ACRL IS Current Issue Discussion Digest – ALA Annual 2007

Information Literacy in Learning Communities: What? Why? How?

Conveners: Kelly Rhodes McBride and Betsy Williams

Saturday, June 23, 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Capitol Hilton: Presidential Ballroom  |  Washington D.C.


Learning communities abound on most university and college campuses these days. Research indicates that learning communities can play a role in improving retention rates for those students who participate. Strangely absent from the literature, however, are articles which discuss “…the academic library as a key element of the learning community…” (Frank). How are libraries and librarians embracing this opportunity for information literacy instruction and what lessons can be learned from their collective experiences?

What are learning communities?

The concept of learning communities, like other first-year experience programs, assumes that learning takes place when students are actively involved in the learning process. Learning communities can be categorized along a broad spectrum and take many different forms depending upon the institutional setting. However the learning communities’ literature suggests five major learning community models:

  • Linked Courses – cohort of students enrolls in two courses
  • Learning Clusters – cohort of students enrolls in two, three, or four discrete courses linked by common themes, historical periods, issues, problems.
  • Freshman Interest Groups – cohort of freshman students enrolls as a small group in three in-place larger classes and meets weekly with a peer advisor.
  • Federated Learning Communities – cohort of students and Master Learner enroll in three “federated” in-place courses and participate in a content-synthesizing seminar
  • Coordinated Studies – multidisciplinary program of study involving cohort of students and team of faculty drawn from different disciplines (Gabelnick, 19).

How prevalent are learning communities in higher education?

The Second National Survey of First-Year Academic Practices, conducted by the Policy Center on the First Year of College, looked at rates of participation in a variety of first-year programs. The key findings on learning communities (i.e. linking of two or more courses) indicate that learning communities are being offered at all type of colleges and universities and that enrollment of at least some students in a learning community is a common practice at approximately 62% of institutions (Second National Survey).

How is information literacy instruction incorporated into learning communities?

The structure of learning communities, incorporating two or more faculty instructors, offers teaching librarians the opportunity to be part of an academic team and participate in the planning and delivery of instructional goals. This structure affords librarians the chance to introduce information literacy skills to students over time and in the context where it will be used.

Learning communities literature emphasizes the importance of connection, personal interaction and individualized attention, integrative learning, and coherence among the academic subjects. Unlike one-shot BI sessions, librarians’ working with learning communities have a level of sustained access that allows them time to get to know students on a deeper level, build upon information literacy concepts, and maintain an active role in the learning process from within the classroom environment.

Why should librarians participate?

When librarians work creatively outside the library and across campus, they educate the campus community to the need for proper instruction of information literacy competencies, and they become change agents, advocating the need to incorporate those skills into the curriculum. It is crucial that we take advantage of the collaborative opportunities that learning communities offer. Why? Tammy J. Eschedor Voelker provides three very good reasons:

  • By becoming involved in learning communities, librarians can establish themselves as partners in the learning enterprise in new and important ways.
  • Involvement in a learning community enables librarians to try out new services that could benefit all students making library visits.
  • Information literacy initiatives must reach beyond the walls of the library to achieve their full potential (Eschedor Voelker, 73).

To learn to be information literate, to be critical thinkers, endowed with the skills for life-long learning, students should be able to see the connection between “real life” and academia. Librarians must partner with the rest of the campus community to assure that integrative learning, the goal of learning communities, is also the mission of today’s colleges and universities.

A Follow-up from the Discussion

Approximately 50 people gathered at the Annual 2007 Current Issues Discussion group to explore the topic of information literacy and learning communities. Attendees shared their collective experiences about the role that libraries and librarians play in learning communities across the country. Our hope was to get a sense of the level of librarian involvement in learning communities, explore how information literacy is incorporated within the learning communities setting, identify challenges and elements that contribute to the success of learning communities, and develop a list of best practices. A brief summary of the discussion highlights follows.

What is the level of librarian involvement in learning communities?

Attendees provided varied examples of librarian involvement.

  • Participating as a member of the academic team structure.
  • Providing one shot BI sessions.
  • Providing multiple BI Sessions over the course of the semester.

How is information literacy incorporated within the learning communities setting?

Attendees discussed how the structure of learning communities might provide a better context for information literacy instruction.

  • Learning communities’ structure emphasizes the importance of connection, personal interaction, and individualized attention, affording the librarian a sustained level of access and better facilitation of information literacy concepts.
  • Learning communities focus on specific assignments and offer instruction at the point of need.
  • Linked courses provide coherence and assist students in recognizing connections and transference of knowledge enabling students to learn a skill in one context and use it in another.

What are the challenges and elements that can contribute to successful learning communities partnerships?

Attendees’ engaged in a lively discussion on the challenges inherent in participating in a learning community and outlined the following ongoing issues:


  • Lack of adequate staff.
  • Required level of involvement
  • Participation is largely voluntary
  • Rarely offered beyond the freshman year. One participant shared an experience of a sophomore learning community that failed due to a lack of interest on the part of students.
  • Curriculum is often focused on orientation rather than critical thinking and research skills.
  • Themes do not appeal to all students

Elements contributing to the success of learning communities on campus:

  • Campus wide support and incorporation of information literacy into the curriculum.
  • Institution size can directly impact on the need for learning communities.


Best Practices:

  • A hallmark of the discussion was the development of a list of best practices. Attendees developed this list for use by those actively involved in learning communities and for those who are considering participation.
  • Take a leading role in educating faculty and administrators on the importance of information literacy instruction and offer services to administrators and teachers in learning communities programs.
  • Participate in the learning communities planning, in any General Education restructuring or planning, and curriculum development.
  • Work with faculty on the design of assignments in an effort to embed information literacy throughout the course.
  • Offer faculty assistance with classroom management software, class web pages and other relevant technology as an additional avenue of incorporating information literacy into the learning community
  • Focus on learning outcomes when promoting library services for learning communities

In conclusion, the discussion provided a good overview of what is going on in the country regarding learning communities and libraries, including successes and continuing challenges. The discussion revealed a high degree of diversity in terms of types of institutions and library involvement ranging from low – medium – high. Everyone actively participated in the discussion and left with some good ideas of the place their particular institution stands in the ongoing conversation about the benefits that librarians might offer to learning communities on campuses.


Eschedor Voelker, T. J. (2006). The library and my learning community. Reference & User Services Quarterly 46(2), 72.

Reference librarians at Kent State University worked with a Science Learning Community, and found that the students valued the library instruction offered.

Frank, D. G., S. Beasley, and S. Kroll (2001). Opportunities for collaborative excellence: What learning communities offer.College & Research Library News 62 (10).

Builds on Mary Reichel’s 2001 ACRL presidential theme, which focused on learning communities and excellence in academic libraries. Reviews of the literature indicate that learning communities are being talked about and adopted in all kinds of institutions, including colleges and universities.

Gabelnick, Faith, Jean MacGregor, Roberta S. Matthews, and Barbara Leigh Smith. Learning Communities: Creating connections among students, faculty, and disciplines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Models of various kinds of learning communities.

Policy Center on the First Year of College. Second National Survey of First-Year Academic Practices 2002. Retrieved 5 June 2007 from

The actual survey question with results and findings.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Boff, C., and K. Johnson (2002). The library and the first-year experience course: A nationwide study. Reference Services Review 30 (4), 277-87.

First national survey of first-year experiences which have included information literacy instruction as part of the FYE curriculum.

Carpenter, C. (2004). A learning community connects with the Information Literacy Standards. College & Research Libraries News 65(8), 425.

Discusses the Association of College Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Law and Political Science Section’s presentation discussing experiences in managing the interdisciplinary pre-law curriculum program for minority students.

D’Angelo, B. J. and B. M. Maid (2004). Moving beyond definitions: Implementing information literacy across the curriculum.Journal of Academic Librarianship 30(3), 212.

Describes the natural partnership between the library and the Multimedia Writing and Technical Communication (MWTC) Program at Arizona State University (ASU) East linking writing and information literacy (IL) across the curriculum.

Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. 2003. Learning Communities National Resource Center. Retrieved on October 11, 2006 from

Basic questions about learning communities and the answers.

Galvin, J. (2006). Information literacy and integrative Learning. College & Undergraduate Libraries 13(3), 25-51.

Librarians should collaborate on campus learning initiatives such as Integrative learning, Writing across the Curriculum, First Year Experience, and Learning communities.

Hardesty, L. L., Ed. (2007). The role of the library in the first college year. The first-year experience monograph series. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition.

Provides models of academic library instruction for freshmen and assessing library instruction during the first year.

Instruction Section, Association of College and Research Libraries (2002). Librarians in learning communities: A networking guide. Retrieved on June 10, 2007 from

Responses to a survey sent to three listservs, BI-L, OFFCAMP, and LEARNCOM, addressing the objectives and outcomes of the involvement of librarians in learning communities.

Kreitz, P. A. (2004). Librarians as knowledge builders. College & Research Libraries News 65(1), 8.

Librarians are partnering with faculty and students to organize instructional materials and resources for learning communities, to integrate information literacy into coursework, or to co-create digital knowledge repositories.

Lebbin, V. K. (2005). Students perceptions on the long-range value of information literacy instruction through a learning community. Research Strategies 20(3), 204.

Library literature is still lacking research studies providing assessment data about library participation in learning communities. This article offers a perspective from students on the value of information literacy instruction through a learning community and the impact on academic careers.

Lindsay, E. B. (2007). A collaborative approach to information literacy in the Freshman Seminar. Academic Exchange Quarterly 7 (3). Retrieved on February 8, 2007 from

Information literacy competency goals are met through partnerships at Washington State University between librarians and the Freshman Seminar program. Librarians train peer leaders and have an active role in the classes.

McGuinness, C. (2007). Exploring strategies for integrated information literacy: From “academic champions” to institution-wide change. Communications in Information Literacy 1 (1), 26-38.

Questions whether the usual approach of targeting individual teachers is the best way to build a foundation for long-term information literacy programs. Suggests that they should find ways to convince the entire university that IL is a core academic value.

Novick, B., J. S. Kress, and M. J. Elias (2002). Building learning communities with character : how to integrate academic, social, and emotional learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Discussion of themes in social-emotional learning. Learning communities cultivate participation and leadership to build a community of learners. Also available from Net Library at

Pedersen, S. and National Learning Communities Project. (2003). Learning communities and the academic library. Olympia, WA, Washington, D.C., Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education National Learning Communities Project Evergreen State College; Association of College & Research Libraries; American Association for Higher Education.

Learning communities and information literacy are natural partners and initiatives involving libraries and student and faculty learning communities will have an impact on services and collections in academic libraries.

Walter, S. (2004). The first year experience and academic libraries: A select, annotated bibliography. Retrieved on December 6, 2006 from

Introduction to the history of first-year experiences with academic libraries and to collaborative practices on campuses.


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