Information Services & Use 31 (2011) 131–138 131
Information retrieval educational goals in
library and information science and in health
Instituto de Engenharia Electrónica e Telemática de Aveiro, Universidade de Aveiro,
Campus Universitário de Santiago, Aveiro, Portugal
E-mails: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Abstract. This paper is intended to compare information retrieval (IR) educational goals in different academic and professional
areas such as Library and Information Science (LIS) and Health Sciences (HS), analysing and identifying a shift on user
seeking goals in the digital era and, eventually, on educational goals as well. It starts with a section on information literacy
where several aspects are speciﬁed, such as user goals, IR systems, IR skills, information seeking strategies (queries) and
user perception of search success. Another section focuses on teaching IR aspects, like IR educational goals, assessment and
feedback, and e-resources in LIS and in HS. Teaching in an academic environment for academic audiences is somehow different
from teaching for professional audiences even though these are located in an academic environment as well. Those are the issues
and particularities that throughout the analysis of information literacy and teaching IR aspects will be explained along the full
Keywords: Information retrieval, educational goals, library and information science, health sciences
Information retrieval is a core teaching area in Information Science and is also taught in Computer
Science and in Informatics Engineering. It is intimately related with the professional area of Information.
However, in an information and knowledge society, information retrieval skills are increasingly needed
by professionals and academics in many other areas and by every citizen in his daily life, including
professional and civic obligations, to satisfy their multiple and frequent information needs.
This paper is structured in two sections. The ﬁrst section is on information literacy, specifying several
aspects focused in IR: user goals, IR systems, IR skills, information seeking strategies (queries) and
user perception of search success. The second section focuses on teaching IR: IR educational goals,
assessment and feedback, and e-resources in LIS and in HS.
Teaching in an academic environment for academic audiences is somehow different from teaching for
professional audiences even though these are located in an academic environment as well, so a distinction
between education courses and training courses is established whenever it is needed along the full paper.
1Paper also published in the Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Electronic Publishing, ISBN 978-1-61499-
0167-5265/11/$27.50 ©2011 – IOS Press and the authors. All rights reserved
132 A. Serrano / Information retrieval educational goals in library and information science and in health sciences
2. Information literacy
2.1. User goals
Everyone produces and consumes information. Nowadays, we consume it on a daily basis and in an
increasing volume. We use information all the time – not only the one we produce and the one we receive,
but also the one we look for. Looking for, i.e. searching, information has become a routine in a global
society wirelessly connected. IR techniques, formerly restricted to computer and information scientists
(and some others as well) and to information professionals, are coming out to the streets popping up
in several gadgets we use every day: cell phones, PDA/smartphones, netbooks, tablet PC, laptops, e-
readers, etc. Search engines like Google made information look really accessible – from something
that we all have the right to access it turned into the core of our lives and of our society. Vannevar
Bush’s  vision has become reality. We are addicted to information whether it comes through the
internet (email, news, webpages, blogs, etc.), cell phones or broadcast companies, and we love to interact
communicating and even publishing information all the time. We suffer from information overload, so
we need desperately to know how to retrieve the information we need, and only that one – relevant and
pertinent information according to our needs. However, fewer of us know how to achieve success in
search results [14,16].
IR skills are essential in several professional areas like library and information science (LIS), com-
puter science (CS), health sciences (HS), business, criminal investigation, etc. IR specialists are educated
in degrees in LIS and CS, but users that work in health – physicians, nurses, etc. – have urgent informa-
tion needs which satisfaction can have an enormous impact in our society. In 1992 Marshall published
the results of the Rochester Study , developed at the Faculty of Library and Information Science
(University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada) in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association (continued
by the Journal of the Medical Library Association). From September 1990 to March 1991, hospital li-
brarians of the ﬁfteen participating hospitals, at the geographic area of Rochester, NY, have distributed
a survey to 448 physicians and received 208 answers. The results are impressing. The conclusion is that
physicians consider that the hospital library has a signiﬁcant impact on clinical decision making, which
is clearly reinforced by statistical data presented. Revealing a few examples may illustrate the real im-
pact that information services and systems have in life in general and even in hospital mortality rates:
80% of the respondents consider that accessing library services caused change somewhere in the clinical
decision process, 51% changed the selection of tests, 45% changed drug therapy, 19% avoided patient
Searching for information is a time consuming task and it can be confusing or less motivating when
you don’t know how to do it. IR specialists are important pieces in the information society as profes-
sionals and as trainers of professionals from several other areas such as health sciences. Evidence-based
medicine has pushed physicians, since a long time ago, to invest in life-long learning. And it is not by
chance that MEDLINE is one of the oldest bibliographic databases. On what concerns HS profession-
als, this chapter will focus on physicians’ proﬁle as information users and as IR trainees. Due to length
restraints, nurses and allied health professionals proﬁles will not be explored.
2.2. IR systems and skills and information seeking strategies – user knowledge and use
Education and training somehow differ on what concerns its focus. Education is focused in theory and
training is centered on practice . LIS students learn IR through education programs, while physicians
acquire IR skills through training programs usually developed for academic or hospital library users.
A. Serrano / Information retrieval educational goals in library and information science and in health sciences 133
Teaching models are also different for education and for training courses. Curricular development
should be adapted to the students/users learning expectations. User studies about information behavior
and surveys about students’ impressions on the information seeking process, before enrolment in an IR
course, may help teachers and trainers to develop education or training programs.
Education courses are centered at teaching theoretical concepts: IR fundamentals like models and
systems, searching techniques/features, etc. Otherwise, training courses are centered at teaching practi-
cal applications, like searching in speciﬁc systems without comparing the IR systems explored. In this
teaching approach, trainees never learn that the searching technique showed at system A is also present
at system B under a different symbol/command. However this approach may be useful to professionals
overwhelmed by their work duties, like physicians, that don’t have the time to learn IR fundamentals and
that rush onto information resources to extract pertinent information to support their clinical practice.
Mixing both approaches wisely may have encouraging results.
Giving students or trainees a perspective, deep or brief according to their course proﬁle, on IR fun-
damentals is always a good idea. It makes them aware of all possible choices and they become more
autonomous when discovering an IR system. Modeling the IR process may be a good start for a LIS
course. Even, though, without using UML, analyzing the process itself as they know it by the time they
enter the course could be an interesting challenge and a start point to explore IR history since Bush’s
vision with the help of Michael Lesk seven ages, for example . Taking a wider view of the entire
information access process could help them to understand the importance of IR and its connection with
information analysis tasks (modeling information systems, indexing and abstracting, authority control,
thesaurus construction) and also with information storage issues. Knowledge of information systems
modeling and of mathematics  would be important at this stage. LIS students not always have those
skills, but it should be considered by curriculum developers when scratching a new LIS course or refor-
mulating an existing one. For further information see Section 3 of this chapter.
IR models should be explained and explored from the three classic models, never forgetting the al-
ternative ones, to the structured models. Browsing models should also be mentioned . Query and
results are two of the concepts that students better perceive. Information needs is the concept that they
less remember . Teaching them search syntax is rather important so they can construct quality search
strategies and queries that can extract relevant results from IR systems.
2.3. User perception of search success
User perception of search success is one of the most apprehensive problems in IR. Sometimes, due
to ignorance of information resources dimension and of search techniques/features it is usual that users
don’t perceive if they aren’t being well succeed in a search when analyzing results. Information expo-
nential growth adds an help to this problem. Even efﬁcient search engines like Google can’t assure that
a certain query was completely answered. Knowing when to stop may be a harsh task. And time limits
are not always the best choice. Even in HS, older information may be just as valuable as recent one. For
example, some diseases may have been studied or some drugs may have been tested a long time ago and
have never been looked up in recent decades. Probably, that’s why MEDLINE has launched information
back to 1947 .
However, most HS users think they have success when performing a search in a IR system. Perhaps,
this is motivated by the quality of the information retrieved (usually from MEDLINE/PubMed) and by
its impact on clinical practice as it was already referred above.
134 A. Serrano / Information retrieval educational goals in library and information science and in health sciences
3. Teaching IR
3.1. Educational goals
As mentioned above, teacher educational goals should, somehow, match student learning expectations
or, at least, the latter should be considered while developing curricular programs.
Recently, in Europe, during the “Bologna Process” of adequacy of higher education degrees, several
countries have done a full revision of their courses curricular plan and have also created other courses
in the spirit of the Bologna Declaration signed by 29 European countries on 19th June 1999. The ade-
quacy of higher education degrees has implied, in many cases, a change in the selection of the various
possible approaches, depending on the scientiﬁc–technical domain and on the essence of each curricular
unit (CU), to the teaching/learning process. The spotlight that some courses placed on knowledge trans-
mission before Bologna was now turning the to skills development through an active participation of the
student inside the teaching/learning process itself. In LIS, the subject area of IR constitutes an exciting
challenge in applying the recommendations of Bologna either by belonging to the “core” of LIS either
by being an area where there has always been a great research activity.
In Portugal the “Bologna Process” is now concluded. For example, in 2006, at the Department of
Information Science of the largest Portuguese polytechnic institute (and one of the best ranked, at a
national level, on some world university rankings) – Instituto Politécnico do Porto (IPP) – the degree
in Information and Documentation Sciences and Technologies with the duration of 5 years was restruc-
tured to a degree with a smaller length of time of 3 years . The degree adequacy was supported by
two important works in LIS: Euroguide LIS and European Curriculum Reﬂections on Library and In-
formation Science [2,5,6]. In order to, somewhat, cover Information Seeking and Information Retrieval
(IS&R) area skills, two courses were created: Information Behavior and Information Retrieval. Student
skills were identiﬁed according to the Euroguide in LIS. For the IR course the following were deﬁned:
•Understanding and deﬁning information retrieval fundamentals;
•Developing analysis, evaluation and diagnosis skills;
•Applying acquired knowledge on new occasions in order to solve professional problems;
•Analyzing complex information retrieval queries, constructing search strategies and outputting
•Identifying and selecting information sources;
•Being at ease with every search feature/technique;
•Evaluating IR systems.
The underlying educational goals of this deﬁnition, and of the contents deﬁned at the curricular plan,
were the knowledge of IR fundamentals and of IR systems, and training in search strategies, just like
other authors stated recently . The teaching program that has been carried out, since 2006, puts its
accent on seven topics that were found to better suit the educational goals above mentioned:
•Introduction to IR – the IR process;
A. Serrano / Information retrieval educational goals in library and information science and in health sciences 135
•IR on the World Wide Web;
•User interfaces and visualization;
•Information retrieval systems evaluation.
These topics may be developed in many ways and in many levels of depth according to each teaching
context. A tutorial style of delivery will also meet the principles stated on Bologna process.
3.2. Assessment and feedback
Assessment is, to some extent, linked with the teaching methods adopted and with the teaching sys-
tem selected. In the IR area, an active teaching method is, perhaps, the more obvious option. Mixing
multiple teaching methods and combining them in several ways, depending on how each class responds,
can create interactivity in very interesting ways inside the classroom. When having an interactive and
practice teaching approach, assessment will probably have its focus on practical work – classroom or
e-learning exercises, assignments, practice part on ﬁnal examination etc. All these pretend to recreate
real professional life problems to solve inside the teaching/learning environment whether the teaching
system selected is the traditional one, e-learning or b-learning.
Developing skills implies that students/trainees have an active role and that teachers/trainers promote
interactivity. Communication leads us to interaction, as Shannon showed on his mathematical info-
communication theory: when transmitting information in a message, through a transmission medium,
the abstract communication channel between sender and receiver allows feedback.
Searching/retrieving information implies, above all, critical thinking. To have success while solving
an exercise (what implies the synchronous use of almost every skills above referred to the CU of IR at
IPP) a student/trainer shall:
•be able to analyze and translate the content of an information need,
•know several information resources, or know how to access them, and know how to evaluate which
ones are more suitable to each case,
•deeply know searching techniques/features that can be used in an IR system,
•know how to construct a query creating quickly several alternatives,
•know how to evaluate results presented by the IR system and how to create a new search strategy if
Having strong conceptual basis in IR, technological aptitude, abstracting capacity, cognitive process-
ing speed, critical thinking and evaluation ability can enable a good performance in IR either at the
academic environment either at the professional environment.
Traditional lectures based, exclusively, on a passive teaching method like formal lecture without inter-
action with the students are less likely to promote skills development or to stimulate reasoning. A mix
of several methods like group discussion, forum, interactive lecture supported by audiovisual materials,
brainstorming techniques, among others, can easily promote interactivity at the classroom. Mixing tra-
ditional teaching system with e-learning, i.e., adopting blended learning or b-learning teaching system
can also enable a dynamic and interactive environment accessible all the time.
On digital platforms, communication may be synchronous, just like in the classroom (physical or
virtual), or asynchronous. Examples of synchronous communication are Messenger, ICQ, Google Talk,
Skype, Second Life (allowing virtual classroom or virtual workplace), etc. Examples of asynchronous
communication are email, forums, blogs, Google Sites, etc. . Using e-learning systems demands
136 A. Serrano / Information retrieval educational goals in library and information science and in health sciences
the analysis of multiple aspects that should be considered like type of content according to the last
update and inner typology. Stable content, like IR fundamentals, that doesn’t need to be often updated is
suitable to be delivered in more static formats, while unsettled content, like research topics, that needs
to be frequently updated should be delivered in more dynamic formats .
Stimulating students and placing challenges to them in order to obtain their adherence, either of those
considered “deep” ones either of those considered “superﬁcial” ones, is an important asset. A challenge
may be placed by the promotion of competitions where winners get a prize as a bonus reﬂected at the
ﬁnal classiﬁcation of the student at the course. Usually, students adhere with enthusiasm to this kind of
challenge. Testing velocity when solving problems in IR with a chronometer (at an advanced stage of the
course) might improve results in examination and, consequently, ﬁnal classiﬁcation at the course. This
kind of competition proves to increase levels of conﬁdence and to decrease stress at ﬁnal examination.
At the IR course mentioned above as an example this was conﬁrmed, since 2006, by positive approval
rates of the students, positive feedback from students when evaluating the course in pedagogical annual
blinded surveys (rated with 4.60 in a 0 to 5 scale, with some aspects rated with 4.83), and by good
performance on curricular professional practice in the IR area. Feedback from students can also be taken
through speciﬁc surveys conducted by the CU teacher in order to continuously improve the teaching
and learning process in IR. In spite of the positive results achieved at the example being analyzed, this
kind of measure will begin to be applied in that course in 2010. The survey results, depending on the
questions asked, may lighten up new directions or changes wherever and whenever needed.
In training courses it is usual to ask trainees to give feedback of the course by answering a question-
naire at the end of the course. Usually the duration of these courses is shorter, so the questionnaire will
have some other kind of questions like possible professional beneﬁts after taking the course. HS trainees
will be interested to evaluate the impact of the course on their performance in clinical practice, but this
cannot be well known until a period of time after the course. User satisfaction can also be assessed as
well as searching utility to clinical questions, for example. MEDLINE and EMBASE lead physicians
preferences, being the former really detached from all other information sources .
3.3. e-Resources in LIS and in HS
e-Resources in LIS (selected list):
•IFLA – International Federation of Library Associations
•Internet Library for Librarians – portal since 1994
•Librarian’s Index to the Internet – since 1995
•Library of Congress (LC) portal to librarians
•LISA – Library and Information Science Abstracts
•Medical Library Association (MLA)
•National Library of Medicine (NLM)
A. Serrano / Information retrieval educational goals in library and information science and in health sciences 137
•ODLIS – Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science
e-Resources in HS (selected list):
•Arizona Health Sciences Library – e-Journal Locator
•BioPortal – Ontologies used in biomedical communities
•EMBASE – Excerpta Medica Database
•Environmental Health & Toxicology – portal
•Intute / Medicine – UK universities portal
•Intute/Nursing, midwifery and allied Health – UK universities portal
•Merriam–Webster’s Medical Dictionary
•National Centers for Biomedical Computing (NCBC)
•National Institute of Health (NIH)
•PDQ – Physician Data Query
USA National Cancer Institute (NCI) comprehensive cancer database.
•PLoS – Public Library of Science
•PLoS Medicine – open-access journal published by PLoS
•TOXNET – Toxicology Data Network
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