10. Empowering Research Supervisors: Developing Information Literacy in Higher Degree Researchers

Lyndelle Gunton; Sal Kleine; and Stephanie Bradbury

Why read this chapter?

Every day we all apply skills to find, evaluate, organise, and use information. This may be as simple as searching for a specific product in an online store, where the consequence of employing an ad hoc approach is low risk. However, in the context of conducting research in higher education, understanding how to “seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2023), or information literacy, is key to producing credible and reliable research outputs.

Information literacy empowers higher degree researchers to achieve their research goals.  Developing the information literacy of higher degree researchers ensures they can achieve program milestones, become valued contributors in the wider research environment, and can improve their employability.

This chapter will be of benefit to research supervisors and decision-makers in institutions seeking to:

  • actively develop higher degree researchers’ information literacy
  • strengthen the role of supervisors as an influencer of knowledge and skills development that inform information literacy
  • consider how to position information literacy within the broader development of the higher degree researcher.

Key takeaways

  • Developing sophisticated, generic, and discipline specific information literacy is an essential part of learning to be a researcher. Opportunities for training should be incorporated into early stages of any higher degree research program.
  • Library staff can provide valuable expertise and support in the development of information literacy, and form part of your higher degree researcher’s support network and your own research community.
  • Quality, open educational resources are available to use in supporting your higher degree researcher’s skill development in finding, retrieving, managing, and using information effectively.
  • Proactively seeking opportunities to discuss these topics with higher degree researchers may support your own upskilling and maintenance of relevant skills in these areas.
  • As a supervisor, you play an influential role in the development of information literacy for your higher degree researcher.

A framework for developing information literacy skills for research

A commitment to developing effective skills for finding and using information is not always seen as a priority in the context of a broader research skills program. We know that the early stages of a research degree can be exciting but also stressful. Often, the priorities of both the higher degree researcher and supervisor are elsewhere, particularly if the researcher is also negotiating additional challenges such as finding accommodation, adjusting to living in a different country, navigating a second language, or any combination of other factors.

However, there is a need to focus on developing advanced information literacy early in the research program. This derives from understanding that the relevant skills and knowledge associated with effective searching, accessing, retrieving, organising, and using information are essential for success. Appropriate skills development will instil good habits, reduce stress, and potentially prevent issues from emerging later in the research program.

Some higher degree researchers commence their studies with an advanced understanding of these important skills. They benefit from being adept at using systems and tools to make effective use of the information environment. However, many are neither equipped nor aware of the gaps in their knowledge and skills, or the impact that may have on their progress. While higher degree researchers may become aware of their need to upskill from a librarian or other sources, encouragement from supervisors can ensure that information literacy training is prioritised.

Research shows that supervisors can have a significant influence on the way, and the extent to which, higher degree researchers develop effective information literacy (United Kingdom Research Information Network, 2011). Evidence also suggests that higher degree researchers will often seek guidance or help from their supervisors before exploring other avenues, such as librarians (Harrington, 2009). Therefore, supervisors need to focus higher degree researchers’ attention on the importance of information literacy and, sometimes, assist in identifying gaps and potential opportunities for training.

The questions that need to be asked are:

  1. How can this be done in a way that ensures consistent development of advanced information literacy across all higher degree researchers, regardless of educational, cultural, professional, or scholarly backgrounds?
  2. How can higher degree researchers access foundational support to develop nuanced information literacy and knowledge transferable to discipline specific fields of study and research contexts?

A 2022 review of Australian doctoral employability indicated that supervisors are the primary educators of higher degree researchers (Chen et al., 2023). While the review highlighted the uncertainty around researcher training requirements and supervisory roles, the findings supported the need for, at least, doctoral supervisors to work in partnership with other professionals to develop their higher degree researchers’ career learning requirements (Chen et al., 2023).

Supervisors may not have the expertise or time to share and train their higher degree researchers in finding and managing information. This is where the value of partnering and communicating with library (or other research support) staff is critical. Where this service and support is absent, the availability of quality, freely accessible training resources for information literacy is essential. With these supports, supervisors can successfully guide their higher degree researchers to:

  • develop foundational skills to use information for research independently and effectively
  • prepare for their first higher degree research milestone
  • understand and operate in the scholarly publishing environment
  • ensure they have the skills and capabilities to conduct research now and into the future, regardless of the academic, professional or industry context in which they find themselves
  • develop a robust support network by connecting with library staff, other research support experts, and peers where available.

The encouragement of supervisors is acknowledged as valuable in motivating higher degree researchers to develop their information literacy. However, more formal methods of training are seen as critical in ensuring the effectiveness of these skills (Zhao, 2019). Participation in programs developed and delivered with, or by, librarians is recommended where available. If not, the use of recognised quality training programs is preferred, such as Advanced Information Research Skills (AIRS).

The Advanced Information Research Skills (AIRS) framework

AIRS is one example of how information literacy training can be effectively delivered for higher degree researchers. It is a model that highlights the value of support for higher degree researchers by the library and other areas of a higher education institution. AIRS learning content is freely available from a public facing website, which can be accessed by anyone at any time (Figure 10.1). It is an open educational resource that is Creative Commons licensed (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) so it can be freely used and adapted for training purposes.

Figure 10.1 AIRS Home Page by QUT Library, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

The model and curriculum

AIRS is a mandatory, accredited, coursework unit for all Queensland University of Technology (QUT) higher degree researchers enrolled in Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Master of Philosophy (MPhil), and Doctor of Education programs. QUT Library has delivered advanced information literacy training via AIRS since 1989. The reputation and credibility of AIRS is evidenced through its acknowledgement or adoption by many other higher education institutions across Australia, for the purpose of training higher degree researchers.

AIRS seeks to set the standard in information literacy training for higher degree researchers by providing current, relevant, and credible learning outcomes, and enables active engagement through quality, innovative learning and teaching strategies. There is a focus on ensuring AIRS meets the transdisciplinary and transferable skill needs of contemporary researchers, while continuing to meet organisational priorities, as well as industry and Australian higher education standards.

To best meet higher degree researcher needs, the AIRS program focuses on knowledge and skill development that is important for the early stages of candidature, namely finding, organising, and using information, and embeds the skills required to effectively scope the initial literature review for the research topic. Offering AIRS at the commencement of the research degree builds researcher confidence as they approach the first program milestone. This is evidenced by extensive data showing that most higher degree researchers achieve strong outcomes in the unit. Research also indicates that information literacy training attendees are more likely to seek support in later stages of their research degree from library staff, having developed those connections already. This can clearly have a flow on effect beyond any training in which higher degree researchers participate (Zhao et al., 2023).

AIRS currently consists of a series of online modules (Figure 10.2), workshop recordings, learning activities, and knowledge checks that step learners through information literacy development in a logical way. This aligns with the research lifecycle and the journey that higher degree researchers are likely to take during their program. More specifically, attention is focused on the development of essential skills for finding, evaluating, managing, and using information relevant to a research topic. This is supplemented by enhancing capabilities in research integrity, research data management, scholarly publishing, publication metrics, and research impact.

Figure 10.2 Modules offered by AIRS by QUT Library, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

The AIRS learning objectives and learning resources have been informed by organisational information literacy frameworks, based on the Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework standards (Bundy, 2004). Further, practitioner research and feedback from students and supervisors have also continued to shape the curriculum. This has led to an increased focus on the development of transferable skills, as the needs of many higher degree research graduates have shifted to include other career pathways outside academia.

Evaluation is key to delivering a program that meets user needs. The ongoing effectiveness of information literacy training can be evaluated in a number of ways. Without an accredited form of instruction that includes formal assessment, these evaluation strategies may be more informal. This could include consideration of session attendance numbers, the qualitative and quantitative data from participant feedback surveys, or the results of learner self-assessment of skill levels before and after training. These mechanisms can enable the development and evaluation of higher degree researchers’ learning outcomes and skills, to support them throughout their research studies and beyond (Zhao et al., 2023).

Learning and supervisory support for skills development

AIRS is one example of a framework that provides supervisors and higher degree researchers with a clear approach for the development of capabilities in a contemporary research context. We know that higher degree researchers start their programs with a variety of experience, expertise, and cultural and education backgrounds. It is further acknowledged and understood that higher degree researchers don’t know what they don’t know. By supporting and promoting an AIRS-style approach to information literacy training, supervisors can ensure that higher degree researchers do not miss the opportunity to develop important skills from ignorance or over confidence.

When information literacy training is mandatory, expectations are formal and clear, and participants develop consistent, generic skills in finding and managing information for research. However, building on these generic skills with subject specific information resources and tools is vital for information literacy in any field of research. Supervisors can play a key role by explaining the merits of time and effort spent in building these skills. This may extend to guidance on conducting literature reviews and synthesising information from multiple sources and using designated referencing styles and citation management tools. There are further opportunities for supervisors to share information about key authors, journals, and other scholarly publications, conferences, and relevant transdisciplinary and emerging research areas, for higher degree researchers to monitor. Other university or institutional support staff, such as librarians, can offer further support in the use of highly specific information searching tools.

To assist, supervisors can access and use the AIRS modules as a framework for guiding higher degree researchers through the research process. The ability to openly access the online learning resources for the AIRS program under a Creative Commons licence has long aligned with the principles of open education, as supported by reputable educational institutions and research organisations globally. This type of free access means that training providers, such as academic libraries and higher educational institutions, can use and adapt the materials as part of their own programs based on the specific context and institution.

Apply these ideas in your practice

AIRS has shown us that higher degree researchers can develop a stronger skills foundation when partnering with supervisors who actively engage in their progress and encourage them to cultivate relationships with key research support staff. That support network will be different depending on individual higher degree researchers, the supervisors, and the institution. Further, the development of a community of learners engaging with information literacy training at the same time is of added benefit, providing peer learning and support, transdisciplinary networking, and opportunities for collaboration.

As such, developing and maintaining professional relationships with research support and library staff is a way that you can model good networking and collaborative practices. Partnering with colleagues and library staff can help you to introduce research skills training for higher degree researchers. You will see longer term benefits from making time to introduce higher degree researchers to key stakeholders and help them to build their personal learning networks. As a supervisor, you are ideally positioned to explain the value of setting up systems, and using appropriate tools, for managing information to your higher degree researcher. By sharing personal stories of successes and failures, you can demonstrate the importance of planning and preparing to find, retrieve, evaluate, store, and use information. You can step your higher degree researcher through the approaches you have developed and used for managing literature and other information. This may include a range of analogue and/or digital systems and tools that enable you to effectively record and access your information. There is no one right way in which to do this. What works for one may not work for others. Higher degree researchers will find approaches that work for them, but you can prompt consideration by providing examples of approaches that have worked for you.

A key benefit of supervising is what you can also learn from your higher degree researcher. As they progress through their research journey, they will be exposed to the latest tools, practices, and services that take advantage of emerging technologies. As a supervisor, you can access the AIRS units for your own professional development. Working through the AIRS modules on an annual basis may be a useful practice. Where available, you can attend advanced training sessions hosted by your library. Researchers can also benefit from training provided by vendors on their databases or other subscription information resources that may be hosted by institutional libraries. There are a range of openly available training resources, such as AIRS, that focus on finding and evaluating information through an open (e.g., Creative Commons) license, that can be freely reused and adapted for teaching and research purposes.

Evidence your practice

One way to demonstrate supervisory capabilities is by emphasising your awareness of the value of advanced information literacy. Additionally, you can implement proactive strategies and model a commitment to supporting higher degree researchers to both develop these skills and seek assistance from relevant experts when required.

An inclusive approach can ensure you gain access to the wealth of knowledge and experience available from fellow supervisors and other research support experts. Knowledge-sharing between supervisors and higher degree researchers can create pathways to further training options and support services that can enhance the effective use of information for research. By using and adapting existing resources and tools, you can positively contribute to shaping the information literacy of your higher degree researchers, resulting in improved research outcomes.



While most of these sources and additional readings are freely available, some are not. The lock icon beside an entry indicates that the source may be available from your library.

Bundy, A. (Ed.). (2004). Australian and New Zealand information literacy framework: Principles, standards and practice (2nd ed.). Australian and New Zealand Institute for Information Literacy. https://kushima38.kagoyacloud.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/InfoLiteracyFramework.pdf

Chen, L., Mewburn, I., & Suominen, H. (2023). Australian doctoral employability: A systematic review of challenges and opportunities. Higher Education Research & Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2023.2240715

Harrington, M. R. (2009). Information literacy and research-intensive graduate students: Enhancing the role of research librarians. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 28(4), 179–201. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/61656845.pdf

QUT Library. (2012, May 15). AIRS – Advanced Information Research Skills. Queensland University of Technology. https://airs.library.qut.edu.au/

United Kingdom Research Information Network. (2011). The role of research supervisors in information literacy. https://dfdf.dk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Research_supervisors_report_for_screen.pdf

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (2023). Information literacy. UNESCO Information for All Programme. https://www.unesco.org/en/ifap/information-literacy

Zhao, S. (2019). A study of graduate students’ information literacy needs in the electronic resource environment [Doctoral thesis, University of Windsor]. Scholarship at UWindsor. https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/etd/7747

Zhao, S., Luo, R., Sabina, C., & Pillon, K. (2023). The effect of information literacy training on graduate students’ ability to use library resources. College and Research Libraries, 84(1), 7-29. https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/25747



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Confident Supervisors: Creating Independent Researchers Copyright © 2023 by Lyndelle Gunton; Sal Kleine; and Stephanie Bradbury is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.