26 Nov 2013

Information literacy, graduate attributes and employability

As an academic librarian, I think one of the key reports in recent times is Project Information Literacy's How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace. A large proportion of our IL instruction often focuses on 'library' resources such as subscription databases and journals, and aims at achieving learning outcomes that can help students succeed during their time in University.

The bigger picture of course, is that once our students graduate, the information landscape of industry, policy-making and the professional world often bares very little resemblance to 'the library'. After 3 or 4 years of using JSTOR, Web of Science or Scopus we now expect them to be able to go out into the world and know where to find the information they need to help them in their jobs. In healthcare (where PubMed is freely available) or in large financial companies that may have subscription resources, the transition to information-seeking in professional life may be more manageable. However, retail managers trying to analyse market trends or an engineer in a small practice looking for information on measuring environmental impact may find themselves trying to climb a glass wall with no familiar footholds for leverage.

As instructors we help our students to recognise that being able to find, evaluate and manage information effectively is a key transferable skill, but I wonder do we emphasise this enough? If we highlight the long-term value of being information literate (and in particular the advantage of possessing a set of competencies and attributes desired by employers) students may also be more willing to invest time in the process of learning and developing their skills. Perhaps we need to think of how we can package or state our typical IL objectives and outcomes, in a way that is directly linked to the world of work?

The aforementioned report from PIL (2012, p.9) highlights the three baseline competencies required by employers at the recruitment stage. These same competencies are of course inherent in probably every third level information skills curriculum across the globe. However, do we emphasise the point enough that these are also key skills required by employers? Do we really sell how transferable many of the skills needed in using information in everyday life really are?

What Do Employers Expect from College Hires?
1. To know how and where to find information online, without much guidance
2. To use a search strategy that goes beyond Google and finding an answer
on the first page of results
3. To articulate a “best solution” and conclusion from all that was found
(How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace, 2012, p. 9)

The Report also includes the findings from the 2011 NACE Survey, where employers rate the importance of candidate skills/qualities on a scale of 1 (not important) to 5 (extremely important)

1. Ability to work in a team structure 4.60
2. Ability to verbally communicate with people inside and outside the organization 4.59
3. Ability to make decisions and solve problems 4.49
4. Ability to obtain and process information 4.46
5. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work 4.45
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data 4.23
7. Possession of technical knowledge related to the job 4.23
8. Proficiency with computer software programs 4.04
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports 3.65
10. Ability to persuade or influence others 3.51
(How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace, 2012, p.9)

Again, our instruction can often hit several of these to some extent at least, through collaborative learning, promoting and supporting digital literacies, helping students develop skills for managing and organising information, fostering critical thinking skills and developing effective processes for solving research problems.

Given the importance of context and relevance in teaching IL, I still feel that it is essential to try and reach students when they are most receptive and faced with a real information need or problem, such as completing an assignment or essay. Targeting instruction which can hit this specific gap at the right time will no doubt be more effective than pitching it as a set of vague or bigger picture attributes desired by employers. However at the same time, I think it could be useful for us to explore how we can anchor our IL instruction to employability and the 'real world' a little more.


  1. The big thing I took from that report was number 2 on that survey - communicating with people. Asking for help. Employers rated this as a prime deficiency, and recent graduates said it was a major challenge. Maybe this is an overlooked aspect of information literacy.
    The engineer and the retail manager probably have colleagues, supervisors and contacts that they could tap into for their information needs. They may need to ask questions of people they do not know, so they need to know how to frame questions in a way that is likely to get a response. They need to know how to identify and articulate problems. In school, students tend to be given problems that are predefined and already articulated. While this makes for effective assessments, the real world is not always so neat and tidy.
    At my institution, students almost never come to librarians with questions, and rarely ask questions of faculty. It doesn't surprise me that questioning and communicating are deficiencies in our graduates. I've been trying to raise this issue with faculty, but I don't have a solution for it.

  2. Thanks Paul! Yes I agree completely, though still feel research evidence has a role to play in professional life as well as the experience and advice of colleagues (in the same way that EBP is a synthesis of multiple elements). I think one of the biggest challenges that a postgraduate faces is coming up with, framing, scoping and exploring a research question, which - as you point out - is often not a significant part of the undergraduate experience. Perhaps if students were to choose their own essay topics or projects more often it would encourage a more critical and analytical mindset in this respect? Thanks for the comment :)