Identifying undergraduate media literacy skills: An exploratory study of faculty perceptions



Given the complex nature of the multi-media landscape available to undergraduate students, understanding how and how well these users make decisions in comprehending and critiquing media information has implications on the tools and quality of teaching and learning in the academy. In this research study, a small sample of faculty members who use visual content in their teaching were interviewed to learn what attributes they identify as important media literacy skills for students. The results support a model of core skills associated with media literacy. Findings from this exploratory study will inform a larger scale research project that investigates the assessment techniques for media literacy skills and based on which, develops a practical framework for media literacy assessment.


As pointed out by Hobbs (1998), there is limited uniformity in the media literacy field, specifically, a lack of consensus on a definition, theoretical frameworks, settings, methods, and evaluation. While the scholarly literature draws on a general definition which describes media literacy as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a variety of forms (Aufderheide & Frost, 1993), according to Scharrer (2002), there is a lack of shared understanding of its meaning.

The literature reflects numerous theoretical bases associated with the concept of media literacy: constructivist pedagogy (Scharrer, 2002; Hobbs, 1998; Tisdell & Thompson, 2007), workforce preparedness (Livingstone, 2006; Christ, 2004), cultural politics (Livingstone, 2004; Christ, 2004), hegemony (Tisdell & Thompson, 2007; Dilevko & Grewal, 1998), cultivation theory (Dilevko & Grewal, 1998), and protectionist approach (Scharrer, 2002; Brown, 1998). This diversity of approaches reflects the perspectives and expertise of different researchers with broad disciplinary roots.

Potter (2004) synthesizes key themes in the literature and presents a cognitively-based theory of media literacy (Figure 1) as “the set of perspectives from which we expose ourselves to the media and interpret the meaning of the messages we encounter” (p. 63). An axiom which underlies the theory is that the purpose of media literacy is to empower the individual in that it involves the individual's awareness and ability to use knowledge structures. Potter defines four major factors in the theory: 1) knowledge structures, which relate to an individuals information experiences, 2) personal locus, or the extent to which the individual is driven to make conscious decisions about what information to be or not to be attentive to, 3) tools, which are the mechanisms by which the personal locus decision is executed and which vary with different media, and 4) tasks, which consist of filtering, meaning matching, and meaning construction (p. 68-73). The more developed an individual's information-processing tools are, the more media literate they are in comprehending the flow of information-processing tasks. Similarly, the more mature an individual's knowledge structures, the stronger their motivation and decision-making ability.

Another consideration is that the term media is defined inconsistently with a range from a specific focus on still and moving images (Messaris, 1994) to a broad focus on communication technologies in general (Adams and Hamm, 2001). Addressing literacy with a similar lens, Tyner notes that multiple literacies have emerged to address applications beyond traditional reading and writing aspects, including information literacy, visual literacy and media literacy.

Figure 1.

Potter's Cognitive Model of Media Literacy

Note. From Theory of media literacy: A cognitive approach (p. 68), by W. J. Potter, 2004, Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications. Reprinted with permission by W. James Potter.

With regard to the audience of media literacy, most existing research focuses on media education in the K-12 setting and with adults (Livingstone & Van Couvering, 2006). Seldom has any study investigated teaching and learning media literacy for undergraduate students. Although the majority of research activity centers on children or on those adults who work with them (see also Brown, 1998; Hobbs, 1998; Livingstone, 2004; Tisdell & Thompson, 2007), the findings from those studies may inform higher educational practices. In higher education, if media literacy skills are identified as an essential aspect of being a literate person, “then it might be expected that a curriculum would include core courses that reflect these central principles” (Christ and Potter, 1998, p. 8). Potter (2004) specifies seven skills of media literacy: analysis, evaluation, grouping, induction, deduction, synthesis, and abstracting. These skills, when used together and in the context of foundational knowledge, are useful for meaning construction in learning, asserts Potter.

Hobbs and Frost (2003) report that media literacy skills have not been operationalized and there is limited empirical research. While models for assessment have been created that can help simplify curricular integration such as those employed by Scharrer (2002) and McMahon (2003), Christ (2004) claims that the most basic question remains unanswered, what should be assessed: knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes, affect, or values? Duran, Yousman, Walsh, and Longshore (2008) outline a holistic approach to media literacy which blends contextual knowledge with formal skills. As Scharrer (2002) indicates, evaluation should measure defined goals and behavioral, cognitive, and attitudinal objectives, however it is difficult to assess outcomes in education due to the continuous, individualized nature of creating knowledge. Swanson (2004) suggests that the content itself in any form, rather than its medium, determines the credibility and, therefore, relevance of media literacy to a person's information need. It is difficult to measure the cognitive and affective aspects of media literacy because they may take hold at different times for different people, vary based on personal experiences, and may fluctuate or even drop off in time. Furthermore, the technology and its evolving nature, add another variable to personal experience and expertise.

The review of the literature indicates significant areas for future research. As a result of the growing but small measures of consensus in the definition, frameworks, and body of evidence, the field of media literacy is highly dynamic. Christ (2004) calls for the determination of learning outcomes associated with critical thinking skills, while Brown (1998) highlights the need to identify ways to assess those skills. Livingstone (2004) suggests that research also explore the interdisciplinary nature of media literacy, the relationship between the person and the media, including the role of interface and type of media on media literacy. Scharrer (2002), Hobbs (1998), and Hobbs and Frost (2003) identify the need for future research that builds on limited existing research to evaluate the impact of media literacy skills on individual performance. Duran (2008) adds that qualitative research methods, in addition to quantitative methods, will enhance research in this area.

The present research extends from day-to-day information seeking and meaning-making to life-long learning and workforce-preparedness for undergraduates. While the United States' educational system provides guidance and instruction for people to learn textual literacy, students are expected to learn how to read, understand, and interpret complex non-traditional media “texts” without a formal pedagogical framework (Galician, 2004, Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison, & Weigel, 2006). This study attempts to fill in the gap in current research by investigating faculty's point of view on what media literacy entails and how it is reflected through their teaching of undergraduate courses.

Research Questions

This study addresses the following research questions:

  • What are the characteristics of reading visually presented information?
  • What media literacy skills do faculty expect students to demonstrate proficiency with?
  • What specific media literacy skills are identified by domain area?


In this qualitative, exploratory study, a small sample of faculty members (n = 11) were interviewed, each of whom use visual content in their teaching, were asked to identify the attributes they identify as media literacy skills for undergraduate students. In-depth interviews were selected as the method for this project, for the purpose of establishing a better understanding of the notion and gaining insights to the practice of media literacy in higher education. The qualitative design was identified as an effective method to uncover information and address the exploratory nature of the research questions. The data of the study will be used as the pilot study data that will inform a larger scale study in the future.

The primary hypothesis of the study is that there is a set of general media literacy skills that can be identified, with the corollary that those skills span domain boundaries. It is also hypothesized that faculty are aware of varying levels of media literacy skills in their students and have developed a variety of pedagogical strategies to help all of their students to master those skills.

Research Design

The population studied in this research project is instructors from two research universities. Institution one is defined by the Carnegie Classification as a large, public four-year institution with an arts and sciences plus professions focus and a high graduate coexistence. Institution two is a medium, private four-year institution with an arts and sciences focus and a high graduate coexistence. All participants used visual media in an undergraduate-level course either as an element of critique, production, or application, or address visual or media literacy skills in a course. The sample was selected based on a number of criteria, including a specialization in a discipline area strongly aligned with media literacy, such as communications, media studies, education, and visual arts.

Faculty were identified at the first institution through recommendations from the university's center for teaching and learning and subject librarians, online departmental profiles, reputation of known media literacy instructional practices, and snowball sampling. For each institution, the list was narrowed to discipline areas commonly associated with media literacy and then grouped by discipline in order to secure a variety of discipline area interests represented in the sample. This convenience sample is selected to provide exploratory data upon which a larger, quantitative study can be developed.

Data collection consisted of interviews with eleven instructors who represent seven disciplines. Five of the interviews were with instructors in the Humanities, represented by faculty from the departments of Media Studies, American Civilization, History, and Visual Art, and six interviews were with instructors in the Social Sciences, represented by faculty from the departments of Communication, Education, and Resource Economics. An interview guide (available at∼bordac/interviewguide/) formed the outline for the interviews, and was consistently used in all 11 interviews. The interviews were each 30-40 minutes long and were conducted in April and December 2008. Interview recordings were transcribed and then manually coded based on incidents of variables as well as for alignment with research questions. Incidents of individual skills were grouped based on commonality. Similar skills were grouped together, and dissimilar skills were kept separate.


In-depth, qualitative analysis of the interviews revealed those media literacy skills that faculty expect students be able to demonstrate proficiency with, as well as the specific media literacy skills identified by domain area. Four characteristics which faculty associate with media literacy skills emerged from the date set: (a) formal application, (b) theoretical analysis, (c) contextual analysis, and (d) communication. Table 1 lists the skill sets.

The formal, applied skills include hands-on production skills, and incorporate media discourse components that relate to semantics as well as the ability to recognize patterns in specific media and to generalize those patterns to broader media examples. In addition to these induction and deduction skills, there are other skills in information technology foundations in general. Theoretical skills relate generally to media content analysis of media content including the deconstruction of material into component parts, the ability to engage media through a critical lens. The ability to make theoretical connections across media objects and formats extends to the ability to recognize thematic groupings. The ability to evaluate media in context of history, society, economy, and politics as well as with respect to affordances and limitations of the media format are labeled contextual skills. Finally, the ability to synthesize and abstract content and meaning and demonstrate understanding of that media and its messages are communication skills.

Table 1. Media Literacy Skills Identified by Faculty
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Applied skills

Five of the eleven interviewees identified production skills which they defined as ranging from formal art components including color, lighting, framing; the relationship between objects; and the ability to set up a blog, manipulate a wiki, and create an audio podcast. One faculty member noted that while “I do not expect them to be proficient at editing, I am often surprised by how little students are know about how to work a camera” (personal communication, December 4, 2008). New media introduces the importance of programming skills to the suite of these traditional production skills. Media discourse skills were indicated by four of those interviewed. The ability for students to understand the tools available to produce and access different media formats was identified as a media literacy skill by eight of eleven faculty interviewed. Finally, eight of eleven instructors identified basic information technology skills as media literacy skills, including the ability for incoming undergraduates to be able to word process and search the internet. Advanced skills which students develop during their undergraduate career include how to use presentation software effectively and to search the internet and scholarly databases with precision. One instructor noted that formal or applied skills only superficially address the issues of media literacy, because they are only one component of the effort to analyze meaning, textuality and contextuality. Another interviewee noted that production skills are a basic competency which students develop before they come to the university, and which can be a starting point for discussion. However, basic production ability “only gets one so far because I ask for them to then analyze the meaning, the significance, and the textual implication of things” (personal communication, April 21, 2008). In summary, 28% of the 43 skills identified by Humanities interviewees were applied skills, compared with 22% of the 58 skills identified by interviewees from a Social Sciences background (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Faculty reporting of key media literacy skills for undergraduate students, grouped by type (formal/applied, theoretical, contextual, and communication) for humanities and social sciences domains. n represents the total number of skills mentioned by faculty members interviewed.

Theoretical skills

As defined by Kain (2008), close reading is the process of observing details in a text, including structure, elements, references followed by the interpretation of those observations. Four of the eleven interviewees singled out this as a critical skill. For one of these instructors, this was a core skill for media literacy, which she views as a method of reading critically and expects “students come to class with an understanding that texts are in conversation with one another and to be able to bring their critical faculties to it” (personal communication, December 3, 2008). One instructor who utilizes new media in his instruction stated the skill of close reading is slightly different when applied to a new media text. He described this as close play, in which the observer is “not just reading images and listening to the narrative and text, but also engaged in the [virtual] world” (personal communication, April 19, 2008). Another faculty member suggested that gaming should be examined from identity and social perspectives rather than an analytical examination of games as texts. Three of those interviewed identified the ability to deconstruct media content and concepts into component parts as an important skill, noting that in order to closely read a text it is necessary to disengage from passive viewing and engage in active participation. The ability for students to interpret what they are viewing or reading was noted as a critical student skill by four of the eleven faculty interviewed. One interviewee said he does not expect students to already have mastered the skills for interpretation, namely the ability to break apart a media element, put it back together, explore why it is arranged the way it is arranged, and then begin the process of interpretation, noting that students must “break the every day relationship with popular culture” in order to effectively analyze it (personal communication, April 21, 2008). Another faculty member noted that some students struggle to comprehend what they agree with and disagree with in what they read. Four of eleven faculty reported that students should be able to recognize that media elements can be associated with theoretical discourse and that texts are in conversation with each other. The ability for students to effectively analyze the impact of media type on the delivery of messages was indicated by four interviewees as a critical skill. While 26% of the skills identified by Humanities faculty were theoretical in nature, 16% of those provide by Social Sciences faculty were theoretical. These responses suggest that the skill of being able to make informed choices to achieve a certain outcome is dependent on the ability to understanding the different features and benefits of different tools.

Contextual skills

The impact of media type on how a message is conveyed and experienced was indicated by three interviewees as an important contextual skill. Media types mentioned specifically were film, television, video games, and web content. These skills relates to considerations of the level of interactivity, communality, and depth of evaluation of a media object and its message. The ability to relate historical, social, economic, and political contexts to media is a critical skill identified by six of those interviewed. One faculty member maintained that conversations about media must include an examination of “political economy and the structure of the industry itself. I spend a lot of time getting students to think about policy and regulation and what shapes what ultimately gets produced” (personal communication, December 4, 2008). Another faculty member commented that critical analysis of a text necessarily includes a consideration of the context, including the relationship between the producer, the text, and the audience, stating that “if you are not literate about the culture that produced a text you cannot be literate about the text itself” (personal communication, April 21, 2008). The contextual relationships present more complex stories than just looking at the text itself. The data suggest that there is broad agreement among the faculty interviewed that the ability of undergraduate students to evaluate media information in context is a critical skill. Nine of eleven faculty report that student ability to examine author, message, argument, evidence, purpose and to make sophisticated evaluations of quality and relevance makes this skill among the most frequently identified skills. Faculty responses suggest this skill applies to multiple types of media, including written texts, video, and web pages. The ability to assess bias in media is a skill which one faculty member described as “something that we can teach them in their undergraduate period and is the most important for them as a literacy skill” (personal communication, December 3, 2008). Providing a platform for “students to talk about how these multiple literacies contribute in important ways to human learning, makes them visible and explicit in a range of ways and contributes enormously to people's growth and development,” was argued for by one of the interviewees (personal communication, April 22, 2008). A dissenting perspective came from one interviewee who argued that by disengaging from specific contextual dependencies, there is a loss of “some specificity but you gain a critical approach that potentially extends to a number of other disciplines and classes and departments” (personal communication, April 15, 2008). Overall the emphasis on contextual skills was similar between the two domains, with 19% of the Humanities skills and 17% of the Social Sciences skills.

Communication skills

Communication skills emerged in all interviews. While media literacy skills relate broadly to performance competencies, faculty identified specific skills which relate to the discussion of media literacy skills for undergraduate students as well as to workplace preparedness. Eight faculty identified listening, questioning, and reading skills as media literacy skills for students to master while undergraduates. One faculty member noted that listening is an important skill that allows students to uncover similarities and differences among people; another suggested that students be able to ask probing questions and to conduct an interview with a content expert. Two interviewees noted that intercultural communication is a skill that they identify as critical to media literacy, noting that issues of social justice, education, and politics intertwine with the nature of media communication. The ability for students to organize their thoughts and to be able to break down complex issues into talking points is an important skill identified by four faculty members. Specifically, one interviewee noted that these are manifested in the ability to “explain material to someone else, demonstrate presentation skills, and discuss critical thinking skills” (personal communication, December 4, 2008). Another skill that five faculty pinpointed is the ability to reflect on personal learning and experience learning, for example through student journals. The emphasis on communication skills was 28% of all skills identified by Humanities faculty compared with 45% of the skills identified by Social Sciences faculty.

The ability to write effectively was specified by eight of the eleven interviewees as critical. One faculty member noted her expectation that students be strong writers, including the ability to write a literature review and to be able to present their own ideas about a topic. Another instructor noted that it is critical for students to understand how to write for different purposes, such as a research paper, grant proposal, web page, and blog post, while another faculty member noted that all students must know how to talk and write about technology. “Writing for the web is very different than writing for a formal paper. They learn about two different writing styles, and also how to talk about technology” (personal communication, December 4, 2008). In addition to written communication skills, oral communication skills were also identified as critical skills by five faculty. Because students often work in groups, two faculty noted that the ability to collaborate and take personal responsibility for contributions to a group activity are important skills to have. The ability to balance appropriate and effective use of media in both a personal, social context and in a professional, research context was noted by four faculty members, each of whom also noted that this skill will support professional acumen.

Relationship of Media Literacy Skills to Domain

An examination of media literacy skills identified by faculty members based on their domain specialty in either the humanities or in the social sciences (Figure 2) points to more similarities than differences. Faculty in the humanities concurred on the formal, theoretical, and contextual skills identified in the data. In the category of communication skills, however, three of the individual skills were not identified by any of the humanities faculty, namely intercultural communication, collaboration, and flexibility. Faculty in the social sciences agreed on the formal, contextual, and communication skills identified in the data. However in the category of theoretical skills, social sciences faculty did not indicate close play or deconstruction of content into component parts as media literacy skills for undergraduates to be proficient with.

Table 2. Average Precision Summary of Each Expansion Strategy
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Critical skills associated with media literacy as identified by faculty in eleven individually conducted interviews suggest four general characteristics of skills – applied, theoretical, contextual, and communication – which while discrete in focus, appear to have varying levels of sophistication – from basic to advanced – and which cross disciplinary boundaries as well as subject domains. Based on the qualitative data collected in this study, the most agreement on skills appear to be the applied skills of tools and technical basis and of information technology foundations; the contextual skill of evaluating information in context; and the communication skills of listening, questioning, reading, and strength in written communication (Table 2). There is less agreement among faculty regarding the importance of theoretical skills related to media literacy. Skills which were similar in quality but deemed to be individual, such as the theoretical skills of close play and close reading and the applied skills of tools and information technology foundations, may in fact, with additional research, be found to be so similar as to be grouped into a single skill.

The hypotheses developed at the beginning of the project were found to be plausible. The data suggest that there is a set of general media literacy skills that can be identified, with the corollary that those skills span discipline boundaries. Further, faculty are aware of levels of media literacy skills in their students, and recognize a need for media literacy skills in students. The relationship between these four characteristics, namely applied, theoretical, contextual, and communication skills, was addressed by one interviewee, who posited that the challenge to today's understanding of literacy is not a question of a single type of literacy, such as visual literacy, media literacy or information literacy, but instead is a combination of multiple literacies (personal communication, April 22, 2008).

While the data is not generalizable, it provides useful insights to media literacy skills that can be further investigated. While the qualitative nature of the data means that findings could be subject to other interpretations, the interviews indicate consensus and discrepant data.


This study seeks to contribute to the foundations of media literacy though empirical investigation and identification of media literacy skills. The results suggest that media literacy skills involve the interconnectedness of different skills associated with multiple modes of communication and with multiple media types. This study suggests that the skills identified by faculty span domain areas. In support of Potter's theory of media literacy, the information processing skills identified in this research present an interconnected set of skills which form either an umbrella framework for multiple literacies which includes information literacy, or a parallel process of information literacy and media literacy. Identifying the interconnectedness of these skills has importance for the design and evaluation of library and information literacy programs.

The data collected here suggest additional research be done to better understand the relationship of media literacy to the concept of multiple literacies and explore how these concepts may support teaching and learning in higher education. Media literacy skills can help inform information literacy instruction programs and may indicate a broader view of how libraries support the research, teaching and learning enterprise of the academy. Future research may involve further development of the model of characteristics related to media literacy through a survey of a large, random sample of faculty. Additional research might include corporate human resources managers and related research to identify skills they expect recent graduates to have proficiency with.


The author would like to thank Rong Tang, Ph. D. for guidance throughout the research and analysis process, as well as the anonymous reviewers whose detailed comments greatly improved the presentation of this paper. Also appreciated is a research stipend from the Simmons College Graduate School of Information and Library Science which funded interviewee incentives.