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Information-savvy grads help meet workforce needs

| Judy Berthiaume

Librarians at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are working to help students become information-savvy critical thinkers, qualities that employers repeatedly cite as among those they most highly value in their employees.

“Students often struggle to see the connection between the research they are expected to do in college and the concept of research in their lives outside of and beyond college,” says Jill Markgraf, head of Research & Instruction in McIntyre Library. “Too often, they see the emphasis on using sources such as scholarly articles as something their professors require but as ultimately having no relevance to life outside of college.”

In reality, Markgraf says, technology has made it so easy to access information about things that impact all aspects of our lives that it’s become a challenge to assess and critically evaluate it all as we make decisions or form opinions that impact the quality of our professional and personal lives.

An Honors course created and taught by librarians at McIntyre Library is designed to help Blugolds take the information they find in the library and elsewhere and draw connections from it to the wider world, Markgraf says.

“We want to challenge them to be critical consumers and purveyors of information in all aspects of their lives,” Markgraf says.

Typically, members of the library instruction team lead single lessons or guest sessions in a class at the invitation of the course instructor. But instructors have much more that they want to explore with students than can be accomplished in a single session, Markgraf says.

With that in mind, they developed a three-credit Honors course, “Living in an Information Economy,” that helps students explore the issues surrounding the creation, filtering, manipulation, consumption and understanding of information.

“The course challenges students to make sense of the information they are likely to encounter in their lives through print, digital, visual or other media,” Markgraf says. “Students learn to use information to analyze a real-world problem, develop informed opinions, engage in civil discourse and collaborate to recommend a response to the problem.”

The seminar-style course comprises a lot of reading, reflection and discussion, Markgraf says, noting that 10 Honors students from a variety of majors are enrolled in the class this semester.

“Students look at the coverage of current issues from a variety of sources, exploring the differences and the root of those differences,” Markgraf says. “They look at political, societal, economic and individual roles in filtering the information to which they are exposed.”

The course includes a final project in which the students — either individually or as a group — define a real-world problem or offer a response to that problem.

Responses have taken the form of things like presentations to specific audiences, the creation of educational videos, sales pitches and social media campaigns.

Issues that students have focused on for final projects include standardized testing, data privacy, manipulation of information and renewable energy.

Students in the class say that it has challenged their thinking and changed the way they view information, Markgraf says.

“They report becoming more skeptical about information they come across and more critical consumers of information,” Markgraf says. “One student commented that she finds herself drawing upon the ideas discussed in class in situations and conversations outside of class. That is exactly what we want this class to do — enable students to make a connection between information use in an academic environment and in their everyday lives.”

Having had positive experiences with the Honors course, library faculty now hope to offer similar courses to more students, Markgraf says. They are developing one-credit courses that are open to all students, and that can either stand alone or be paired with existing courses.

“The vision for these classes is that they will offer students research skills within and across disciplines, but also draw connections between scholarly conversations and information encountered in the popular media,” Markgraf says.

McIntyre Library prides itself on being a nimble organization that adapts to the changing needs of students, Markgraf says, noting that the creation of these classes is a reflection of that commitment.

Faculty members of McIntyre Library’s research and instruction staff include Markgraf, Robin Miller, Kate Hinnant, Hans Kishel and Eric Jennings. The faculty rotate teaching the Honors class, with two faculty teaching the class each semester.

Photo caption: Hans Kishel (left) and Eric Jennings (right) teach an Honors class that aims to help students learn skills to access and evaluate the huge amounts of information that technology makes possible.