Creating effective and engaging information literacy programmes for the dental curriculum


Pauline J. Ford School of Dentistry
The University of Queensland
200 Turbot Street Brisbane
Qld 4000
Tel: +61 7 3365 8085
Fax: +61 7 3365 8199


In this time of rapid expansion of the scientific knowledge base, subject matter runs the risk of becoming outdated within a relatively short time. Instead of adding more content to already crowded curricula, the focus should be on equipping students to adapt to their changing world. The ability to access, evaluate and apply new knowledge for the benefit of patients has been acknowledged as an important goal for dental education. Information literacy is key to achieving this. A template for an Information Literacy programme for undergraduate students is described. This was embedded within a compulsory course for each of the first and second years of the Bachelor of Oral Health programme and consisted of a hands-on workshop (attendance voluntary), information literacy quiz, self-evaluation and a summative assessment task, with the second year of the programme building upon the learning of the previous year. Effectiveness was measured in terms of demonstration of information literacy skills and confidence in using these skills. Integration of this programme within the learning activities and assessment of first- and second-year courses resulted in enhanced information literacy skills and confidence. Self-perceived high skill levels may be a potential barrier to student engagement with information literacy programmes.

Information literacy: definitions and standards

Information literate individuals have been defined as ‘those who know when they need information and are then able to identify, locate, evaluate, organise and effectively use the information to address and help resolve personal, job related, or broader social issues and problems’ (1). These attributes are recognised as being essential for the successful practice of the health professions, including dentistry (2). The pace of discovery relating to the biological basis of health and disease and the development of new therapies, techniques and materials has been increasing at an exponential rate over past decades. This means that more than ever, evidence-based practice, critical appraisal skills and the ability to access, evaluate and apply new knowledge appropriately are required if health professionals are to keep abreast of current best practice (3). At a more fundamental level, Corrall (4) argues that information literacy is ‘an essential competence for effective participation in contemporary society’. The development of these skills and understandings is therefore now recognised as an important component of the undergraduate curricula of most universities. Graduate attributes for the School of Dentistry at the University of Queensland are stated to include ‘the ability to engage effectively and appropriately with information and communication technologies’ and ‘the ability to collect, analyse and organise information and ideas’ (5).

  • TheAssociation of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) (6) has developed competency standards for information literacy, and these widely accepted standards have provided a useful framework for learning and assessment. These standards have been adapted by the University of Queensland in the form of an Information Literacy Framework (7) which is articulated as the following six standards.
  •  The information literate person recognises the need for information and determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
  •  The information literate person finds needed information effectively and efficiently.
  •  The information literate person critically evaluates information and the information seeking process.
  •  The information literate person manages information collected or generated.
  •  The information literate person applies prior and new information to construct new concepts or create new understandings.
  •  The information literate person uses information with understanding and acknowledges cultural, ethical, economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information.

It has been recognised that information literacy is an ill-defined concept. A literature review of the concept of information literacy found that definitions varied widely and were often confused with ‘computer literacy’ (8). The use of standards such as those put forward by the ACRL can help make the learning objectives explicit for both students and teachers. An example of how these standards may be interpreted (9) is the ability to: frame a clear question to be answered, list sources needed to obtain the relevant information, find sources if possible, evaluate the credibility of the source and synthesise the information available.

Information literacy programmes in professional undergraduate programmes

These attributes of information literate individuals are therefore deemed to be required of university graduates, and programmes to develop these skills have been variably adopted across different institutions and faculties. The effectiveness of such programmes however may be reduced if student engagement is lacking. A barrier to engagement in information literacy programmes appears to be self-perception of having already attained competence (10, 11). Using an online assessment of health information competencies, undergraduate students of Health Sciences were shown to have very high levels of confidence in their own information literacy skills; however, there was only a weak correlation with actual skills demonstrated (11). The authors suggested that the ability to access information may have been confused with ability to generate knowledge from information when in fact accessing is only the first step towards information competency. Indeed, Johnson (12) asserts that the digital divide once described access to computers and the internet but has evolved to become an issue of information management.

Although there are a number of reports in the literature describing the implementation of information literacy programmes in dentistry undergraduate programmes (3, 13, 14), these are relatively few in number. Fewer still describe programmes that extend beyond a single course. Information literacy programs that are embedded in first-year courses and linked to assessment have been shown to be effective in enhancing students’ information skills (9, 13–15). The low level of information competencies demonstrated by commencing dental students (13, 14) reinforces the need for curriculum design to incorporate information literacy programmes early in the programme to enhance student performance in research tasks and to prepare them for evidence-based clinical practice. The notion of providing learning experiences that allow the student to practice and apply their skills over an extended period of time is supported by the literature (12, 16).

Embedding information literacy programmes within courses and including assessment tasks increases relevance and usefulness for the students and promotes deeper learning approaches. Johnson (12) suggests that ‘the first object of learning is that it should serve us in the future’. By this reasoning then if skills are explicitly required for assessment tasks, it would follow that engagement is enhanced. Further contextualisation of information literacy learning activities by the use of realistic clinical scenarios in practical tests (14), for example, makes relevance even more explicit.

The factors that impact on student engagement and therefore learning in information literacy deserve more thorough investigation. Whilst the current generation of students feels extremely familiar with information technology, research suggests that their strategies to deal with that information are ineffective (17). It has been reported that many students turn to inappropriate internet search engines such as Google for their research. Added to this, not using a suitable search strategy including appropriate Boolean operators leads to a long list of search results. Frequently then the first item on the list is used, regardless of its suitability (18).

There are very few reports describing the impact of learner perceptions on information literacy development (16, 19, 20). One such study (20) examined student traits in relation to information use behaviours. This study identified that students with certain traits such as high confidence may benefit from more targeted information literacy teaching strategies. Programmes should be designed to address this perhaps through tailoring learning activities to the individual and taking into account prior experience and actual skill level. For example, if students were required to undertake a compulsory skill assessment prior to the offering of information literacy programmes, they may be more aware of areas in which they could improve and so be more receptive to the learning activities. If this was done in the first year of the programme, students would have their self-perception of information literacy skills corrected before these skills were required for assessment tasks. In addition to analysing student perceptions, future research should examine how information literacy is addressed at the curriculum level. Although excellent examples of information literacy programmes exist, the availability and quality of these appears to be inconsistent across faculties and universities (21). Mapping and evaluation of existing information literacy programmes therefore should be a priority.

An example of an embedded developmental approach to learning for oral health undergraduates

The following example describes the implementation and evaluation of an embedded, developmental programme to develop information literacy skills for first- and second-year Oral Health students. The integrated nature of this programme enabled students to apply and refine their information skills in the context of an assessment task related to course content. This programme was informed by a previous iteration (14) which was confined to first-year students only. The need for longitudinal studies to assess cumulative learning has been recognised (9). The current programme outlined a developmental approach to build on the learning outcomes achieved in the first year and to develop progressively higher level skills through the programme. This programme is presented as a framework which could easily be adapted for use in other undergraduate programmes. The inclusion of evaluation of student perceptions demonstrates the need for further research into student engagement with the learning of information literacy.


The Australian dental school in which this programme was implemented offered a 3-year Bachelor of Oral Health programme (approximately 25 students per year cohort) and a 5-year Bachelor of Dental Science programme (approximately 65 students per year cohort). The programme described here was rolled out for first- and second-year Oral Health students in 2007 and 2008. It is now being implemented for all 3 years of the Oral Health programme and for first-year Dental Science students. A longitudinal evaluation of the extended programme is currently being prepared for publication. An important asset for the school with respect to developing this information literacy programme was a specialist librarian who was very actively involved in both its design and implementation. Other requirements were access to teaching spaces which allowed individual students to access computers and the internet during the workshops.


For all students, each year of the programme consisted of learning activities and assessment tailored to the different year levels:

  •  Hands-on information literacy workshop (attendance was voluntary and included practical tests for first-year students)
  •  Formative quiz (adapted from Abbott and Peach (22) and aligned with the UQ Information Literacy Framework (7))
  •  Self-evaluation of skills
  •  Summative assessment task in the form of a review of the literature on a specified topic (assessment criteria included the UQ Information Literacy Framework (7) standards 1—3 for Year 1 and 1—4 for Year 2)

The workshop for first-year students focused on how to access and evaluate information sources and worked on strategies for tackling assessment questions. The students also completed a quiz and self-evaluation of information literacy skills (Appendix) and practical test. The information literacy practical test had been previously described (14). Briefly, each student was required to read a paragraph of text describing a clinical problem then find three appropriate information sources which would be useful in developing a solution to the problem. This was to be done within 10 min. The student therefore used a variety of information literacy skills in the context of a real-life scenario – determining a research question and search strategy, and evaluation of found information sources for relevance, recency and reliability. The summative assessment task [described in (14)] was a literature review which required completion of a template, taking the student through each step from defining the research question to search strategy and evaluation of found information and finally a short reflection on the process.

As for first-year students, attendance by second-year students at their workshop was optional. The workshop built upon the skills and knowledge gained by these students in their first-year information literacy programme. This was done by introducing more advanced skills and understandings including evidence-based dentistry and critical analysis as well as consolidating the more fundamental principles. The quiz included in the workshop in first and second year created a profile of the development of information literacy for each student enabling the identification of those experiencing difficulties so that timely assistance could be provided.

The content of the workshops, although carefully considered in terms of learning objectives with activities designed to be interactive in nature to enhance engagement, was quite similar to what had been offered as stand alone workshops by library staff in years prior to this project’s implementation. The teaching staff involved noted that once the workshops became part of a course and were linked to the assessment tasks, student attitudes towards the content became much more positive. In our experience, it is this clear connection with assessment and immediate usefulness in completing course-related tasks that is the critical ingredient.


The outcomes of the information literacy programme were evaluated in terms of the demonstration of information literacy skills and the level of confidence in using these skills. Enhancement of information literacy skills was demonstrated by first-year students who voluntarily attended information literacy learning activities. Attending further learning activities appeared not to improve skill levels but did promote confidence in using the skills for second-year students. Non-attenders appear to have constituted a group for whom engagement in information literacy may have been a barrier to learning. Future studies should further explore student perceptions so that information literacy programmes can be refined to enhance learning and outcomes for all students.


Information literacy is mastery of a complex set of skills and understandings and is essential for graduates from professional courses to be able to succeed in the digital/information age. Purposeful curriculum design using an embedded approach requires effective collaboration between academic and library staff. Collection and analysis of longitudinal data on the development of information literacy skills for students is required to ensure that the benefits of a programme are not lost but strengthened over time. Efforts should be concentrated early in the programme, with reinforcement and introduction of more complex understandings occurring in subsequent years. Indeed, the ideal curriculum would have aspects of information literacy learning and assessment in all courses.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of staff of The Learning Hub, Student Services at the University of Queensland for their input to the quiz and the workshops, and undergraduate Oral Health student Ms Amelia Seselja for entering the evaluation data for analysis.


Information Literacy Pre-test Questionnaire

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Thank you for participating in the study. Your contribution is appreciated and will assist the Dental School and the Library to establish effective information skills classes at University of Queensland.

For the purpose of analysing the results ONLY (to link pre- and post-test data and assignment data for each individual) we ask that you insert your name in the space below. This data WILL NOT be used in any way in the determination of your marks for any UQ course.



12. Gender – please circle

(a) Female(b) Male

13. Age Group – please circle

(a) 15–19(b) 20–30(c) Other

14. What is your first language?  Please circle

(a) English(b) Language other than English

15. Please circle the highest education level achieved

(a) Year 12(b)  Diploma
(c) Bachelor(d) Grad. Cert
(e) Masters(f) PhD

Self assessment

Please indicate how you rate yourself:

1 is the lowest rating, and 5 is the highest.

In my University work, I am able to analyse an assignment topic to identify what information I need.


I use a variety of strategies (e.g. reading lists, independent searching of library catalogues and databases) to find information for my university assignments.


When analysing information I am able to evaluate what to use and what to discard.


My computer skills include the ability to use a range of software applications (e.g. Word processing, email) and I am able to edit, save and print my work.


When selecting information for my assignments, I am able to provide evidence which is relevant to my topic.


I am able to summarise other people’s ideas in my own words.


In my assignments I am able to give credit to the original ideas of others.


1. To find the most current information on your topic you would consult? (Please mark one response).

  •  a) Books
  •  b) Journal articles
  •  c) Encyclopaedia/Dictionary
  •  d) Magazines

2. Of the two references listed below please mark the book reference. (Mark one response).

  •  a) Palmer, Carole (2007). Diet and nutrition in oral health. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.
  •  b) Mobley, C. (2008). Fad diets: facts for dental professionals. JADA, vol. 139, no 1, p. 48–50

3. Which of the following are qualities that are useful in the journal articles you use for your assignments? (Mark as many options as you need)

  •  a) Written for general readers
  •  b) Has a bibliography or reference list
  •  c) Is older than ten years
  •  d) Reports on the results of a research study
  •  e) Is from a scholarly journal

4. Which of the following is the best way to locate reputable journal articles on a given topic? (Please mark one response).

  •  a) Page by page through print volumes of academic journals
  •  b)  Search a general web search engine like Google or Yahoo
  •  c) Search a database e.g. PubMed
  •  d) Search the book collection of the UQ Library

5. Consider the assignment topic: “Discuss the oral health problems associated with elderly Australians living in residential care institutions.”

Below are 3 student interpretations of the topic above. Choose which one you think is the best interpretation of the topic.

  •  a) This essay is about determining what the main oral health problems elderly Australians have.
  •  b) The point of this essay is to first identify the main oral health problems elderly Australians living in residential care institutions have, then explain what features associated with being elderly in a residential care facility might be contributing to these problems, and from that argue what and how oral health practitioners might contribute to improving the situation.
  •  c) This essay requires a description of the main oral health problems elderly Australians living in residential care institutions have and the reasons they have them.

6. You have been asked to research the relationship between periodontal disease and diabetes mellitus. Which of the following would be the most suitable search strategy in the PubMed database for finding journal articles on this topic?

(Please mark one response).

  •  a) Diabetes mellitus or periodontitis
  •  b) Periodontal diseases or diabetes
  •  c) Periodontal disease and diabetes mellitus
  •  d) Gingivitis and diabetes mellitus

7. Which of these facts about plagiarism is correct? (Mark as many options as you need.)

  •  a) Plagiarism is misrepresenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own
  •  b) Plagiarism is academic dishonesty
  •  c) Information from the internet does not need to be acknowledged
  •  d) Information known as “common knowledge” does not need to be acknowledged

8. What is the issue number in the following citation:

Browne, L., S. Mehra, et al. (2004). “Comparing lecture and e-learning as pedagogies for new and experienced professionals in dentistry.” Br Dent J 197(2): 95–7.

  •  a) 2004
  •  b) 197
  •  c) 2
  •  d) 95
  •  e) Cannot be determined from this citation

9. You have been asked to find articles on oral health problems associated with Australian Aboriginal children, but are having difficulty finding enough information. Which of the following articles might also be useful? (Mark as many options as you need).

  •  a) Chu CH, Wong AW, Lo EC, Courtel F.

Oral health status and behaviours of children in rural districts of Cambodia. Int Dent J. 2008 Feb;58(1):15–22.

  •  b) Krustup U, Petersen PE.

Dental caries prevalence among adults in Denmark--the impact of socio-demographic factors and use of oral health services. Community Dent Health. 2007 Dec;24(4):225–32.

  •  c) Emerch K, Adamowicz-Klepalska B.

Dental caries among 12-year-old children in northern Poland between 1987 and 2003. Eur J Paediatr Dent. 2007 Sep;8(3):125–30.

  •  d) Megashyam B, Nagesh L, Ankola A.

Dental caries status and treatment needs of children of fisher folk communities, residing in the coastal areas of Karnataka region, south India. West Indian Med J. 2007 Jan;56(1):96–8.

10. You have found some sources of information on your assignment topic and you want to use some of the information for your assignment. When does this require a reference to the source of the information? (Mark as many options as you need).

  •  a) When you copy word for word a sentence or two from a journal article or book chapter
  •  b) When you write in your own words the views being made in a web page;
  •  c) When you write in your own words the views being made in a journal article
  •  d) When you copy information from an unpublished letter

11. Read the following paragraph.

Most researchers agree that it is inappropriate to attempt to isolate a single main cause of an accident (1). However, earlier motor vehicle crash studies demonstrated that about 90% of all accidents could be attributed to road user characteristics (2). Hence, road user behaviour is often examined for compliance with existing traffic rules and regulations (3). “Speed Kills” has been used for many years as an educational slogan to drive at reasonable speeds (4).

References are required in which of the numbered positions?

  •  (a) 2 and 3
  •  (b) 4
  •  (c) 1, 2, 3 and 4
  •  (d) 1, 2, and 3,

Thank you for your assistance.