Service Learning Site Logo

Critical Information Literacy and Critical Service Learning: Building on Common Ground

Posted on Monday, October 18th, 2021

Today's post is by Nicole Branch, Associate University Librarian for Learning and Engagement at Santa Clara University and Andrea Brewster, Assessment Manager, Undergraduate Studies at Santa Clara University. It describes research they conducted with Jennifer Nutefall, formerly of Santa Clara University and currently Dean of University Libraries at University of Northern Colorado.

   Nicole Branch     Andrea Brewster


“...we are living in a moment that requires attention to and action for social justice.”

Tania D. Mitchell and Tabbye Chavous


How it started…

John S. Riddle contended within his 2010 book chapter “Information and Service Learning” that critical information literacy (CIL) and resource-based learning can strengthen and connect traditional pedagogies and community service learning pedagogies. He also identified service learning as a “tool” to engage CIL, and engaged both librarians and service learning practitioners to consider together how “service learning might inform our understanding of social justice, civic engagement, and citizenship” (Riddle, 2010, p. 138). Riddle encouraged further empirical research specifically to address the potential reciprocal power of integrating CIL and critical service learning (CSL.)

In the decade since Riddle put forth this call, opportunities and challenges for both CIL and CSL have emerged. Library practitioners have continued to develop critical approaches to information literacy, and a small body of scholarship addressing the intersection of information literacy and community based learning has emerged. At the same time, both fields are challenged to document and elevate the rigor of our approaches and to align these approaches with our inherently multi-disciplinary partners. Furthermore, for critical practitioners, the various cross-disciplinary conversations can elevate (and sometimes complicate) conversations about the meanings of social justice.

Inspired by Riddle’s call, three colleagues questioned together how we might respond in the context of these challenges and opportunities. Two of us librarians and one an assessment professional (who teaches CSL courses) considered together how CSL courses on our campus might intersect meaningfully with CIL. We share here our article, which was published in the winter 2021 special issue of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (special issue: “Centering Social Justice in the Scholarship of Community Engagement”), and further reflections on our work together. Importantly, our research began prior to the most recent response within higher education to address issues of anti-Black racism and white supremacy, though the events of the past year informed our analysis and ongoing reflection. In many ways both CIL and CSL are at an inflection point, where, as Mitchell and Chavous state in the introduction to the special issues state “we are living in a moment that requires attention to and action for social justice” (2021, p. 1).

Here’s our story...

At Santa Clara University, all undergraduate students are required to complete an Experiential Learning for Social Justice (ELSJ) undergraduate Core curriculum course. This course involves direct, face-to-face CSL pedagogy with members of underserved communities; incorporates structured oral and written reflection; and embeds three social justice-oriented learning outcomes into the curriculum (related to the goals of civic engagement, diversity, and social justice.) These courses are offered through many different departments and programs across the university, and yet are cohesive in that students will engage with these same three social justice-oriented learning outcomes in their ELSJ course regardless of the disciplinary lens, particular CSL experience, or additional discipline-specific learning outcomes of each course.

Given our long-term personal and professional interest in CSL and CIL, librarians Nicole and Jennifer sought ways to partner with ELSJ course instructors on best practice in teaching toward the three social justice-oriented learning outcomes, and Andrea (charged with administration of the Core requirement and teaching courses) was interested in learning more about how CIL could be relevant to faculty development for ELSJ instructors. Our conversations over a few years narrowed down to two research questions:

1.         How do students describe their social justice learning in CSL courses with explicit, embedded social justice-oriented learning outcomes?

2.         How do research intensive assignments impact students’ understanding of social justice?

In spring and fall of 2019 we conducted semi-structured interviews with 23 undergraduate students from 15 different CSL courses offered over an academic year. Students were invited in the interviews to discuss the cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions of their social justice-related learning as well as the culminating assignment they produced for their course. Within the interviews we aimed to uncover students’ understanding of research in connection with their CSL experience.

What we found...

As we designed the study to be qualitative and exploratory, we decided to analyze our interview data with a two-phase process: In the first phase, we adapted an analytic rubric that provided us a lens through which to examine multiple dimensions of students’ social justice learning; we also drafted a simple holistic rubric to record students’ research experiences within the course. In the second phase, we conducted a content analysis on the same transcripts to look for and make sense of themes within the data.

To understand the research and information literacy experience of students, we decided to code interview transcripts based on students’ perceptions of the types of sources required for the culminating assignments they produced in their courses (and we corroborated the findings from our interviews by examining the assignments produced by the students). The source types we identified and coded for included: use of outside sources, use of course materials assigned by the instructor, use of students’ own written reflections; reliance on community members as authoritative sources, and framing of community members of exhibits/units of study (rather than authoritative sources of information.) Rooting our work in ACRL’s Framework, we rated a student’s course assignment as having been “research intensive - high” when it involved 1) information sources from outside course content, 2) use of assigned course texts/materials, and 3) consulted community members as authoritative sources. We rated a student’s course assignment as “research intensive - low” when some or none of these categories were present. In the end, 5 students had a “research intensive - high” culminating course assignment and 18 had a “research intensive - low” culminating course assignment.

The results of this exploratory study were intriguing: Students who had “research intensive - high” culminating assignments scored higher on all the social justice rubric dimensions than did students who had “research intensive - low” culminating assignments. You can read the full article here.

What we’re curious about…

While our study looked at the intersection of social justice learning and information source use, we encountered some additional themes that we think merit further investigation.

Lived experience as an information source: First, some students shared how their identities impacted their CSL experience. For example, one student drew connections between their experience feeling “othered” as a Black student on campus and what was perceived as classmates “othering” community members served through the CSL experience. For one international student, the CBL experience informed their understanding of inequities in their home country, and motivated them to engage in service in their home context. What stood out with these students was how their lived experience functioned as an important information source in relation to their service and reflection experience. While there is literature about the experience of students of color in the CSL context, for information literacy practitioners there is potential to explore further how students incorporate their lived experience as an important information source. Furthermore, interviews allowed for further reflection on the service experience. We found the interview process itself gave space for students to think, process and make connections with their lived experience-- as is encouraged by oral reflection practice. Within this, we found that as the dialogue progressed, the sharper students’ analysis became leading to greater engagement with their own positionality.

CSL experience and vocational discernment: Students also shared how their learning through the course and/or community service learning experience furthered their thinking around academic and professional pursuits. One talked about the impact of the CSL on their interest in applying for a social justice-oriented fellowship; another referenced how the CSL community engagement experience shifted their interest in teaching to a specific interest in working in low-income schools in their upcoming teaching credential program. One student described a newfound interest in gerontology. A few described less specific academic or career changes, and instead focused on how they felt they had become a more thoughtful, empathetic person, including becoming more open-minded, introspective, and emotionally aware.

Community members as authorities/units of study: We were particularly intrigued by our findings related to community members as units of study/community authority. The orientation of students to community members as sources of information (either as authorities or units of study) and the corresponding relationship to social justice learning is an area where additional research may generate findings that could help shape curriculum and assignments. Both of these themes emerged inductively in our analysis of interview transcripts and stood in stark contrast to each other. In particular, regarding community members as units of study runs contrary to CIL practice. Exploring how curriculum might help students resist objectifying community members as units of study would be beneficial to advancing both CIL and CSL.

What particularly interests us with these three themes is the opportunity to expand beyond traditional scholarly sources and further interrogate the frame “authority is constructed and contextual.”

Where we’d like to go from here…

Impelled by the depth and breadth of our findings within this initial exploratory story, we have identified several areas we would like to pursue in the next iteration of this work. First, we’d like to analyze the assignment prompts used by instructors in their CSL courses. We’re particularly interested in understanding instructor’s integration (or lack thereof) of research intensive assignments and scaffolding processes over the term for those assignments (students’ critical reflection, feedback on drafts, partnership with university librarians, partnership with community members and organizations, etc.) Second, now that we have developed our understanding through our initial interview of some of the key dimensions of students’ social justice-related learning in their CSL courses, we’d like to survey students more broadly across a greater variety of CSL courses and community-based learning experiences. We’d like to surface more about how both instructors and students view community members as authoritative sources (or, alternatively, as units of study); how students characterize the cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of their CSL experiences; and how students view these CSL experiences as contributing to their own vocational formation and social justice orientation. We are confident that a survey research methodology would allow us to meet those aims. Furthermore, the richness of several of our initial student interviews strongly reinforces earlier research that suggests that students’ own social position, identity, and perception of relative privilege or marginalization in relationship to the communities with which they engage informs their CIL choices, social justice-related learning, and vocational development (e.g., Grain & Lund, 2016; Tinkler et al., 2014). We’d like to be able explore that with greater sensitivity and nuance across many student demographics.    

Furthermore, critical and equity minded approaches to assessment of student learning have gained momentum within information science and other fields within higher education over the past two decades. Continued study of these areas is in-line with this movement. Additionally, we believe the opportunity within this study to tie together institutional commitments to social justice and anti-racism in the context of both of these critical frameworks demonstrates a way forward. With all the commitments that have been made, developing systems to analyze the impact of these commitments is imperative.



Brewster, A. E., Branch, N. A., & Nutefall, J. E. (2021). Critical information literacy and critical service learning: Potential partners in students’ social justice learning? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 27(1), 93-122.

Grain, K. M., & Lund, D. E. (2016). The social justice turn: Cultivating “critical hope” in an age of despair. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 23(1), 45–59.

Mitchell, T. D., & Chavous, T. (2021). Centering social justice in the scholarship of community engagement. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 27(1), 1-4.

Riddle, J. (2010). Information and service learning. In M. T. Accardi, E. Drabinski, & A. Kumbier (Eds.), Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (pp. 133-148). Library Juice Press.

Tinkler, B., hannah, c. l., Tinkler, A., & Miller, E. (2014). Analyzing a service-learning experience using a social justice lens. Teaching Education, 25(1), 82–98.