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Boosting science literacy amongst postgrads – a role for librarians

June 26, 2020

By Elizabeth Moll-Willard

A short online course designed by a librarian enhances science literacy skills for students

According to Elizabeth Moll-Willard, the many tasks that librarians juggle on a daily basis can be described using one simple word – “help.

”Elizabeth, who is a faculty librarian at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, explains: “Whenever you ask someone to describe the role of a librarian, they always mention that word; for example, help to use technology, or help to find or understand something.”

For Elizabeth, it’s that “helping” role that makes librarians the ideal candidates to train postgraduate students on science literacy – an element currently missing from many institutions’ curricula. But what does she mean by science literacy? Elizabeth points to an April Library Connect article, in which Elsevier’s Kristina Hopkins defined it as understanding scientific concepts and processes in a way that informs your ability to make decisions, participate in civic and cultural affairs, and contribute to economic productivity.”

And just like Kristina, Elizabeth believes that the emergence of COVID-19 is a great example of why science literacy is so important today. “It creates an understanding that allows you to critique research. So, when there are reports about COVID-19, you can ask questions about the scientific processes involved and start to distinguish between theory and evidence-based claims.”

She adds: “As a librarian, I believe science communication is vital, and whether you are a student or whether you are a layperson, if you are equipped with basic scientific knowledge, you can take part in this and any other discourse. Crucially, you can also educate others to become scientifically literate.”

That desire to educate others has led Elizabeth to develop a short online course for her university’s postgraduate students, designed to provide them with science literacy “survival skills.”

Another source of inspiration for the course were her own postgraduate student days. She recalls: “Even though I was a librarian at the time, I still really struggled with things like literature and literature reviews. During my search for information, I found myself going down many rabbit holes which wasted hours and caused frustration. And I remember looking for an explanation on thematic analysis in every database and book possible - they all told me what it was, but not how to do it. Those experiences made me realize how frustrating and alienating small concepts like analyzing and working with information can be. And they made me realize that there's a huge learning curve involved when you move from an undergraduate degree to a postgraduate thesis. There's a lot of expectation that you should just ‘know’ things.”

Elizabeth’s course, which lasts roughly 30 minutes, contains five components.

  1. Finding information: Addresses the usual library search strategies, database types and potential gaps in students’ understanding of peer review. It also recommends subject-specific databases.

  2. Surviving information overload: Focuses on the analysis of articles, from skim reading to using the CRAAP test. Also explains in detail how to test for bad science.

  3. Following academic breadcrumbs: Covers topics such as searching and using references from citations.

  4. Breaking through the reading barrier: Discusses how to move on from just finding and reading things to working with the information. Reminds students that they should constantly question whether the content fits into their hypothesis and why.

  5. Technical principles of writing: Explores a range of topics from the type of language to use to how to structure a paragraph. According to Elizabeth: “The section on writing a linking sentence has proved particularly popular.” The module also looks at how writing a scientific article differs from writing a thesis.

Elizabeth’s course is currently available on-demand, but she’s hoping it will be incorporated into the postgraduate curriculum in the future. She’s already received a lot of positive feedback from faculty, particularly now with the need for strong remote learning options. She says: “I've heard that students feel empowered to work with information and that’s exactly what we wanted. The goal is to create an informed student who then uses that knowledge, not only contribute to academic scientific discourse, but to public scientific discourse too.”

Want to know more?

Elizabeth took part in the recent Library Connect webinar Setting students up for success with science literacy. She was just one of the guest speakers – you’ll find her presentation between the timestamp 20:45 and 35:25. Access the recorded version of the webinar by clicking on the link below.



Elizabeth Moll-Willard

Faculty Librarian, Stellenbosch University, South Africa