Espoused theories and theories-in-use of information literacy: A model for reflection and evaluation

Authors


Abstract

What values and frameworks underpin professional practice in information literacy education? Is practice aligned with mission and goals?

The poster documents the preliminary findings of a research study which investigates the relationships between espoused theories and theories-in-use of information literacy (IL). The study asks if and how, the foundational beliefs and values of information literacy as expressed in official policy documents including mission statements in academic libraries (espoused theories), guide and are realized in the practice of information literacy in these institutions (theories-in-use). The research is guided by the theoretical framework of Argyris and Schön (1974), theory of action, in which contrasting theories, namely espoused theories and theories-in-use are used to examine professional practice.

The poster highlights the process and findings of the in-depth analysis of one library's policy statements and online tutorial, which employed a comparative questioning approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). The analysis uncovered statements and concepts relating to teaching and learning outcomes which were labeled, compared, and grouped into broad categories and emergent themes. The findings indicate varying patterns of congruence and incongruence between the library's espoused theories and theories-in-use of information literacy.

The research is presented as a model for reflecting on and evaluating tools of practice in information literacy education.

Introduction

Kuhn (1996) posits that professional practice is underpinned and shaped by a received set of beliefs, values and models. Knowledge required to understand practice is embedded in the language and action of the community (Argyris, Putnam& Smith, 1985). What values, beliefs and conceptions (espoused theories) underpin and shape professional practice (theories-in-use) in information literacy education? This study is part of a larger research project which investigates relationships between espoused theories and theories-in-use of information literacy in academic libraries. The pilot study reports findings from an in-depth comparative analysis of one library's official policy documents and its online tutorial. By comparing policy language with documents that show instruction in action, different relationships were highlighted. The findings indicate varying patterns of congruence and incongruence between the library's espoused theories and theories-in-use.

Background and Motivation

A foundational premise of this study is that information literacy is considered critical in a growing number of social and academic contexts and the importance of the concept has implications for the quality of information literacy education. There is documented evidence of the essential and expanding role of information literacy in the academic sector (Bruce, 2002; Kuhlthau, 2004; Johnston and Webber, 2006; Maybee, 2006). Despite the growth of the concept and its professional practice however, information literacy remains complex and contradictory. The complexity and contradiction result primarily from the multiple, often competing definitions, views and understandings (Bruce, 1997; Lupton, 2004; Marcum, 2002; Pawley, 2003; Todd, 2000; Webber and Johnston, 2000) and these differences may predict varying approaches to practice. Definitions range from being equipped with generic skills, a process of knowing, a process of acquiring new meaning and understanding, and enabling the effective utilization of information for a purpose. Conceptual understandings include a behaviorist framework, a constructivist, knowledge building approach, a process approach and a relational understanding. These conceptual frameworks are espoused as being essential to developing information literate persons or enabling information literacy. Although there is a growing body of research that has explored different dimensions of practice, there is little empirical research on how, and whether professional practice is linked to these varying conceptual understandings and beliefs about information literacy. The study addresses this research gap by in-depth analysis of artifacts representing conceptual understandings and practice, mission and goal statements and exemplary online tutorials of academic libraries

Theoretical Lens

The research is guided by the theoretical framework of Argyris and Schön (1974), theory of action, in which contrasting theories, namely espoused theories and theories-in-use are used to examine professional practice. “Espoused theories are those that an individual claims to follow. Theories-in-use are those than can be inferred from action” (Argyris, Putnam and Smith,1985, p.82). This is further clarified by Argyris and Schön who posit that people have mental maps about their actions and these mental maps guide actions rather than the theories they explicitly espouse. This distinction between espoused theories and theories-in-use allows for the framing of questions about the conceptions and philosophies which guide information literacy education and whether and how these are demonstrated in the professional practice. A foundational premise of the framework and research of Argyris and Schön is that deep reflection on institutional values may assist in addressing challenges and dilemmas in institutional practice. In evaluating theories of action in organizations, Argyris and Schön propose questions which are useful for interrogating espoused theories and theories-in-use. These questions are appropriate also for reflecting on information literacy practice: Are the theories internally consistent? Is there congruence between espoused theories and theories-in-use? Are the theories effective? Internal consistency relates to the governing variables or essential aspects of a theory. Congruence means that one's espoused theory matches one's theory-in-use, i.e. one's behavior fits the espoused theory of action. A theory-in-use is effective when action according to the theory tends to achieve its governing variables, i.e. what it sets out to do.

Research Overview

The principal research question guiding the study is “how is information literacy conceptualized and practiced in academic libraries”. The research asks if and how the theoretical underpinnings, the foundational beliefs and values of information literacy as expressed in official policy documents and mission statements in academic libraries (espoused theories), guide and are realized in the practice of information literacy in these institutions (theories-in-use). In the study, the practice of information literacy is operationalized through a selected sample of online tutorials which provide instruction in a range of dimensions of information literacy. The online tutorial although only one of many artifacts representing the practice of information literacy was selected because it has become a ubiquitous proxy for face-to-face instruction. Mission and goal statements typically espouse values, and publicly declare purpose, and thus are intended to guide practice. Fifteen academic libraries which provide exemplary instruction material in two best practice information literacy databases provide the sample of institutions to be examined.

Method and Analysis

From the purposive sample of 15 academic libraries, one library was selected for deep analysis. Using a rigorous constant comparative approach (Straus and Corbin, 1998), the pilot study evaluated the library's policy statements and instructional material including the online tutorial. Firstly, to determine the espoused theories, a range of policy documents including institutional and library mission statements, strategic plan and instruction policies, were analyzed to identify statements and concepts relating to teaching, learning and information literacy. These statements and concepts were labeled, compared and grouped initially into broad categories of learning goals and outcomes and processes of information literacy. Further comparison resulted in more detailed categorization and themes. Labeling of statements was influenced partly by the various dimensions of information literacy found in the literature.

Similar deep analysis was applied to the instruction resources including the online tutorial to construct theories-in-use. Verbatim statements from these instruction tools were recorded and these were labeled and then categorized as outcomes of information literacy. Further categorization into conceptual and skills-based outcomes was done. Broad statements of claims were developed from these categories of statements and concepts. Charts detailing the results from the analysis of policy statements and instruction resources were developed and the two sets of claims compared and contrasted.

Preliminary Findings

The pilot study identified varying patterns of congruence and incongruence between the library's espoused theories and theories-in-use of information literacy. Claims developed from the analysis of the policy documents suggest the following espoused values as integral to the library's instruction program.

  • Information literacy is defined according to the ACRL Information Literacy Standards (ALA, 2000) on a continuum from information access to the effective use of information for a specific purpose.

  • Collaborative instruction as essential

  • Preparation of graduates as lifelong learners in disciplines

  • Instructional goals of knowledge building and the enhancement of critical thinking Themes which emerged from the analysis of the various modes of practice including the online tutorial indicate different approaches to the practice of information literacy.

  • Information literacy is practiced on a continuum of locating and evaluating information sources with information use operationalized only as ethical approaches to sources.

  • A range of conceptual and skills approaches exist but with greater emphasis on techniques rather than on knowledge building and conceptual understandings.

  • Critical thinking skills are encouraged primarily via evaluation of information sources and avoidance of plagiarism.

The analysis of the data implies a few connections and some major gaps between the espoused theories and theories-in-use of information literacy. The library's espoused theories on information literacy are explicit, but the theories-in-use are not so explicit. Table 1 details a summary of claims developed from the findings.

Table 1. 
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Model for Reflection and Evaluation

The research offers a model for reflecting on and evaluating information literacy values and tools of practice. Reflection and evaluation are useful for clarifying what is meant by information literacy to better align espoused teaching objectives with goals and student outcomes. The study proposes a reflective approach via questions followed by a rigorous process of testing of knowledge claims. The process seeks to highlight connections and inconsistencies between espoused theories and theories-in-use. It therefore provides an empirical basis for dialog with information literacy practitioners to examine and evaluate information literacy education. The further implications of the research are linked to the proposition of Argyris, Putnam & Smith (1985) that implicit in an investigation of theories of action, is the theory of learning. Public reflection on practice is done in the interest of learning, towards bringing theories-in-use in line with espoused theories for greater effectiveness in practice

Future Work

The findings of the pilot study suggest a need to further interrogate tools of practice of information literacy in other institutions. This research continues with rigorous analysis of artifacts of 14 academic libraries offering best practice information literacy instruction materials. Interviews will also be conducted with designated information literacy coordinators in these institutions. It is hoped that these interviews will provide a richer context to the official documents and online tutorial and the data will assist in developing a clearer picture of information literacy practice, by filling gaps in information not found online.

Acknowledgements

The study was conducted as a pilot study of the author's doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Dr. Ross Todd and dissertation committee including Dr. Jana Varlejs in the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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