Assessment and Information Literacy

Regardless of how far my understanding of assessment has come, I still hear the word and feel it doesn’t apply. At face value, assessment is an alien concept in my line of work. When I deliver one-shot information skills sessions, it feels like assessment is completely divorced from what I do. This is based on a very narrow conceptualisation of assessment. The exams, tests and grading criteria commonly associated with the term “assessment” and found at the end of a course in controlled conditions, are only methods of one type of assessment: summative. But assessment doesn’t start with the end of year test or exam.

This is true of teaching in all its forms. Yet for information literacy summative assessment doesn’t really ever have a discrete place. There are no exams, tests or coursework dedicated to what we teach. Discernment, evaluation of sources, referencing and research skills are all threads that run through assessed final products. The notion of being able to formally assess information literacy is contested. Andrew Walsh and Emma Coonan challenge the idea of measuring competence as a “fixed, static, clear thing that exists in abstract form” (Walsh and Coonan 2013: 3). Information literacy is driven entirely by context and does not exist in a vacuum. Finding information effectively will always depend on what is needed, what it is needed for and who is looking for it, and what role they are occupying at the time.

So if we are teaching our students what a “winning hand” can look like when no one knows how the cards will fall, is assessment relevant? If we set aside our pre-conceptions that all assessment is summative assessment and think of assessment as not about grading people but about measuring learning, so much of what we do in the classroom becomes visible as assessment. In one-shot sessions assessment becomes more important not less. We often walk in not knowing where our students are at the start and as we don’t see the final product of their assignment, we wont know where they finish up.

Building in initial assessment at the start of sessions is increasingly common in information skills sessions. This can either be getting a picture of current awareness about information issues through a Connect activity like whole-group mind mapping about sources or through reflective activities like red-amber-green or comfort-stretch-panic. I’m starting to use an activity called “muddiest point” at the end of sessions where my students are asked to write about what is clearer to them than before the session and what still isn’t clear: their muddiest point (Accardi 2013). Along with various forms of quizzes these activities can be replicated or adjusted for the end of a session to check understanding against learning objectives.

Assessment isn’t just a bolt on to the start or end of a session either. Simply by moving away from reading a PowerPoint at a sea of passive faces and towards using active learning methods I have been able to gauge understanding as we go along. Using both the outcome of activities but also observing and using questioning during the course of activities, I have been able to measure learning and get to know the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. I need to sharpen up my use of questioning, especially around wait time, but it is an invaluable way of connecting with the students and teasing out issues and misunderstandings. Remembering to ask why after asking what is a key way of making questioning an effective learning tool. It can also be a fundamental plank of a differentiation strategy.

So whilst I have a few skills to develop, accepting that assessment is a core part of my teaching gets easier and easier. And with growing certainty that assessment is something I do, comes growing confidence and the freedom to experiment and try new things.


Accardi, M. (2013). Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction. Sacramento: Library Juice Publications.

Walsh, A., and Coonan, E. (Eds.). (2013). Only Connect… Discovery pathways, library explorations and the information adventure. Huddersfield: Innovative Libraries.




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