Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Article note: On low-level skills and information seeking

Citation for the article:

Gross, Melissa. "The Impact of Low-Level Skills on Information-Seeking Behavior." Reference and User Services Quarterly 45.2 (Winter 2005): 155-162.

I read the article in print.

My director suggested that I read this article, and she was enthusiastic when she made the suggestion. Upon reading it, I found very relevant to our setting and our work with students. The article's discussion is framed by the concept of competency theory; I may need to read a bit more of that at some point. According to Professor Gross,
"this article reviews competency theory and outlines how this theoretical perspective may allow for a new approach to research and practice in support of information-seeking behavior" (155).
The author begins by pointing out that, according to psychological research, low-skilled individuals, if they feel they have some ability in an area, tend to overestimate their ability. In addition, these individuals, given their low skills, are unable to assess their own, or someone else's, performance. The problem is compounded because these individuals are not likely to seek any assistance or training to fill their skills gap. So, the individuals can't remedy their incompetence because they do not know of their incompetence. The article suggests that this is applicable to information-seeking behaviors.

Gross provides a small overview of competency theory. I have to say that this article gave me a lot to think about. So, as I often do in these notes, I'd like to pull some quotes and ideas, adding my responses.

Gross discusses the commonly asked question of why the incompetent don't know they are incompetent. One reason is that they are unable to compare themselves to their peers. Additionally, Gross writes,
"Another explanation these authors offer for why low performers do not recognize their lack of skill is the observation that negative feedback is rare in everyday life and that while it is easy for people to take credit for their succcesses, failure can often be attributed to multiple causes outside the self" (156).
Initially, I saw that as a lack of personal responsibility, no accountability, which is fairly common these days. This seems common: take credit when you do well and blame others when you foul up. But for the truly incompetent, if they really can't assess themselves, then they may not see why they are at fault. In addition, it seems society is reluctant to give people negative feedback, often trying to be diplomatic or making sure egos are not hurt. So maybe I am looking in broader terms., But there's more to this. According to the literature, incompetent folks can't assess themselves or correct their incompetence because they lack metacognitive skills. Gross uses this definition:
"They [Kruger and Dunning] define metacognition as the ability to know how well you are performing and operationalize the term as being able to tell the difference between right and wrong answers and the ability to recognize competence in others" (qtd. in 157).
I found the definition useful, so I wanted to make a note of it. What I found most useful in the article were the implications for information literacy and instruction.
  • "Research has shown that students enter institutions of higher learning with a wide range of information-literacy skills and that low-level information-literacy skills are most common among entering freshman and low-performing students" (158).
This can describe a significant number of the students I work with, and I don't say it to be mean or derogatory. Part of the reason I work where I am at is because I want to work with such students, to empower them and improve their odds. It can be challenging work, but let's not disgress. Gross also writes,
  • "If these skills are not achieved as part of higher or professional education, they may not be attained at all. In addition, current methods of information-literacy instruction are not informed by an understanding of the student's perspective. In particular, little is known about the information-seeking behaviors of students with low-level skills and thus little is know about to successfully intervene and promote the acquisition of the information-literacy skills they lack" (158).
What struck me about that passage was the sense of urgency. It made me ask where are we failing to address these students' needs. To be honest, for a moment, I felt--well, all I have learned about teaching, learning theories, so on, and yet, there's so much I wish I knew. I would love to know more about the information-seeking behaviors of the low-skilled. I can make some educated guesses. At any rate, I think much of that research will be done in the field (rather than in some ivory tower). In our line of work, we often refer to intervention points. So the question is how to intervene to better help these particular learners. I think there are some options, but they may not be easy. This is definitely something worth investigating.

Gross observes that skill level is usually not a variable in studies of information seeking behavior. Gross argues that scholars should be looking at skill level because it is relevant to all stages of information-seeking behavior. She writes that skill level "may affect the realization that information is needed, the choice of resource sought, the assessment of information encountered, and the application of information to the situation or problem of interest" (158). I think I am seeing this in some of the questions my students ask. While I can address this individually, how to do so collectively is something I think about, especially in other ways besides one-shot BI sessions. Furthermore,
  • "Competency theory indicates that it is unlikely that individuals with low-level information-literacy skills have the cognitive ability to self-identify as needing training or assistance and are therefore unlikely to take advantage of opportunities to attain the skills they lack" (158).
How do I reach these folks? The research does not seem to help:
  • "The current research and professional perspectives are uninformed about how students who do not have the benefit of library instruction approach information seeking and what, if any, consquences they experience as a result of this skill deficit" (158).
Fortunately the author provides some ideas towards answering my questions. This is what needs to be done in terms of research:
  • "Understanding how students see their own skill sets and actually engage in information seeking will inform general education and the development of information services and programs in academic libraries. Collecting such data will allow for determinations such as assessing the need for intervention, methods for bringing interventions to people who will not see them as relevant, and identifying the types of intervention and training that are most likely to be successful with low-performing individuals" (158-159).
The article goes on to discuss library anxiety and reviews some of the literature in that subject. The article also provides a list of key research questions, and it ends by discussing implications of competence theory. Some notes:
  • "Because low-level skills may result in inflated self-assessments, one of the greatest challenges for information professionals may be in developing outreach efforts that can get the attention of individuals who think they are performing well, but who are not" (160).
  • "Because technological competence is increasingly an assumed prerequisite to participation in the digital realm, information literacy skills may be less likely to be addressed in the general curriculum. Faculty may assume that, because information-literacy skills overlap with information-technology skills, a student who is able to participate in distance education can be expected to be information literate" (161).
I think some of the more rabid dwellers of Mount Ubertech may want to think about this. In more practical terms, I see a need to continue reaching out and educating faculty. Just because a student can log on to WebCT or other tool, it does not follow they can address their information needs or other learning issues. Overall, I highly recommend this article.

1 comment:

Woody Evans said...

You just gave me lots to think about... how to reach those who don't know that they need help? How to identify them?

This is a bit of a tossed-off idea, but I wonder if all this "social software" buzz might help us to reach the "invisible patron"... Hm. And what about the fact that skilled info seekers and non-skilled will have different fundamental assumptions about what info is and how to get at it.

Good post!