most of my students are first-year undergraduates.  When they come to my course, I have two goals: to engage them in information literacy and to encourage them to be less sure of the answer and less desirous of an easy one.  I tell them that they are in “grown up” school now and that they will write short answers, essays, and papers in my class.  This doesn’t always work, but each term, a few students begin to question their assumptions about information, about the topics they are exploring, and about their learning process.

Our information literacy course at Cal State East Bay, taught by library faculty, administers a pre/post test as part of its program assessment.  If my students demonstrate that they think they know less after my class than they did before, if they are less sure of what information is “good” or “bad,” I am convinced that they have learned more and will be better students and, ultimately, more effective citizens.

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