Graduate research supervisors role in information literacy

See the results of a study, undertaken by the UK-based Research Information Network (funded by a consortium of UK higher ed institutions) between January and July 2011, investigating the place and role of PhD supervisors in the drive to ensure that research students possess the necessary level of information literacy to pursue their careers successfully in academia and beyond.

The key findings in the report include:

  • Research supervisors’ practice, and research student satisfaction, varies enormously between different supervisors, research groups, departments and institutions. There is also great variation across different elements of information literacy.
  • Research students are consistent in looking to their supervisor as a source of information and guidance.
  • There is a minority of supervisors who are not engaged in developing their research students’ information literacy.
  • Many supervisors have confidence in their ability to advise their research students on information literacy, though this does vary across the different elements.
  • Developing their research students’ academic writing ability is a key activity that supervisors undertake.
  • Supervisors are not always aware of departmental, school or institutional training and support available for their students, and sometimes find it difficult to identify what training and support is available.
  • Supervisors are not necessarily completely up to date themselves with information literacy skills and knowledge.
  • Training for supervisors is a polarising issue; many supervisors highlight overlong, overly generic or not useful training as a disincentive to attend further courses.
  • differences in students’ perceptions of their supervisor(s) role and success in providing support across university mission groups, subjects and mode of study are relatively minor. Instead there are major differences at the individual, research group and departmental level.

The report sets out four broad recommendations:

  • Making it easy for supervisors to keep up to date on what training, support and resources are available for both themselves and research students; for this purpose, providing supervisors with clear information, specific to their needs, on the range of appropriate offerings and development.
  • Improving development opportunities for supervisors, in particular by encouraging peer support between supervisors, notably through seminars and mentoring
  • Encouraging supervisors to support and discuss their research students’ skills assessments, for instance through mechanisms, jointly considered by supervisors and students, that could be used as a basis of planning development opportunities.
  • Finally, the evidence and findings lead to questions about the usefulness of the term ‘information literacy’ for supervisors, and how it is conceived within researcher development. In light of the understanding of the supervisors’ role and their attitudes offered by this report, institutional stakeholders can review their approach and ensure that a clear institutional position on the use of the term and concept is agreed.

One thought on “Graduate research supervisors role in information literacy

  1. This is a timely find for me, since as a new Ph.D. student I’m in a seminar class where we’ve just been discussing the role of the supervisor/advisor – I’ve mentioned the report to the instructor. I have to say, he talks up the role of the librarian, and has already had the class into the OISE library for instruction. My own advisor, on the other hand – a very successful researcher who’s had multiple SSHRC grants – struggles with searching for information and relies on research assistants. I’m not sure what kind of advice she can give her advisees in this area. The report too highlights variation rather than consistency across individuals, groups, departments and institutions.

    I was most interested, though, in the finding that faculty don’t recognize information literacy as a concept (p. 22) – though this isn’t exactly news. They do recognize the individual components, but see many of them as their responsibility, rather than the the library’s responsibility. The library is most strongly seen as the place to get help with reference management, and less strongly, help with information searching – again, not exactly surprising, but kind of depressing.

    I see this reflected too in the teachers who are my fellow students at OISE. In a course on Online learning, we’ve had a fair bit of discussion on the need for students to understand web searching better, to understand web structure, to critically evaluate the information they find – without any recognition that a librarian could help. The teachers see teaching this as their role.

    And just to get back to faculty’s perceptions of information literacy, here’s a Canadian study, in case you haven’t come across it before:

    Gullikson, S. (2006). Faculty perceptions of ACRL’s information literacy competency standards for higher education. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(6), 583-592.

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