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Information Literacy in a Utopian High School

About a month ago I got two separate emails from completely different people asking about what I think high school students should know about information literacy before coming to college. I, uh, procrastinated a bit. The question was just kind of daunting and got all wrapped up in all the normal thoughts people have about these things (“College students today, they just don’t understand even the BASICS!”) along with some worried thoughts I wasn’t expecting and don’t actually believe in (“If they know this stuff when they get to me, what will I do?”). Plus, we’re in the last few weeks of school here (yes, still) so I could procrastinate while being busy with student questions, which could even be a great excuse except that I know I was just putting it off.

Before I go any further, I should point out that not only have I never taught in a high school myself, I never even went to high school. So I’m certainly no expert in what gets taught there. My perspective is that of a librarian who spends the first 10 weeks of every school year teaching about a third of our first year seminar students. Also, these are ideas, not a curriculum. I’m just thinking out loud here, as usual. So with that said, what should high school students know before coming to college?

Habits of Mind

  1. A research paper is not (usually) a report. Very few reports get assigned in college. When faced with their first research projects here, students really really want to write what John Bean terms an “all about” paper — these tend to have “And then” as a standard transition and they basically summarize all known facts about a particular topic.
  2. Curiosity, and high comfort with the idea of finding out what people know about whatever you’re curious about. I have a browser open nearly all day every day, and I can’t tell you how many searches I do in a day — everything from checking on the spelling of a word (Google is my dictionary) or figuring out more about something I saw on TV or something I’ve read.
  3. Understanding that journalists, scholars, business people, etc don’t have their well-formed ideas drop on them from the sky. They do not utter Truth-with-a-capital-T. They offer perspective and (hopefully) support that perspective with some context/evidence/proof.  They, too, went through the messy process of figuring out what they even wanted to know about a given topic, and the uncertain phase of collecting and analyzing and rethinking and collecting some more. This is a really difficult lesson to learn, so the sooner you start thinking about it the better! And the better you know this, the easier it will be to engage with outside sources rather than simply report on them.
  4. Gather information, THEN write the paper. The other way around is just painful.
  5. Cite what you use. This is good for you (no plagiarism) and good for your reader (more context), and besides, you’ll be graded on it. This is a habit more than a skill because the individual rules for this citation style or that matter far less than the habit of bringing in and acknowledging the participants in the conversation that you’re having in the form of your research project.
  6. Talking to people (especially librarians or writing consultants or discipline experts) is not cheating. It’s the way knowledge creation happens. And since this isn’t a “report” getting information isn’t the whole point. You’ll still be able to think about and communicate about your analysis and synthesis and conclusions. Those journalists and scholars who didn’t have their ideas fall on them out of the sky? They talked to people, too.

Research skills

  1. I tend to expect students to have searched google. A lot. This is not always the case, but it’s the assumption upon which I build many of my classes and one-on-one instruction.
  2. Books are good, and knowing the parts of the book (table of contents, the amazing thing that is the index, the introduction, the conclusion) will help you get the most out of a shelf of books in extremely short order.
  3. Browsing is good. Search can only get you so far, particularly if you are a novice in the field (which is everyone in high school) and therefore don’t know the vocabulary that each field develops and uses to exchange ideas. I call this the Term Economy, and it’s what makes searches work or fail. If you haven’t paid much into that economy yet, browsing is even more your friend than it is for everyone else.
  4. Call numbers mean a topic. You don’t have to know what topic any given string means, but knowing that really helps with browsing.
  5. Find full text based on a citation. Only about 30% of our incoming students can do this and I would love it if all of them could.
  6. Keep track of what you find. Whether that means printing stuff out, saving it to something like Zotero or Evernote or whatever, it will stand you in really good stead.


  1. Word processing
  2. Basic proficiency with a browser
  3. Browser addons (so many library tools involve bookmarklets and browser addons)
  4. Citation generator? Zotero is great and useful in many many more ways that just producing citations. Straight up citation generators? I’m neither opposed to nor in favor of them. The only thing I really care about is whether the student knows enough about basic citations to be able to look at a citation and use it to find the text. THAT’s what’s important about citations. The rest is periods and commas.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things high school students do and should know before entering college, but these are the things that trip up my first year students either consistently or spectacularly.

Published inTeaching and Learning


  1. Meg Meg

    I received one of these emails, too. In answering the questions, I realized just how few actual expectations the library has for incoming students. I don’t mean in the sense that we don’t think they are capable of certain tasks. I mean that our approach and instruction is tied very closely to the professors’ assignments and requirements. For us right now, we react to professors’ expectations. I’m still mulling over whether this is the best approach for us or not…

  2. As a new high school librarian, I appreciate your insight very much! I will definitely be incorporating finding sources from citations in next year’s lessons. I don’t get to spend much time with our students, although I’m always pushing for more, so it’s difficult to prioritize how to use the time I have. For now, I’d be really happy if they used in-text citations AT ALL!

  3. Yeah, it’s always hard to prioritize, especially when we get a few minutes here and there with the students. I’m not sure if my pipe dream above is at all feasible, actually. Some of it may even be more of a developmental issue than a skill issue. These are things that faculty working with first year students often think that they know already, though, so I thought I’d list them.

    And I’d be happy if they used in-text citations in their college work, too. :-)

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