Information Literacy Exercise

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. He can be reached at colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu.

It seems safe to say that political scientists have some concerns these days about information literacy, and information literacy is likely an implicit learning outcome for many of us. This blog has provided a number of good exercises for bringing information literacy into research methods, reading academic research, and headline writing. Inspired by these examples, I attempted to include this skill in my introductory comparative politics class, where democratic (de)consolidation is a major topic. In theory, the class gives students enough background to start keeping up with events around the world—if they choose to do so.

The exercise I tried this year, now available on APSA Educate, forces them to update slightly-out-of-date readings on a country facing democratic backsliding (Poland) by finding out what’s happened there in the four or five years since they were published. Students were assigned to small groups, and each was given a different kind of source to examine during a class session. One group read newspaper articles, another examined democracy indexes, yet another searched Wikipedia, etc. Students then applied what they’d read to course concepts—has democracy gotten weaker or stronger in Poland since these were published? Students then discussed what they trusted or distrusted about each type of source, and the potential merits of each.

I had a few key goals for students:

  • Think about source material for future courses. In an intro course, students not only might be unfamiliar with how research articles work, but also may not have a lot of practice in thinking about online source credibility.
  • Understand that while sources vary in credibility, there are pros and cons to using even the most credible sources. For example, the students who looked at V-Dem, Freedom House, etc., got clear, direct answers to the exercise’s questions, but they also correctly pointed out that they had to accept these organizations’ conceptualizations of democracy. And less credible sources like Wikipedia still had things to offer if used carefully.
  • Bridge the gap between classroom learning and events in the broader world and show how what they’re learning might help them understand the news.

When I ran this exercise in class this year, I budgeted only about 25 minutes for it, when it turned out to need 40 minutes or more to give students enough time to look at multiple sources in their category. We ended up using another 25 minutes the next day but dividing the exercise into two sessions probably led to more shallow searching and a less systematic attempt to make sense of sources.

When running this exercise in the future, I will think more explicitly about the balance between handholding and allowing students to practice seeking things out on their own. Last time I provided a couple of search terms, told them to keep looking outward beyond these, and to keep a record of what they searched for (which as best I could tell no group did). Next time I will probably experiment with either giving students a fully curated list of search terms, so they can observe how this affects their search results, or, conversely, I might give them even more time to “flail” about on their own before offering suggestions.