Academic Librarians and Student Learning Assessment

By Kathy Clarke, Assessment Librarian, James Madison University (

Academic librarians worry about students’ information literacy skills. In the early 2000s the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) created Standards of Information Literacy for Higher Education. More recently these standards have become the roomier Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. The Frames abbreviate as follows:

  • Authority is constructed and contextual
  • Information Creation as a process
  • Information has value
  • Research as inquiry
  • Scholarship as conversation
  • Searching as strategic exploration

These Frames challenge academics of all varieties to consider the overlapping process that is using information to create knowledge. All students need these skills to be successful in work and life.

In 2000, my colleague, Lynn Cameron, rightly convinced the JMU community that the Standards should be a part of the evolving General Education program. She convinced the faculty to include the Standards as learning outcomes in the core curriculum. The Madison General Education program was then moving to an outcomes-based model, and as such, outcomes that were stated had to be measurable.Information literacy wordle

Librarians are not deployed at the university in the same way as our disciplinary cousins. While some librarians regularly teach their own courses, it is not the norm for every librarian. At JMU we had an additional problem: how do we get all students (JMU’s incoming class size is approximately 5,000 students) to demonstrate information literacy competency? We settled on a tutorial test model and attached it to the core.

Students entering the General Education program at JMU encounter the program in clusters of courses. Cluster One is considered foundational for all subsequent coursework, and is required to be completed in the first academic year. This cluster of courses consists of first-year composition, human communication, a critical thinking course, and successful passage of the Madison Research Essential Skills Test (MREST). Students who do not pass the MREST by the Friday prior to Spring Break have a registration hold placed that precludes them from registering for subsequent courses.

Students are introduced to the tutorial content in their Human Communication course via a series of videos that are housed on the Libraries’ website (Madison Research Essentials) and are then provided with a set of practice exercises within the learning management system (Canvas) in Human Communication class. We selected this class as it is the core course that most students take. After reviewing the content and completing the practice exercises, students take the MREST in a proctored campus lab. They take the test as many times as they need to until they pass, but most students meet the competency by their second attempt.

We also use a version of this test on a pre/post model. A subset of MREST items comprise the InfoCore. This test is given to a subset of students on first year and sophomore Assessment Days (A-Days). Last year, we had, for the first data from the same set of students from first year to sophomore A-Days. We are happy to report that we are seeing gains in students’ incoming skills compared to their second-year scores.

All of this work has afforded me the luxury of working in a robust General Education program and the Center for Assessment and Research Studies (CARS) at JMU. We are currently shifting the old Standards to newer Frame-friendly objectives that will allow us to expand information literacy concepts on our campus.

All of this is say, that student learning assessment is for librarians who are interested and for campuses that can commit. But JMU’s version of information literacy instruction is by far not the only successful Virginia model. I encourage my Virginia Academic Librarian colleagues to consider posting their version of information literacy assessment in this forum and to attend the November 2018 meeting! I hope to see many of you in Charlottesville!




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