Chapter 5: ‘Enquiring Minds’ and the role of information literacy in the design, management and assessment of student research tasks – Information Literacy


‘Enquiring Minds’ and the role of information literacy in the design, management and assessment of student research tasks

Keith Puttick


This chapter considers the Enquiring Minds (EM) project at Staffordshire University, and the role that information literacy (IL) principles and standards can play in improving the quality of students’ research. Clearly, an essential pre-requisite is institutions’ commitment to embedding IL principles in the curriculum, while at the same time creating more (and better) opportunities to deploy research and research-related skills and putting Enquiry-Based Learning (EBL) at the heart of the student experience. However, if progress is to be made it will be essential for lecturers – working with groups like information specialists – to factor IL principles and competency standards effectively into research task design, guidance, and assessment criteria. While it is clearly essential to bring IL requirements into learning outcomes (a vital step in changing behaviour, and raising the quality of students’ research), it is also necessary to recognise the limitations of learning outcomes. Consequently, there is considerable value in ensuring that IL standards are adapted and deployed to meet the needs of particular tasks, with task designers supplementing learning outcomes with effective guidance. As EM research has suggested, some EBL schemes or types of project work may require close guidance on specifics like taking ‘preliminary steps’, using ‘a range of different enquiry methods’, or ‘communicating research results effectively’. The chapter concludes by emphasising the value of embedding IL principles in the curriculum – something that has considerable potential for improving students’ research, and empowering them to become independent learners and ‘producers of knowledge’. However, this will necessitate more effective ways of assessing IL aspects of learning outcomes, and rewarding good practice in conducting effective searches, authentication, and critical evaluation.

Key words


student research

information literacy

IL competency standards

information specialists



Besides developing undergraduate students’ research and research-related skills, and providing adequate opportunities to deploy those skills, what more can be done to improve the quality of students’ research; and what are the benefits to be gained by bringing information literacy (IL) requirements into the curriculum? These are issues that the Enquiring Minds (EM) project at Staffordshire Law School has been considering since 2007. As considered in this chapter, a key dimension to this is the role that the assessment of IL requirements can play in the process of embedding IL in programmes, and in improving the quality of students’ research outputs.

The Enquiring Minds (EM) project

EM is a Research Informed Teaching (RiT) funded project that has been looking at ways to improve the quality of students’ research. Work began in 2007 following an initial pilot People, Diversity and Work when a group of four final-year students successfully undertook a major piece of research and presented their findings at the national conference Empowerment, Welfare & Work that year. The high quality of that research reinforced the case for pursuing a more ambitious agenda for student research (Puttick et al., 2008: 3–5). However, it also highlighted the need for more to be done to build on the positive improvements made to our undergraduate skills programmes, and to equip them with the range of skills now expected of graduates by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA, 2007; 2008). This is also a prerequisite to the introduction of many of the enquiry-based learning (EBL) options, including project work, which QAA standards expect, and which promote higher order learning outcomes (Spronken-Smith et al., 2008:1). The value of EBL approaches is clear, whether tasks are undertaken within the ‘information frame’, and enquiry that is exploring existing knowledge; or it is in the so-called ‘discovery frame’ which entails enquiry that builds on such knowledge, contests it, or is developing new areas of enquiry (Levy, 2009).

Just one of the many challenges for institutions in enhancing their provision, or developing new programmes is that researchers now operate in a digital age in which they have access to a multiplicity of resources for accessing, manipulating, recreating, and communicating information. As the Melville Report has made clear, the use of Web 2.0 technologies is accompanied by the problem that information literacies, including searching, retrieving and critically evaluating information from different sources, are what it called ‘a significant and growing deficit area’ (Melville Report, 2009: 7). Accordingly, one of their key recommendations was that Higher Education institutions, colleges, and schools must ‘treat information literacies as a priority area and support all students so that they are able, amongst other things, to identify, search, locate, retrieve and, especially, critically evaluate information from the range of appropriate sources – web-based and other – and organise and use it effectively …’ (Melville Report, 2009, paras 39–40, 42, 73).

In the face of a daunting array of source materials that information systems generate, what strategies can lecturers and information specialists develop to try to ensure that student researchers access what is needed, effectively and efficiently? In addressing this central question, it has become increasingly clear that teaching institutions like ours should recognize that IL is a graduate attribute (Webber and Johnston, 2006), and so should be developing effective strategies at the level of awards and modules for incorporating IL principles and appropriate competency standards into task design, pre-task guidance, and both formative and formal assessment (Walton, 2005; Puttick, 2009).

IL, the teaching-research nexus and EBL

In the bigger picture, besides addressing some of the challenges presented by information gathering and management in the digital age, what are the wider advantages to be gained by embedding IL principles in the curriculum?

As well as helping to address the ‘literacies deficit’, and meet the increasingly tough standards set by QAA (QAA, 2007) and other external bodies, we believe that by incorporating IL requirements more effectively in programme delivery and assessment, not only will undergraduates gain the skills and confidence needed to become better, more autonomous learners – a vital factor in their future employability – but that students will be better placed to join the ‘community of researchers’ in the ways envisaged by commentators like Hasok Chang (Chang, 2005). Improving students’ research skills enables them to participate in a wider range of EBL options and project work – something which, in turn, will help to build the academic learning community and bring students closer to the ‘research scholar’ model favoured by commentators like Hodge, Pasquesi and others (Hodge et al., 2007). Apart from exploring these and other issues around skills development and deployment, and linked matters like improvements to rewards, incentives, and assessment, the EM project’s focus has been on the part that EBL approaches can play in the development of the teaching-research nexus. However, these are benefits that have to be progressively developed. Having explored this in some depth since 2007, we would certainly agree with the observation that teaching-research links are not ‘automatic’, and have to be ‘constructed’ (Jenkins et al., 2007: 2). What is more, the issues involved do not just focus on the student side: as the Melville Report rightly concluded, there are also some significant challenges for lecturers – some of whom may need to reflect on whether their own research, teaching, and learning work equips them to make informed choices about teaching and learning methods (Melville, 2009: Area 2 Staff Skills).

In making progress in these respects, consideration also needs to be given to matters such as the creation of opportunities to showcase successful project work, and use the product of students’ and lecturers’ research as a resource for teaching programmes, creating a culture in which the institution also benefits by putting research more firmly at the centre of legal studies and the student learning experience (Puttick et al., 2008). As Helen Walkington and Alan Jenkins have argued, this requires that new ways of disseminating students’ work should be made available (Walkington and Jenkins, 2008). This links to the point that while formal assessment is a key driver in the raising of standards, it is by no means the only factor that motivates students (Joughin, 2009; Bone, 2009: 239). For example, for some students the opportunity to present good work to their peer groups, or to publish and showcase it in other ways, is also an important motivating factor – a theme that project team members advanced in a paper at the Association of Law Teachers Conference in Cambridge University (Harrison et al., 2010).

Issues around the communication of research outputs, and the need to ensure that communication skills are adequately factored in to assessments, is a theme that is revisited later in this chapter. Before that, it is proposed to consider the role that externally-set standards play in the development and assessment of research-related skills like communication, analysis, and team-working.

External standards: QAA

In 2008, QAA made it clear that it expects graduates with a bachelor’s degree to have developed a ‘systematic understanding of key aspects of their field of study, including acquisition of coherent and detailed knowledge, at least some of which is at, or informed by, the forefront of defined aspects of a discipline’. This is amplified by the expectation that students by the time they graduate should have ‘an ability to deploy accurately established techniques of analysis and enquiry within a discipline’, and ‘manage their own learning’. Furthermore, they should be able to:

 Apply the methods and techniques that they have learned to review, consolidate, extend and apply their knowledge and understanding, and to initiate and carry out projects.

 Critically evaluate arguments, assumptions, abstract concepts and data (that may be incomplete), to make judgements, and to frame appropriate questions to achieve a solution – or to identify a range of solutions – to a problem.

 Communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions to both specialist and non-specialist audiences (QAA, 2008: Section 4 Qualification Descriptors, para 37).

Further guidance is in the QAA Benchmark Statement for Law (QAA, 2007), revising the earlier Statement published in 2000. However, given the significant changes there have been since 2000, particularly in areas like e-learning and assessment systems, it is surprising how little was changed. As the UK Centre for Legal Education said during the 2006 consultation on proposed revisions (UKCLE, 2007), it would have been helpful to see ‘an acknowledgement of shifts in pedagogical practice’, and some general guidance on the standards of practice ‘considered fundamental to any well run programme of study’ – for example in a specification about assessment criteria. Nevertheless, the guidance in the 2007 statement is now more visibly in synch with IL and technology literacy (TL) principles and standards. This has been a developing area of interest for the EM project, and members of the project team like Chris Harrison who have been addressing some of the TL issues highlighted in the Melville Report (2009) when helping to develop new programmes like the Staffordshire Law School’s Blended Learning Legal Practice Course, or ‘new generation’ programmes like the distance learning LLM in Sports Law.

Among other things, the revised 2007 Law statement now expects a student to be able to demonstrate a basic ability ‘to identify accurately the issue/s which require researching’, as well as having the technical proficiency to identify and retrieve up-to-date legal information, and use primary and secondary legal sources (para 6.3). In addition to skills of analysis, synthesis, critical judgement and evaluation, students should be able to demonstrate a basic ability ‘with limited guidance’ to act independently in planning and undertaking tasks in areas of law which they have already studied; be able to undertake independent research in areas of law which they have not previously studied ‘starting from standard legal information sources …’ (para 7). In the area of ‘key skills’ renewed emphasis is given to communication and literacy skills, including the presentation of knowledge and arguments ‘in a way which is comprehensible to others and which is directed at their concerns’, as well as ‘read and discuss legal materials which are written in technical and complex language’.

Interestingly, in the area of research skills there is a new emphasis on a student’s ability to ‘work in groups as a participant who contributes effectively to the group’s task’ (para 8). This is an aspect that the EM project has been interested in for some while, and which featured in a conference paper at the Learning in Law Annual Conference (LILAC) 2009, Concepts of Culture in Legal Education (Puttick et al., 2009).

It is in these contexts that the EM project’s work has revisited the role that assessment can play in improving research and allied skills.

The EM People, Diversity & Work pilot

As already noted, the EM project was preceded by a pilot called People, Diversity & Work. This was undertaken by a team of 3rd Year Law, Advice Studies, and Broadcast Journalism students, and was commissioned by the organisers of the Empowerment, Work & Welfare conference in November 2007 – a conference organised in collaboration with the Trades Union Congress, the Institute of Employment Rights, ACAS, Temple Cloisters, the Engineering Employers Federation, Citizens Advice, Disability Alliance, the Child Poverty Action Group, and Carers UK – which debated, among other things, youth aspects of the government’s empowerment strategy, in particular employment, and retention policies being developed by the government at the time (Empowering People to Work, 2006).

Despite its many positive features, the pilot highlighted some significant shortcomings in students’ ability to plan and manage such small-scale projects as a form of ‘research-based inquiry’ (Healey and Jenkins, 2009: 6) – for example in terms of their unsystematic approach to preparing such projects, and utilising appropriate research methods (the project highlighted, for example, how Google remains the ‘first choice’ for many student researchers, even at level 3). Nor was it always clear that the task of locating relevant information, ahead of the ‘question-setting’ phase was always conducted in the most effective ways. A key issue concerned the lack of a realistic timetable for completing ‘key stages’ in the research ahead of the Empowerment conference. The value of preparing students more effectively for such small-group project options (now an important strand in our portfolio of level 3 options) became more apparent when, in discussion with EM project partners, it became apparent how other institutions – particularly in the USA – address such aspects in their skills development programme, helped by information literacy standards that offer important pointers to how such project work should be approached – particularly in the design stages of EBL options. This links to points made by commentators like Moira Bent and Elizabeth Stockdale, who have observed that students embarking on a new project tend in many cases not to spend sufficient time reflecting on what it is, exactly, that they are looking for; or rationalise how they propose to set about or how to go about initiating effective searches for information once the project themes have been identified (Bent and Stockdale, 2009).

This important subject is revisited later when consideration is given to the way that a number of key ‘standards’, including those issued by ACRL in the USA, have informed the approaches taken to the introduction of new research skills elements into Staffordshire University’s CPE GDL-LLB Use of Legal Sources & Legal Research Skills module.

Bringing IL into the Law curriculum

In the context of the EM project much of the interest has been in aspects of IL which help students’ recognise when information is needed, and then to manage the process of locating, evaluating, and using information for specific tasks. A key step for Law undergraduate students is in adapting information in applied skills settings as part of the process of bringing it into the student’s ‘knowledge base’ (ACRL, 2000).

As already suggested, there is much to be learnt from the experience of teaching and learning practice in US law schools – not least in the way literacy standards feature in the assessed research and writing elements of both core and elective subjects. As well as receiving instruction in areas of skills development like research and writing skills, opportunities to research and write about subjects that have been researched feature strongly in many schools’ programmes. It is also the case that US law students are probably given greater opportunities to publish their work, for example after participating in American Bar Association writing competitions or for their school journals. Typically, a student will not only complete a credit-bearing, year-long module in Legal Research and Writing, she or he will have extensive opportunities to complete enquiry-based project work as part of electives. Specific qualitative aspects of writing work is usually assessed and rewarded by freestanding credit-bearing skills elements in marking regimes. Among other features, credits may be earned by writing work for journals like the Idaho University College of Law’s Critical Legal Studies Journal. Specifically, credits can be earned by students’ online contributions to the journal (Idaho, 2009: 84).

No doubt it was President Barack Obama’s involvement in such work as editor of the Harvard Law Review in 1991 – a publication that includes contributions from students as well as faculty members and outside contributors (Butterfield, 1990) – that encouraged him to support the national IL campaign in the USA, and to issue his Proclamation in October 2009 making it ‘National Information Literacy Awareness Month’ in the USA. In the Proclamation he observed that ‘Every day we are inundated with vast amounts of information … Rather than merely possessing data we must learn the skills necessary to acquire, collate, and evaluate information … Our nation’s educators and institutions of learning must be aware of – and adjust to – these new realities …’ (Presidential Proclamation, 2009).

At a practical level, what does ‘adjusting to these new realities’ actually mean? Having accepted the value of IL, how does this inform the practical steps that need to be taken if we are to help our students become information literate researchers, and make discernible improvements to the quality of research outputs?

Before looking at this in more detail, it is worth looking at the steps taken so far by UK providers like Staffordshire University to bring IL principles into the curriculum.

From theory into practice: implementation

The first point to make is that any meaningful progress in this area requires a clear institutional commitment, and a strategy for implementing IL in programme curricula – and this has now been done by Staffordshire University. In doing so, the university has been giving effect to some of the ideas Alison Pope developed as part of her university Learning and Teaching Fellowship project. Not least of these has been her view about the holistic approach to dealing with IL as just one of a number of relevant ‘literacies’. As she has observed, IL is ‘part of a bigger picture; part of a jigsaw puzzle which includes other literacies (including for example, academic, media and digital); new ways of approaching learning through critical thinking, reflective practice, collaborative learning and the key skills agenda – all of which contribute to independent learning’ (Walton and Pope, 2006). Taking this forward, between 2005 and 2009, a number of important initial steps were taken, including the establishment of the university’s Information Literacy Statement of Good Practice: this was formally approved in January 2007 (Staffordshire University, 2007). In September 2007 the university then approved a revision of the learning outcome ‘Enquiry’ so that it encompassed a statement requiring students working at undergraduate level to embrace information literacy. As a further action, whenever the enquiry learning outcome featured in a module descriptor, students were now to be expected to ‘deploy accurately established techniques of analysis and enquiry and initiate and carry out projects within (the field of study)’ and ‘evaluate use of information literacy, including the ethical use of information in (the field of study)’.

One of the first occasions on which this revised learning outcome was used was in the re-design of the Law undergraduate award’s Skills module -a development discussed by Alison Pope in the December 2009 issue of Legal Information Management. As she noted in that article, the really significant aspect of this new link to the university’s strategic framework was that wherever an ‘enquiry’ learning outcome was included in a module’s descriptor, information literacy work then had to be assessed (Pope, 2009: 248) – something that has made assessment ‘unavoidable’. The case for formally assessing IL elements was also made by Geoff Walton (Walton, 2005).

Notwithstanding the importance of having an institutional strategic commitment to IL, and then bringing IL into learning outcomes, there are a number of other facets to this. The main consideration is that there are still a number of more specific actions needed before IL is likely to produce any tangible benefits, or improve the quality of outputs of student researchers. Most of these link to the way skills like Research (Enquiry at Staffordshire University) are assessed – and the actions needed to be taken to accompany the process of task-setting.

In this regard Enquiring Minds team members have been looking more closely at assessment issues; and as will now be considered, this requires some consideration of IL competence standards and their adaptation by course providers, and those managing awards and modules within programmes.

IL competences and ‘standards’

Building on a 1989 report, the American Library Association (ALA) Presidential Committee’s Final Report on information literacy (Presidential Committee, 1989), which identified the ‘four components’ of IL – ‘the ability to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information’ – the Association of College and Research Libraries published standards setting out the defining characteristics of an ‘information literate individual’, namely someone who is able to:

 determine the extent of information needed;

 access the needed information effectively and efficiently;

 evaluate information and its sources critically;

 incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base;

 use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose;

 understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally (ACRL Standards, 2004).

To help translate these ideas into practice, and help student researchers become better, more information literate people, requires a significant collaborative effort on the part of all the key stakeholders – course providers, course managers, information specialists, lecturers, and the students themselves as the Boyer Commission Report Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities has indicated (Boyer Commission, 1998: 15, 24–38).

The ACRL IL Competency Standards for Higher Education (ACRL Standards, 2004), like IL standards in other countries, clearly just provide an outline that informs more specific ‘indicators’ for institutions and specific programmes to build on. The job of translating that guidance into workable practice points is one for institutions’ programmes, taking into account the programmes’ specific needs. As the Boyer Commission also observed this requires a significant collaborative effort on the part of all the key stakeholders – course providers, course managers, information specialists, lecturers, and the students themselves. It added that: ‘Achieving competency in information literacy requires an understanding that this [ACRL] cluster of abilities is not extraneous to the curriculum but is woven into the curriculum’s content, structure, and sequence.…’

IL and the limitations of ‘learning outcomes’

At a practical level, when award managers and lecturers factor IL principles into their award and module learning outcomes (and then use them as the basis for formal assessment) they need to be aware of the significant limitations of ‘outcomes’ as an assessment tool. As we have said in several conference papers since the EM project started (Harrison et al., 2010; Pope et al., 2010), on this point we agree with much of what Trevor Hussey and Patrick Smith have said on the matter. In general, their usefulness is confined to signalling what students can expect to gain in very generalised terms or from a specific teaching event or session (and from what they term ‘summary statements’ in relation to ‘fairly small pieces of learning’) (Hussey and Smith, 2008). Their role when dealing with ‘larger areas of knowledge’ or ‘assemblages of skills’ is particularly limited.

In practical terms, such considerations dictate a need for lecturers to be clear about how, exactly, they propose to explain what they expect from students – especially when dealing with skills like Research which may, in fact, comprise a number of distinct components. Furthermore, different sub-sets of skills may only be relevant at different stages in the task’s timeline. For example, if a learning outcome is cast in very general terms (as they generally are in most module descriptors) then guidance and assessment criteria needs to be provided to students which reduces what is required to discrete elements.

In line with good practice, if learning outcomes indicate that a skill is being assessed then assessment criteria should be provided which is then mirrored by the contents of marking schemes. This facilitates good quality feedback, and gives the student confidence that he or she knows where any shortcomings have occurred.

‘Competency standards’ in Law skills assessment

The limitations of learning outcomes became clearer after early EM projects. These suggested that if IL elements are to be effective in raising the quality of outputs, not only must participants be clear about what, exactly, research skills outcomes actually require, but this needs to be set out in precise ‘guidance’ that builds on the general content of the module’s learning outcomes. The value of doing this was seen in Immigration, Work & Homelessness: UK–Poland Comparisons (2008/9) – one of the first EM projects after People, Diversity & Work. The research for this study was undertaken by students over a period of six weeks, and ahead of a joint seminar of Staffordshire University and Rzeszów University Social Welfare Law students in December 2008. The focus of the research, and subsequent presentation of results to fellow students, was on immigration, homelessness, disability, and human rights aspects of in-work welfare support for migrant workers. The project generated a lot of valuable comparisons between the law and social conditions in Poland, Ukraine and the UK, and produced material of a high standard. However, a number of features distinguished the approach taken on this occasion when compared with the earlier People, Diversity & Work pilot. First, detailed guidance was provided in a briefing during a workshop that preceded work commencing on the research. Among other things, this enjoined the researchers to take a number of ‘preliminary steps’ before they attempted to construct a research plan and ‘questions’. Second, key elements in that guidance were reinforced by clear links to assessment points in the formal marking scheme. The need for adherence to the ‘guidance’ was stressed, pointing out that a failure to do so could result in ‘loss of marks’. In general terms, IL principles featured strongly in the guidance – particularly in guiding the project’s early stages.

In particular, the guidance was informed by points adapted from ACRL Standards One and Two. Among other things, participants were advised to:

 Take advantage of the whole-group workshop discussions that preceded the project, during which the topics of immigration for work, and support from host communities, featured in class-room discussions: these provided the necessary law, policy, and advice studies ‘back-drop’ in which the context of the research was set – and which acted as a springboard for the researchers’ development of their own particular interests, enabling them to take those interests further, and autonomously.

 Discuss potential information sources, and participants’ particular interests, before allocating specific tasks which could then later inform the project’s aims as a whole.

 Having identified those areas of interest, and potential areas of enquiry, formulate a realistic plan for the project as a whole, factoring in:

– the use of different forms of enquiry, rather than just on-line methods (Google, law databases, etc.);

– a viable time-line for completing the agreed tasks;

– enquiry methods that are effective in cost-benefit terms;

– adequate reflection/discussion time with fellow researchers.

 Build in at least two stages at which the group would meet, enabling the research plan to be re-evaluated and modified if necessary; and enabling any ‘gaps’ in the information to be filled, if necessary by deploying new/better search strategies.

In the event, our evaluation concluded that the provision of this guidance had made a significant difference to the quality of the students’ work, and in their confidence that they were managing the project effectively. In the feedback, we as well as the students learnt a great deal about the dynamics that shape projects in this area of EBL. It also gave us, as a project team, more confidence in providing such pre-task guidance in the future – for example in advising later projects that implementing task-specific IL requirements is a responsibility that needs to be shared equally by all the members of a project team.

Another area in which IL competency standards have been relevant to the project’s work is communications aspects of Research skills, and it is this aspect of EM work that is now considered.

Presentation, reward and ‘communication’ aspects

Affording researchers the opportunity to present their work, and debate their findings with other participants, is another valuable dimension. This is a theme that EM project members like Geoff Walton have been particularly interested in, for example when discussing the opportunities that online discourse and collaborative learning can provide (Walton et al., 2007a, 2007b; Walton 2008). In formal assessment terms, opportunities given to students to communicate and discuss their research also links to the need to look at better ways of assessing such work fairly and effectively.

As well as rewarding students for good presentation of their work (and in ways that accords with IL competency standards relating to communication), the opportunity to do this and to be seen by the peer group, potential employers, and others to have done this effectively, should now be viewed, we suggest, as an integral part of EBL options like project work (Pope and Puttick, 2010). Besides gaining ‘marks’ in a module, and thereby improving the student’s eventual degree classification, ‘reward’ elements in this area may take other forms – all of which assist in encouraging adherence to IL requirements. This is certainly the experience in the USA, as seen for example in the opportunities given to Law students to contribute to Law School journals, online conferencing and workshops, and pursue subject interests in the way that research active lecturers publicise their work (Walkington and Jenkins, 2008).

In some cases, for example as part of an EM-evaluated exercise ‘Public Order: History & Law’ in 2010, students who produced winning presentations of their work also went on to have their good work reported and discussed in the Law School’s News Bulletin. The students concerned (twelve, in all), reported that this was a significant ‘reward’ in itself, supplementing the other positive benefits associated with participation in the exercise.

Competency standards for ‘communication’ and the ‘ethical’ dimension

Several EM pilot projects since 2008 have been looking at ways in which improvements can be made to the quality of the student experience when opportunities to deploy presentation skills are designed; and when work is being assessed, as part of formative and formal assessment schemes. Among other things, we have been evaluating the role that better, more targeted pre-task guidance can play (Puttick, 2009; Pope and Puttick, 2010). In practice, we found that a lot of modules identified ‘communication’ as a key element in learning outcomes – but without necessarily disaggregating this from other elements in the assessment of ‘Enquiry’, or providing much in the way of guidance on how, exactly, communication skills featured in the assessment process. In revisiting this area, several of the EM pilots have not only addressed the ‘disaggregation’ point, but have also sought to provide a clearer context for designing tasks and providing pre-task guidance (Pope et al., 2010: 106). In doing so, we have been addressing QAA and ACRL IL standards on the need to consider research ‘audiences’ and their particular needs. The ‘audience’ might, for example, be other students in a workshop, a legal client, a court, or some other ‘audience’. ACRL Standard Four is particularly relevant. This stipulates that the ‘information literate student communicates the product or performance effectively to others’, and outcomes relate, in particular, to the choice of communication medium and ‘the format that best supports the purposes of the product or performance and the intended audience’. Allied to this is the requirement that the student should communicate clearly.

Among other things, we have been looking at how, in the United States, law schools’ ‘know your audience’ principles help in the design and assessment of research and research-related skills. Essentially, the expectation is that that the student’s research results must be written up and presented in ways that meet the needs of specified groups. Typically, these might be sophisticated corporate clients, a court, or colleagues in other professional groups involved in transactions, such as accountants or HRM professionals. In the UK legal context similar considerations are relevant, too. Accordingly, in providing formal guidance to our students we have factored this in to the design and assessment of research tasks in a variety of ways (Pope and Puttick, 2010). For example, in a task requiring students to research substantive law points dealing with arrest, detention, and questioning (and suspects’ rights in the process), but which also introduced students to communication aspects of research skills, guidance was provided which explicitly asked the students to ‘take account of the audience for your presentation’. The task was this:

You are working for a Law Centre in a Midlands city where clients are often detained and taken back to the police station, sometimes in circumstances where it is not always clear if they have been formally arrested or not. Nor are people very sure of their rights after they have been taken to the station, and then detained and questioned.

Task Prepare a short presentation (approximately 15–20 minutes) that identifies detainees’ key rights in the process, including their rights on arrival at the station, time limits on detention, rights during interrogation, and the effects of breaches of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and Codes. You should provide examples, and be ready to provide your sources. Be ready, as well, to answer the audience’s queries – e.g. on ‘voluntary attendance’, and when a person can insist on leaving the station. You should take into account the needs of your audience, and the kind of questions they might ask you. Your audience is a campaign group concerned about the police force’s abuse of powers in the area.

In the event, the exercise was completed well. As the evaluation showed, however, one significant weakness (which was fed back to participants) was that some of the presentations, and material used to support them, were not always easy to understand by an audience of lay people – some of whom had little or no empathy with the law. It was pointed out that a key part of the researcher’s role, particularly in legal studies and advice work, is to produce information in a ‘usable form’ – and in this case that required adapting points in the presentation from complex sources like Code of Practice C and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 in a way that could be readily understood by a lay audience. Had the ‘audience’ been different, for example ‘fellow advice workers at the Law Centre who don’t know anything about police powers law’, the approach taken might well have been different.

The ‘ethical’ dimension in ‘communication’

Most lecturers and information specialists tend to regard this aspect of research work and IL as something that focuses, primarily, on issues like academic honesty, plagiarism, and compliance with the law. While this is right, in the EM pilots we started to take a rather wider view of what ‘ethical requirements’ encompasses. In doing so we looked to sources like ACRL Standard Four (which no doubt mirrors standards being deployed in other countries). This states that: ‘The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.’ Among the more obvious ‘outcomes’, as might be expected, are matters like privacy, security, respect for intellectual property, and ‘netiquette’, and acknowledgment of the use of information sources. However, in assessing elements like communication of research results, formal expectations can, in fact, be wider ranging.

Interestingly, when students themselves were consulted, and asked to offer suggestions on what they thought this area should encompass, it was suggested that based on their experience of previous occasions when students had presented their work a significant concern was the propensity to exaggerate – and in a worse case scenario to distort findings. Examples were given of presentations where statistical information was accompanied, in the same Powerpoint slide, by visual imagery aimed at shocking the audience (for example in its graphic portrayal of violence in order to heighten the impact of the statistical ‘message’).

Interestingly, this was also a concern articulated by lecturers when evaluating presentations in the EM-evaluated exercise ‘Public Order: History & Law’ already referred to.

The role of IL in level 3 assessed dissertation and ‘project’ work

By the end of 2008 the EM project started to trial a number of new approaches to the way our students are helped to prepare for final year/level 3 research tasks. These include dissertations or projects designed by the students themselves, and which can now be undertaken individually or in small groups.

To underline the importance being given to the assessment of skills elements in such work, the Law School has pioneered a new Use of Sources & Legal Skills module. This has been aimed at helping students on the Law School’s Graduate Diploma in Law/LLB (CPE) programme, a conversion course for non-Law graduates. At Staffordshire University, students on this programme study seven core topics plus an eighth which is a dissertation or project focusing on social welfare law. The module includes a number of skills development tasks that precede commencement of work on the eighth short subject research dissertation or project which must be completed – and since 2008 completion of the module (and the assessed tasks involved) now acts as a mandatory ‘gateway’ before work can commence on the main dissertation or project, which is a five thousand words long task.

The first skills workshop in the new module that students must attend is led jointly led by the module leader (the author) and the school’s Senior Law Subject and Learning Support Librarian (Alison Pope). It is aimed at building on research skills and literacies (including technology literacies) which, as graduates, they are already assumed to possess. In practice, however, we have found that, notwithstanding their graduate status, skills competences and IT proficiency can be very variable. In this regard, the EM project’s evaluation of students operating on the programme bear out some of the important conclusions reached by the Independent Committee of Inquiry into the Impact on Higher Education of Students’ Widespread Use of Web 2.0 Technologies (Melville, 2009), and studies that express concerns about the potential for mis-use of information, digitally created information resources, and what some of them refer to as the ‘Google generation’. The main thrust of those studies suggests that a sizeable proportion of entrants to HE programmes may have developed competencies in the use of IT but do not necessarily have the range of skills identified by IL competency standards as necessary to the processes of carrying out effective searches, or evaluating and using sources effectively. Besides such considerations, there is plainly a need for graduate researchers like this to be able to manage their time effectively – something that maps on to the bigger question of trying to ensure that information is accessed and managed efficiently.

After reconnecting them to introductory-level skills development work they will have undertaken during the CPE programme’s induction phase, they are reminded of the main resources and methods available to Law researchers. The importance of undertaking preliminary research in order to become familiar with the topics being researched is emphasised, as is the need to make full use of a variety of different forms of enquiry (rather than just relying on online searches and law databases). The need for accuracy, and ensuring the most up-to-date sources is also stressed. Given that participants are graduate conversion students undertaking a busy and demanding programme, the need to create a realistic and achievable timetable for completing the work was highlighted. Following the initial workshop, and in order to hone their research skills, participants undertake a number of short research tasks to give them experience of researching legislative, case-law, and journal resources as well as a short project in which they research law and policy in a topical area of law with which they are unlikely to be familiar (the topics are allocated in a ‘lucky dip’). Having completed the work over the ensuing five weeks, feedback is provided.

In the next stage of the module programme, and before work commences on the eighth short subject dissertation or project itself, the participants are also expected to produce a summary of their proposed research. After providing a structured phase in which they have the opportunity to reflect on the general subject-area, sub-fields, and the potential enquiry methods and sources to be used, their ‘outline’ is submitted for assessment, and feedback is provided.

The module has only been in operation for a year, and a fuller and better evaluation is not proposed until 2011. However, at this stage we believe it is significant that as a result of the introduction of the new module, a much larger proportion of the GDL-LLB cohort have elected to devise their own project rather than going for the ‘off-the-peg’ titles in Employment Law and Social Welfare Law that provided as the main option by the eighth subject’s assessment regime. What is even more promising, the marks gained by students in June 2010 for the eighth subject dissertation/project are significantly higher than the marks gained by students in recent years. It is too early to conclude that this is the result of the new module, or the effects of the pre-task ‘guidance’ which was also provided before work on the eighth subject commenced – and no doubt a fuller evaluation may identify other factors in play. Nevertheless, the fact that student feedback from the 2009/10 cohort suggests that most students felt that they benefited from the structured preparation for the eighth subject, and that this equipped them better to elect to devise their own project, was very encouraging.


Although it is still early days, the EM project’s work has shown that that embedding IL requirements in the Law curriculum offers considerable potential for improving the quality of students’ research, empowering them to learn independently (Hepworth and Walton, 2009: 3), and to be ‘producers of knowledge’ rather than just ‘knowledge consumers’ (Hampton-Reeves, 2010). However, this generally depends on IL requirements being assessed effectively, with a sharper focus on rewarding evidence of good practice in conducting effective search, authentication and critical evaluation, a role for assessment seen as important by the Melville Report (at para. 73). There are also wider benefits to be gained. In particular, the approaches being developed do appear to be promoting the ‘higher order thinking’ described by Bloom and others (Bloom et al., 1956) – i.e. the ability to comprehend, analyse, apply, synthesise and evaluate information. In the bigger picture, we also like to think that we are creating the conditions needed to promote a wider range of EBL options in the Law curriculum, and encourage more students to contribute to Law programmes’ ‘knowledge pool’.


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