The power, the pressure of the post-test.

I’ve been an Assessment Librarian for about three months now. In a few days, I’ll travel to Arlington, Virginia for the annual Library Assessment Conference, which I’ve never attended before. Sessions with titles like “The Illusory Holy Grail: Comprehensive Mixed-Methodology Assessment is No Better Than Using a Single Method; A Case Study on the 21st-Century Science Library” and “Lean Libraries Optimize Outcomes!” await me. Apparently we’re encouraged to wear costumes on the first day of the conference (Halloween). Given the limited space in my luggage, I’m packing a pretty simple costume: a red and gold Fred Flare pin that says LIBRARIAN.

I’m anticipating that #LAC16 will draw a mixed crowd — hardcore data geeks who do, as the pre-conference vendor e-mail subject line suggested, “get excited about analytics!” as well as the, hmm, analytics-averse folks like myself, who are less interested in big numbers and more interested in big stories.

When people ask what I do, I say, “I’m here to tell the story of the student learning that happens in the library.”

Easier said than done, right?

If you’ve read any articles about student learning assessment in libraries–well, God bless you–but you know that librarians are quick to use pre-tests and post-tests to provide evidence of the learning that happens in the library. “Look!” The librarian will triumphantly write in their Discussion section, “I did that! Forty-five minutes ago, they had no idea what Boolean operators were, and now look at them! They’re just AND/OR/NOT-ing their little hearts out!”

Sigh.

I have a lot of problems with this. I don’t believe that post-tests given after one-shot information literacy instruction provide meaningful evidence of student learning. At best, it may give the librarian some insight as to what worked well in their instruction session (who was asleep and who was paying enough attention to recall what was said), but it does not mean that students are more information literate than they were before the session. I am particularly distrustful of multiple choice tests–as I used to say in my College Success class, multiple choice tests are more about gambling than critical thinking. You have a 25% chance of getting a correct answer, even if you have no idea what the question is asking.

So what is the proper post-test of information literacy skills?

Well, I think most folks are not going to like this answer. The best post-test for information literacy skills is life. It’s your students’ ability to function on a daily basis in an information-saturated environment. It’s the ability to write an e-mail to a colleague, the ability to contextualize a single news item reported through a series of tweets, Facebook posts, and Buzzfeed news articles, the ability to discern and evaluate conflicting information coming from reliable sources, and the ability to pick up the phone and call someone when they have an answer you need.

But that’s much harder to measure, and much harder to publish, and therefore much harder to earn tenure (if you’re a tenure-track librarian) based on such research. That’s why I am very interested in attending Lise Doucette‘s session on Tuesday next week, “Acknowledging the Political, Economic, and Values-Based Motivators of Assessment Work: An Analysis of Publications on Academic Library Assessment.” What are we assessing and why? What are our motivators? Are we interested in improving student learning, or are we interested in proving our value as instruction librarians?

I’ll be honest with you–I’m not excited by snap results, or clicker quizzes, or the ability to fill in the blank after forty-five minutes of instruction. I’m interested in the slow burn. The long game. In The Master, Amy Adams tells Joaquin Phoenix’s character that he needs to be invested in “The Cause” for “a billion years or not at all.”

When it comes to information literacy, I’m in it for a billion years. Anything less just isn’t that interesting to me.

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Listening to: “I Really Like You” by Carly Rae Jepsen

Reading: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Eating: A lot of seafood lately, which is weird, since I moved to a landlocked state. Guess I miss fish.