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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Information skills : the PLUS approach - a view from the UK

James E Herring,
Acting Head,
Department of Communication and Information Studies,
Queen Margaret College,
Edinburgh EH12 8TS,


In the 1980s, there was much attention paid to the development of information skills in secondary schools focusing on the need to teach pupils/students skills in relation to “learning to learn”. The skills identified included planning skills, concept mapping, locational skills, reading for information, note taking and communication of findings. In the 1990s, there is a greater need to focus on these skills because of the amount of information available in schools via CD-ROMs and the Internet. There is also a need to re-examine the focus which school librarians and teachers take on teaching information skills which should lead to a greater emphasis on purpose and on reading and understanding both print and electronic sources of information. This paper will present a brief review of existing information skills models; an outline of the PLUS model; an examination of how school librarians and teachers can adapt information skills programmes to meet the needs of pupils using electronic information resources; and a brief evaluation of future developments in schools which will impact on information skills programmes.

Information skills models

The most influential model of information skills in the UK is that of Marland, whose group introduced the nine steps in the form of questions which pupils might ask themselves e.g. “What do I need to do?” and statements which school librarians and teachers could use to identify skills e.g. “Formulate and analyse need”. (Marland 1981). Both Irving (1985) and Tabberer (1987) produced models which redefined and expanded on Marland’s work. In the 1990s, the most influential model adopted in schools in north America is Eisenberg and Berkovitz’s Big Six Skills which range from “Task definition” (identifying the information problem) through to “Evaluation” ( determining how effectively the information problem has been solved) (Eisenberg and Berkovitz 1995). In Australia, a CD-ROM has been produced which examines the information skills process and introduces a framework covering skills in relation to defining, locating, selecting, creating/presenting and evaluating. (Australian School Library Association 1997). In the UK, recent work by Wray and Lewis has focused attention on the key importance of reading skills and although Wray and Lewis produce a ten point model of information skills ranging from “Elicitation of previous knowledge” to “Communicating information”, they stress that the heart of the information skills process should be seen as

The PLUS model

This author’s model (Herring 1996) covers the range of interrelated skills which pupils will use when undertaking assignments which involve the use of information resources of different kinds. These are key learning skills which, if acquired and practised by pupils across the curriculum, will help pupils to produce the high levels of work expected of them by teachers. The PLUS model incorporates the broad areas of Purpose, Location, Use and Self-evaluation to present school librarians and teachers with a framework which can be used in the school and a meaningful acronym which can be used by pupils as a guide to their use of learning skills.


When pupils are involved in a project or assignment, the extent to which they can determine the purpose of their work will have a great influence on the final outcome of the assignment. Pupils need to ask questions about what exactly they need to do in order to be able to plan the assignment effectively. The skills involved in identifying purpose include cognitive skills such as identifying existing knowledge so that pupils have a knowledge base upon which they can build; thinking skills such as brainstorming or concept mapping which will encourage pupils to examine the scope of their assignment and produce a coherent plan; and skills in identifying information resources in the classroom, the school library or elsewhere. It is vital that pupils are taught that thinking about and planning their assignment must precede their search for relevant books, journals and electronic information resources as much of the criticism of library user education programmes in the 1980s was directed at school librarians who taught pupils skills in isolation from what was learned in the classroom.


Finding information and ideas in resources has never been a problem for pupils in schools but finding relevant information and ideas has not always been as easy. Thus it is essential that school librarians and teachers make pupils aware that location skills should be seen as part of the skills process but not the beginning of that process. Thus, location skills need to be inextricably related to purpose since without a clear purpose, pupils will not be able to search effectively for relevant information and ideas. Also, location skills should form a fairly small part of information skills teaching and should certainly not involve lengthy sessions in the school library related solely to searching the catalogue. Lastly, location skills should be taught directly in relation to actual curricular topics and not in isolation using random searches of information resources. Location skills also require pupils to be able to assess whether particular information sources are the most useful medium for their information requirements e.g. searching an encyclopedia on CD-ROM for very current information will not be fruitful.


One of the key criticisms of information skills programmes in schools expressed particularly by teachers is that such programmes have often underestimated the importance of the skills required by pupils when actually using information resources. The use of resources may take place in the library but it will also take place in the classroom and in the home. Reading for information in an effective way is not often taught to any extent in today’s secondary schools. Pupils who can read fiction are expected to have the requisite skills to read non-fiction in relation to an identified purpose. However, Millard (1994) argues that

Thus when reading, viewing or listening to information resources, pupils will require to be taught how skim and scan resources for relevant information and ideas; how to select relevant information appropriate to their purpose and reject information not relevant; and how to evaluate information and ideas in relation to aspects such as how current the information is, who the author is and whether any form of bias might be present. Above all, it is the pupils’ skills in understanding what is being read and being able to relate this to existing knowledge which are the crucial skills in the use of information resources. Wray and Lewis (1995) argue that

If pupils can select relevant information and ideas and understand the concepts and information presented to them, they then need to be taught how to take notes in a systematic way which is related to understanding and purpose. Thus if pupils have identified keywords in the planning part of their assignment, they may wish to take notes under these keyword headings. Finally, when pupils are writing assignments, they will need to be taught skills in writing or presenting their report or project or essay in a well structured and logically ordered fashion. This task will obviously be much simpler if the pupils have identified a clear purpose and structure at the beginning of the process and have gathered information and ideas to good effect.

It can be seen that the skills needed in the use of information and ideas are a complex mix of skills all of which pupils require in order to make effective use of information resources and produce assignments or projects which meet the teachers’ standards in relation not only to content but to argument, understanding, organisation and relation to existing knowledge. School librarians and teachers in secondary schools should not underestimate the complexity of the skills or the need to teach these skills - in the classroom and in the library- to pupils early in their secondary school careers and to constantly reinforce these skills as pupils progress through the later stages.


The work of Kolb (1984) has been influential in focusing the attention of school librarians and teachers the importance of reflective and experiential learning amongst pupils and Kolb (1984) notes that pupils can benefit from “reflective observation” when they use resources but this skill can also be used to encourage pupils to reflect on their


processes of identifying purpose, finding and effectively using information and ideas. Thus self-evaluation includes the pupils’ ability to reflect on what they have done in completing their assignments and to identify possible improvements which can be implemented in future assignments. Self-evaluation, for example, may show a pupil that s/he gathered too much information at the location stage which affected the way this information was used at the writing stage and that clearer identification of keywords at the purpose stage would be of great benefit. One of the problems facing school librarians and teachers in relation to self-evaluation is the time needed to allow pupils to go through the process of self-evaluation and to offer advice to individual pupils.

Information skills and electronic information resources

The growth in the types and range of electronic information sources such as CD-ROMs, online information and the Internet has meant that increasingly pupils have access to a massive amount of information in the classroom and in the school library. However, this increase in the amount of information available should not be confused with the quality of information available or the pupils’ ability to cope with such a vast increase in resources. In relation to the information skills discussed above, it is clear that the skills needed to effectively exploit electronic information resources are almost the same as those for print sources. There may be differences in the technical skills needed e.g. to access Internet websites but even the youngest pupils in secondary schools will not find such skills difficult to master. The key differences lie in the amount of information and ideas available and the format in which information and ideas are presented. If pupils do not identify a clear purpose, they are likely to ignore the importance of having well thought-out search strategies and the result of searching a CD-ROM may be a huge amount of hits which will confuse rather than help pupils. In relation to format, information and ideas on CD-ROMs and the Internet are often presented in visual form and the pupils will be required to use skills in “reading” graphical and video images. In some cases, school librarians and teachers will be faced with teaching pupils skills in relation to, for example, note taking when video sequences are being viewed on a CD-ROM.

In the UK, the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) funded the “Libraries of the future” project (NCET 1997) in which a number of schools were provided with access to multimedia packages, Reuters “Business Briefing” service (Reuters 1997) and the Internet. The main findings of the project were that the same retrieval skills were used with electronic information resources as with print; planning and refining searches was even more important with electronic resources; pupils found relevant information more easily from structured information resources such as Reuters; and retrieving information from the Internet was often difficult and time-consuming.

Projects such as “Libraries of the future” demonstrate clearly that pupils’ ability to cope with electronic information sources is becoming increasingly important in today’s schools and that unless school librarians and teachers ensure that pupils are taught how to handle such sources effectively, the existence of such resources in schools will not be of benefit to pupils.

Future developments

Tony Blair, the recently elected Prime Minister of the UK, stated that

and there can be little doubt that access to an increasing range of information sources, particularly via the Internet, will be available to schools at a much lower cost than today. The challenge for school librarians and teachers is to ensure that pupils have the requisite information skills to learn from such sources and to integrate both print and electronic sources for the benefit of the school curriculum.


Australian School Library Association (1997) : Teaching information skills (CD-ROM). ASLA.

Blair, T (1996) : Computers and children : partnerships for the future. Computer Bulletin supplement, April 1996.

Eisenberg, M and Berkovitz, R (1995) : Information problem solving : the Big Six approach to library and information skills instruction. Ablex.

Irving, A (1995) : Study and information skills across the curriculum. Heinemann.

Kolb, D (1984) : Experiential learning. Prentice Hall

Marland, M ed (1981) : Information skills in the secondary curriculum. Methuen.

Millard, E (1994) : Developing readers in the middle years. Open University Press.

NCET (1997) : For up to date information on this project see : http:www.ncet.org.com

Reuters (1997) : For more information, email : education.uk@reuters.com

Tabberer, R (1987) : Study and information skills in schools. NFER-Nelson.

Wray, D and Lewis, M (1995) : Extending interactions with non-fiction texts : an EXIT to understanding. Reading 29(1) April 1995, 2-9.