Predictable Misunderstandings in Information Literacy: Anticipating Student Misconceptions to Improve Instruction

I finally was able to watch the recording of Lisa Hinchliffe’s Credo webinar, “Predictable Misunderstandings in Information Literacy: Anticipating Student Misconceptions to Improve Instruction,” in which she provides an overview of the preliminary results of a qualitative study she conducted to determine what librarians believe are first-year students’ misconceptions related to information literacy.

In 2017, Library Journal and Credo Reference conducted a survey to learn how two- and four-year institutions tie information literacy to the first year experience. The survey results, “The First-Year Experience Instruction Survey: Information Literacy in Higher Education,” indicate that students are not well-prepared to conduct academic research, lack experience using libraries, don’t understand that they need to learn research skills, and are overconfident in their abilities. Librarians’ challenges in teaching information literacy include limited contact time with students, having too many outcomes, not having specific assignments to contextualize lessons, and not sharing the same expectations as course instructors. There were over 400 comments related to the findings.

Hinchliffe and her research assistants were curious to know if there are student misconceptions that drive errors in information literacy practice. These misconceptions are plausible inferences based on previous experience. Once we can identify these misconceptions, we can help students unlearn habits and strategies that worked for them in high school but may not serve them as well in college [see Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (2008)]. Hinchliffe and her assistants coded responses to the report that seemed to answer “What is challenging about teaching first-year students?”, removed duplicates, and then synthesized the responses into nine summary misconceptions to form an initial inventory.


  1. think that they shouldn’t ask for help
  2. don’t see themselves as “scholarly apprentices” (view themselves outside the community of practice)
  3. think of research as a linear process
  4. think of the library as the place to find books
  5. equate relevancy search rankings as a measure of quality vs. relevance to the search statement they enter
  6. conflate achieving access and information quality (don’t understand that finding information isn’t the same as finding “good” information)
  7. believe that free online resources are sufficient
  8. believe that Google is a sufficient search tool
  9. believe they are information literate (Hincliffe later explains that students interpret information literacy as a cross between computer and digital literacy)

In the second phase of this project, Hinchliffe and the research assistants held librarian focus groups online to discuss the misconceptions. The librarians noted other student misconceptions, including:

  • all library resources are credible
  • every question has one right answer (rather than seeing research as an opportunity to explore possible answers)
  • the library is the place to study or work with fellow students (no mention of collections or resources)

As a practicing librarian with a limited five years of full-time experience, I have an anecdote for each of these. While further research needs to be conducted, what strikes me about this is that we can redirect some things we do in the classroom to help dispel some of these misconceptions. Hinchcliffe also reminds us that the best way to do this is to provide students with the opportunity to encounter these misconceptions so they can self-correct their assumptions.

I am very much looking forward to seeing how this research continues to take off and what it might mean for those of us in the front lines. I also think having a discussion around these misconceptions might be particularly good to have with librarian colleagues who teach, as well as course instructors.

3 thoughts on “Predictable Misunderstandings in Information Literacy: Anticipating Student Misconceptions to Improve Instruction

  1. Thanks for summarizing the findings, Lindsay. I’m wondering, who defined the misconceptions? Was it librarians? I’m thinking it would be beneficial to get the student perspective, by asking them after graduation, what were your misconceptions as a first and second year student?

    The current list is very library-centric. Not a critique, just an observation. Further, I feel that many items on the list don’t need to be unlearned as much as they need to be developed from novice to expert in their disposition and practices.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Kate!

      Yes, this is very nascent research. Both the first and second stages of this project are based on librarians’ perspectives: first derived from the coded comments to the LJ/Credo study in 2017 and then during a phase of librarian focus groups (I will go back and clarify–thanks!). Lisa actually gave the webinar the very morning she had finished the second phase with librarian focus groups.

      Someone during the webinar had also asked about other perspectives, including faculty. It was also mentioned that not everything needs to be unlearned either because they all aren’t necessarily wrong but more novice level like you mention. And perhaps information literacy is a misnomer since it is more “library” than what is included in the Framework. (On that note, a statistics faculty member from Minnesota mentioned to me that he felt like the Framework was still too library-centric. Well, it is librarian-informed! I wasn’t quite sure how to respond as a newbie.) Lisa indicated that she counts this project as a success if others would like to do more with it. I think there was supposed to have been a fuller report at ALA Midwinter, but I didn’t remember seeing it anywhere. I will ask Lisa about it and will let you know what she says.

      Oh, and to speak to how the summary misconceptions were created, there was a coding process, but I will need to re-watch that piece and ask Lisa for some follow-up.

      As an early career librarian, I think using these preliminary findings to conduct research to gain faculty and/or student perspectives would be interesting. I am a research novice; I have never conducted my own research. Like some of the students I work with, I struggle with topic selection (the irony!), but I think I could do something with this burgeoning idea.

      I’m so glad you offered your perspective.

      Oh, and your ideas about asking students about their perspectives after graduating reminded me of a different project that also relies on coding qualitative responses. At Library Instruction West 2016, Margy MacMillan shared that she used interviews her institution had conducted to learn how students perceive the threshold concepts (this was during the time that particular language was being updated…?), though not based on direct questions. Here is the link from the schedule:

      Liked by 1 person

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