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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 142-112-E
Division Number: I.
Professional Group: University Libraries and other General Research Libraries
Joint Meeting with: User Education
Meeting Number: 112.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Integration of Information Skills In Problem Based Curricula

Teodora Oker-Blom
Veterinary Medicine Library
University of Helsinki


1. Information skills from the librarians´ and the teachers´ point of view

To librarians teaching of information skills or information management skills or as it also is called library user education, bibliographic education, bibliographic instruction, library instruction, library orientation, library skills instruction etc, has been one of the important library services for decades.

Proof of this is that the literature in information skills teaching in central professional and scholarly journals of librarianship and information management is substantial, at least in UK and USA. According to an investigation 4% of the research literature and 6% of the professional literature in librarianship and information science from an eight year period ,1986-1993, discussed and described this topic (1). In the pedagogical literature on academic education it is, however, dealt with very sparsely according to a recent Finnish study (2).

Teaching faculty in higher education consider library use an academically desirable activity. When they formulate overall goals in university handbooks or student´s guides, information skills are implicitly included in them or sometimes even explicitly mentioned. Some examples of formulations are: " of the graduate is required ability to participate in the development of one´s profession and ability to continuously gather information in one´s professional field, ability to develop one´s tasks and continuously search for scientific literature in order to fulfill these tasks"(2). The attitudes of the teaching faculty to information skills and the education of them are crucial for its´ success.

In the recent Finnish study referred to these attitudes and some related aspects, were investigated in the humanities, sciences, medicine and technology through interviews with the following questions:

  1. Which are the views of teachers of the importance of literature as a teaching medium for a university ?
  2. What kind of tuition and guidance about literature search and use did the teachers provide their students with?
  3. What was the teachers´ opinions about the tuition and education that the library offered on searching literature and use of information tools?
  4. What observations had they made about the students´skills in searching for and using literature?

The teachers interviewed, generally found literature important, but they did not give the students a systematic survey of literature central to the field taught i.e."studia literaria". They provided the students with handouts or notes on some information resources that they had collected, mostly review articles or books.

The results further indicated that many of the teachers have a poor experience themselves of information skills teaching. Only 15 % had been taught information management skills , in comparison with 35 % in a similar study in USA. For many these skills are thus self-taught , an internalised expectation seen as part of educational practice. On this basis teachers test the information skills of their students in research assignments or essays, with the assumption that going to the library to research a subject in itself teaches information skills. Thus the teachers found the students ability to use literature acceptable in most cases. Actually library staff , in helping the students, often practice the essential cognitive skills on behalf of the students or the students precede, with poor results and lose confidence in their ability to independently use the library. Teachers don´t seem to recognise the complex nature of information retrieval and librarians get frustrated by how unrecognised or buried these skills can be.

Asked about the importance and quality of the short separate courses in information skills given by the libraries of the university, the teachers in almost all the disciplines of the cited study, found that they were a step in the right direction. Many of them supported the idea of linking the courses more closely to other parts of education by integrating them in the education. However, the teaching faculty emphasized the need for teaching information skills beyond the mechanics of information searching.

There are, as a matter of fact, great challenges for the librarians as well as for the teachers in order to reach the goal in academic education, which of course should be that the student after a basic exam is able to independently find knowledge by using relevant literature as a resource and is able to critically evaluate it and apply it in working life. The challenge for the librarians is to much more thoroughly analyse the learning process, so as to be better aware of the intellectual and conceptual process and to explore what is needed to ensure the development of good research and lifelong learning skills. The challenge for the teachers, as the authors of the interesting article about rethinking information skills teaching put it, is to get aware of their responsibility to make the research and lifelong learning needs and skills explicit so that students really appreciate that they need these skills to succeed (3). Both have to develop mutual understanding for each others roles.

The emerging emphasis on educational methodology in higher academic education , with focus on flexible and open learning styles and a growing importance of resource-based learning indicate that information skills will be brought into special prominence. This gives the librarians a possibility to respond much more strongly to the demand of teaching these skills. At least the examples from medical education seems encouraging ( 4 ).

The characteristics of each discipline affects of course the way in which it is taught and the behavoiur of the teachers. However the examples from the medical field might be enlightening and show that the librarians can find a direction at the cross-roads.

2. New methods in medical education

Criticisms of the inadequacies of conventional medical curricula, where faculty centered lectures were the primary educational strategy for communication of large volumes of information to students, the rapidly expanding knowledge base in the biomedical sciences and changes in health care enforced the adoption of a new educational method. Problem Based Learning (PBL) and varieties of it emerged as a leading response to earlier models of medical education. According to McMaster Medical school in Canada, the pioneering university to adopt the classic method of problem-based learning , the intention was to produce graduate phycisians who would be good problem solvers and life-long learners, able to work productively in multidisclipinary teams and to communicate well with their patients ( 5).

The new curriculum should be more responsive to changes, prepare students to learn throughout their professional careers rather than master current information and techniques,and provide for active, independent and self-directed learning. Another aim is to integrate the basic science with the clinical science throughout the curriculum. This helps the students to see the relevance of basic sciences with clinical medicine.

Other early pioneers in problem based medical education are the University of New Mexico and Mercer University in the USA, who adopted PBL tracks for their students, Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and the University of Linköping in Sweden. An acceleration of shift of teaching method to PBL has been seen in a growing number of medical schools in North America and Europe. In the 1990ies PBL has increasingly been adopted by medical faculties of Universities in the Nordic countries. PBL seems to become a widely used learning methodology in medical education.

In the PBL method students are being challenged to aquire sophisticated information-seeking skills and to manage life-long learning in order to respond to demands in a changing environment. PBL offers significant new roles and challenges for libraries, including the opportunity for transmitting library and information skills (4 ).

3. What is Problem Based Learning (PBL)

In PBL the starting point for learning is a problem for instance a clinical problem. Disciplines are integrated in the problem. The students work together in small groups or teams of 6-8 persons with a tutor facilitating the learning process .

The educational methodology is highly structured. The learning can for instance be undertaken in 7 jumps:

  1. Terms and concepts are clarified
  2. The problem is defined
  3. The problem is analysed, hypotheses and inquiry strategies are formulated
  4. The explanations are summarised
  5. The learning objectives or student-generated learning issues are agreed upon
  6. Self-study, needed learning resources are sought out
  7. Report back in the group, where findings are discussed and assimilated.

It is student-driven learning in which the students generate learning issues with faculty guidance. Students are encouraged to pursue their own learning using a variety of resources., like medical literature, laboratory work, clinical observation and consultation with experts (6 ) . The assumption that PBL students use literature and libraries differently, has resulted in a number of studies about the effect of the new teaching method on library use. According to studies from USA (6 ), Canada (7 ) and Sweden (8 ) a PBL student, in comparison to the student in a traditional curriculum;

Discussions in these comparative studies point to limitations of the quantitative assessments. Educational methodologies between PBL curricula vary.However, the curricula share the same philosophy. The use may also be affected by background factors like collection size, staff size, hours open, number of study seats, educational services, location of the facility and availability of alternative resources of the investigated libraries. However, these comparative studies have provided useful information for the planning of libraries and information skills teaching and seem to prove the often cited statement that "The centrality (of the library) is the single most striking aspect of self-directed learning in a problem based-curriculum (9 ).

4. Development of the physical infrastructure of the library to support PBL

The fact, that PBL students heavily use the library as a facility and resource, has resulted in the development of the physical infrastructure and facilities of many medical faculty libraries to support PBL.A good example is the main library and the teaching hospital libraries of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden(13). They were redesigned, enlarged and rebuildt to also house students working in small groups together or with teachers/tutors and using a wider variety of printed and electronic materials. The libraries were equipped with:

The planning and the role of the librarian of the Medical Library and Information Centre in Trondheim in respons to the needs of PBL is well described (10 ).A different approach, with a special "Study Landscape" or Learning Resource Centre for students, separate from the research library, with specially assigned resources to support PBL, has been developed at the Univesrity of Maastricht ( 11 ).

5. The role of the librarian in integrating information skills in the PBL curriculum

A. Curriculum planning /librarian-teacher interaction

In PBL information skills are perceived as core skills for effective independent learning. The opportunities for information skills teaching thus occur more readily and has given the librarians the possibility to be more proactive.To work most successfully information skills must be taught as part of the curriculum and be embedded in the learning process.The only way to integrate information skills teaching in the curriculum is for the librarian to be aware of the teaching programmes and needs of the faculty, students and staff . The information skills required by the students have to be identified in advance and planned with explicit learning objectives based on the knowledge, skills and attitudes required by the other educational components in the curriculum.It often means hard work on the part of the librarian to establish the communication with curriculum planning committees, educational administartors, the teaching faculty and specialists in educational methods etc, and to reach mutual understanding, but it is absolutely necessary, in order to be successful. As Rankin puts it, much of the challenge lies in identifying the information knowledge and skills actually needed by students , teachers/tutors and ultimately practitioners and then work to incorporate these into the curriculum (12, 13 ). The librarians task is to in return communicate vital information to the faculty of resources available, including the newest technologies to facilitate learning. This determines how relevat the library will be to students. Another vital task of the librarian is to emphasize a learning continuum, that information skills teaching should appear in different and relevant teaching modules throughout the years and that information skills become part of assessment schemes and criteria.

B. Educational services

PBL, other active educational methods and emerging technologies will result in additional teaching roles for librarians. The most important question we as librarians have to ask ourselves is; are we teaching information literacy or information technology literacy? Still the focus of teaching information skills is very much on the mechanics of information retrieval: using catalogues, navigating classification schemes, exploiting abstracts , indexes and databases, navigating Internet resources i.e. technical knowledge of using systems sometimes even of a single library.

This is computer literacy or information technology literacy rather than information literacy. The mechanics of librarianship mean little to the students, even when they are applied to completing a seminar paper or essay, tasks that the student regard as essential, because they are secondary to the cognitive, intellectual processes of examination, reflection and criticism. The educational goal must be that students understand and can synthesize and evaluate the literature and be able to communicate the results.The teacher as well as the teaching librarian have to develop skills basic to the learning process, be able to use a range of teaching and learning strategies and preferably team-teach or co-tutor information literacy. Librarians of the Karolinska institute library have e.g. attended pedagogical courses together with the medical teaching faculty and tought teaching faculty information skills in order to strengthen the liaison with teaching staff (13).

Varieties of information skills teaching styles exists in different PBL medical faculties and schools. An interesting teaching strategy of information literacy, including co-tutoring and assessment of the students information skills is being employed by librarians at the University of Linköping (14,15). It has some similarities to the Falk Libraries information skills teaching programme (16).

Information skills teaching at the University of Linköping is partly part of the training of students in "understanding scientific research". Its objective is to influence the student´s attitudes, knowledge and skills regarding information. That is; the student 1) must understand the importance of rational information searching, 2) know how medical research results are published, which includes knowledge of information communication habits in medicine and 3) acquire skills to critically use the library resources and searching tools. The teaching method comprises; lectures , librarian attendance at a small group tutorial where examples of all relevant library resources are used in the problem solving process and finally assessment through one question in the examination. Training in the ability to analyse and evaluate scientific literature is supposed to be taking place throughout the studies. A characteristic feature of the information skills program in Linköping is the assessment of the students´ information skills in connection with the "Stage 1 Triple Jump Examination" in the fourth semester. Library staff participate with the teacher in examining the student, who has gathered information to solve a problem based on a real patient case.The student´s information searching strategy and use of sources are evaluated by the librarian. The advantages of this time- and staff-consuming excercise is that it gives important feedback to the library on how to design the information skills teaching and how students´value the library. The co-operation with the faculty gives opportunities to discuss information skills teaching issues.

A new approach at McMaster is that librarians train student mentors in information skills in order to integrate information skills into the PBL process at the heart. The project results of the "Student Informatics Mentorship Project" will be reported this year. It is, however completely clear that programmes have to be continuously revised and that still a lot of work has to be done to develop fully satisfactory models of information skills teaching.

C. Information organization

The core function of a librarian has always been organizing books and information for accessibility. The rapidly advancing technologies are bringing with them a wide variety of multimedia and network-based resources. Particularly in medical education and thus PBL curricula, non-traditional materials like digitized images, x-rays, multimedia computer programs etc. are heavily used. A challenge for the librarians is to bring order in the complexity of electronic resources, by optimally organizing and networking them so that they can be accessed and incorporated into tutorials and other learning activities at the teachable moment. The Unified Medical Language System (UMLS) created by the National Library of Medicine will be of help in the medical field.

D. Research

At least two fora exist at present, where PBL librarians can exchange experiences and scientific evidence to support and develop e.g. the practice of integrating and teaching information skills.The special interest group of PBL of the Medical Library Association (MLA) , USA formed in 1989 and the special interest group of PBL established in June 1998 in Maastricht under The European Association of Health Information and Libraries (EAHIL). The activities of the former group have resulted in the" Handbook on problem-based learning" edited by Jocelyn Rankin to be published in late 1998 (17 ). It defines PBL, its major issues and outcome and its effect on libraries. It envisages new roles and opportunities for libraries and suggests additional areas needing attention. It emphasizes that a theoretical basis, more research, is needed to ensure appropriate solutions. I am for instance with interest following the doctoral program on information and learning of the Department of Information Studies at Åbo Academy in Finland where topics like "University students information seeking behaviour in a changing learning environment- how are the students information needs, seeking and use affected by the PBL approach ?", "The impact of personality on information behaviour and learning" , "Development of a model for library instruction at academic libraries" and "The changing role of the librarian-how are the challenges from polytechnic education and problem based learning met by the librarians ?".

6. The future

As stated, the experiences from information skills teaching in connection with PBL have proven beneficial for students, librarians, libraries and faculty. PBL students indicate greater satisfaction with how their medical education prepares them to find information and keep up with the changes in medicine (18, 19, 20 ). Librarians have managed to become partners with the teachers/tutors in the educational process and established good working relationships with the university administration, computer departments, departments of medical informatics and pedagogics , the teaching hospitals and the students. This has positioned the library as an active full participant in medical education and lifelong learning and rised its profile. It has also broaden the role of the librarian as educator and made the work of the librarian more demanding and interesting. An extremely important experience is, that it has required significant long-term commitment of time and resources to libraries involved. At the cross-roads, there are increased opportunities. We librarians have to develop ourselves as communicators, learners and cooperators to find creative solutions to them.


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  2. Kautto, Vesa "Kirjallisuuden haun ja käytön opetus korkeakouluopetuksen osana. (Information skills teaching as part of university education)University of Oulu.Department of Information studies. 1998, 169 pp.(Finnish Information Studies 9)

  3. Atkinson, Judy and Scott, Nicola "Rethinking information skills teaching" LRJ 1995, 11 (2),45-52 and LRJ 1995, 11(3),52.

  4. Rankin, Jocelyn A. "Problem-based learning and libraries: a survey of the literature. Health Libraries Review 1996, 13(1), 33-40.

  5. Fitzgerald, Dorothy " Problem-based learning and libraries:the Canadian experience. Health Libraries Review, 1996, 13(1), 13-32.

  6. Rankin, Jocelyn A. " Problem-based medical education:effect on library use? Bull.Med.Libr.Ass. 1992, 80(1), 36-43.

  7. Marshall, Joanne G. et al "A study of library use in problem-based and traditional medical curricula" Bull. Med.Libr.Ass. 1993, 81 (3), 299-305.

  8. Fridén, Kerstin and Oker-Blom, Teodora " Påverkar problembaserad inlärning studenternas informationsvanor och biblioteksanvändning? ( Does PBL effect students information habits and use of library?) Stockholm:Karolinska institutets bibliotek 1995. 14 pp. (KIBIC-R-010).

  9. Blake, J. "Library resources for problem-based learning: the program perspective". Comp.Method. Progr. Biomed. 1994, 44(3-4), 167-73.

  10. Taylor, Solveig and Lande, Ranghild " A library for problem-based learning" Health Libraries Review 1996, 13 (1), 9-12.

  11. Eeckhout van den Fons "Study landscape: a learning resource centre for PBL". Health Libraries Review 1996, 13, 49-55.

  12. Rankin, Jocelyn A. "Where to? Librarians roles in new curricula. In Rankin JA , ed. Handbook on problem-based learning. Lanham, MD: Medical Library Association and American Heritage Press, in press.

  13. Wikström, Christine " End user education at the Karolinska Institute Library in Sweden" Paper presented at the Sixth European Conference of Medical and Health Libraries in Utrecht, June 22-27, 1998.

  14. Fridén, Kerstin "The librarian as a teacher: experiences from a problem-based setting Health Libraries Review 1996, 13 ,3-7.

  15. Fridén, Kerstin "A model of teaching and assessing information skills in problem-based medical education". Paper presented at the meeting of the European Association for Medical Education, Vienna, August 1997.

  16. chilling, Katherine et al " Integration of information-seeking skills and activities into a problem-based curriculum. Bull. Med. Libr.Assoc. 1995, 83(2), 176-182.

  17. Rankin, Jocelyne A ed. "Handbook on problem-based learning. Lanham MD: Medical Library Association and American Heritage Press, in press.

  18. Blake, Jennifer et al "Report card from McMaster: student evaluation at a problem based medical school". Lancet, 1995,325 (8954),899-901.

  19. Hurk van den Marianne M. et al. " The impact of student generated learning issues on individual study time and academic achievement " Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego, April 13-17, 1998

  20. Moon, Robert J. "Problem-based learning:present issues and future challenges for medical educators and librarians" in "Handbook on problem-based learning. Lanham MD: Medical Library Association and American Heritage Press, in press.