ASIS Midyear '98 Proceedings

Collaboration Across Boundaries:
Theories, Strategies, and Technology

Teaching collaborative skills in library and information science education (LISE)

John Agada
University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201



This paper describes a model for teaching collaborative skills in LISE. Collaborative and team approaches to work are advocated as strategies by which organizations could remain competitive amidst pervading change. Current developments in the information professions underscore the need for collaborative skills. However, very few guidelines exist for integrating collaborative skills in LISE.

The collaborative process is based on joint creation, sharing and transformation of information into a mix of knowledge and products. Preparation for collaborative work must therefore be anchored in interpersonal and social skills training. The experience of the author suggests that collaborative learning strategies can be integrated into LIS curricula with positive gains in students' academic and social skills.


This paper describes a model for teaching collaborative skills in LISE. Collaborative and team approaches to work are advocated as strategies by which organizations could remain competitive amidst pervading change. Collaborative work brings people with different skills and tasks to mesh their functions in pursuit of a common project, service or goal. (Hensey, 1992). By integrating specialized knowledge, diverse talents and perspectives, collaboration enhances product innovation and quality as well as individual and group productivity and job satisfaction. (Varney, 1989). Collaborative skills are therefore deemed one of the most desired competencies for the contemporary work force. (Drucker, 1992; Reich, 1991).

Developments in the information services have underscored the need for information professionals to posses collaborative skills. The emerging user centered service approach for instance, requires closer interaction with clients and involvement in their information use processes. Consequently, information professionals are expected to collaborate with their clients as team teachers and curriculum consultants in school library media programs, (Information Power, 1988), research facilitators in college (Grover & Hale, 1988), and information counselors in corporate library environments (Agada, 1997), respectively. Increasing overlap in information and computer services in these environments have also called for collaborative relationships between information and computer professionals. (Creth, 1993). How does LISE prepare students for collaborative work?

The collaborative process is based on joint creation, sharing and transformation of information into a mix of knowledge and products. (Smith, 1994). Preparation for collaborative work must therefore be anchored in interpersonal and social skills training. As in most programs, instructional strategies in LISE revolve mainly around the use of oral lectures to impart information and demonstrations and hands-on exercises such as online searching to impart technical skills. When group work is assigned, it is rarely designed for the purpose of nurturing social and interpersonal skills and attitudes (Levy & Usherwood, 1992). Few guidelines exist on how to integrate such skills and attitudes in LISE. (Cronin and Martin, 1983; Hall 1996). This article describes the use of collaborative learning strategies to impart skills in interpersonal communication, group dynamics and collective problem solving. Specifically, it discusses the use of the Group Investigation Method to teach collaborative research activities. It is believed that this approach could also serve as a model for integrating affective and behavioral (psychomotor) dimensions in the instructional objectives of LISE.

Teaching collaborative Skills in LISE

Interpersonal and social skills have been defined as the ability to communicate and interact with others in manners that fulfill mutual needs, or goals. (Philips, 1978). They have also been conceptualized as multidimensional constructs consisting of cognitive, affective and behavioral components (Lorr, Youniss, & Stefic, 1991), which correlate highly with assertiveness, empathy and cognitive flexibility (Staub, 1979) Interpersonal and social skills are increasingly construed in social psychology as abilities emanating from person-situation interactions, rather than innate personality traits. Consequently, they can be learned, unlearned and relearned (Argyle, 1978). Training models are based on knowledge of behavioral repertoires, cognitive constructs, task goals and environmental props and rules (Argyle, 1979). Instructional strategies should therefore consist of modeling, directed role playing, behavior rehearsal with coaching, behavioral assignment and cognitive restructuring. (McFall & Lillesand, 1977; Phillips, 1985).

These findings formed the basis of social skills training in some professional programs, including teaching, banking and social work, to mention a few. In the library profession however, there is a seeming resistance or indifference to social skills training, despite concern over the lack of appropriate social skills among its fold. (Agada, 1984). This reaction has been attributed to the erroneous belief that social skills cannot be taught, or a misconception of social skills training as psychotherapy (Cronin and Martin 1983). Instead, emphasis is being placed in library school prospectuses and job advertisements on attracting persons with strong interpersonal and social skills. However, based on classical occupational choice theories, library recruits may self select themselves for the profession due to their personal attributes which may not include these skills (Agada, 1987, 1994).

Although interpersonal and social skills are addressed in LIS curricula as aspects of management and reference courses, their treatment has been largely cursory and theoretical in approach. They have attracted more attention as a result of the trend in user orientation during the last two decades with the emergence of such new course units as Communication and Human Behavior, Psychology of Information Use, Group Dynamics, Diagnostics of Information Seeking Behavior and Organizational Behavior and Change, to mention a few. At the University of Pittsburgh, for example, such courses constitute an information counselor track; a specialization devoted to preparing professionals to adopt cognitive and behavioral approaches to information services provision.

To ensure skills transfer however, instruction in these courses ought to be laboratory intensive and involve hands-on exercises as advocated in the literature of social psychology. Cronin and Martin in 1983 and John Hall in 1996 suggested models for integrating social skills training in LISE. The rest of this article describes the author's experience of using collaborative learning strategies to impart interpersonal and social skills in LISE.

Collaborative Learning Strategies

Collaborative or cooperative learning strategies consist of social interactions between students based on equal partnership in the learning experience, as opposed to fixed teacher-learner roles. Lessons are designed around tasks, problems and projects which students work through in small mixed ability groups. Through cross modeling and role playing, students are encouraged to draw on their individual experiences and background knowledge to create a common product. The social context created by the collaborative approach allows students to shape ideas, modify them by listening to peers, question, express doubt, and jointly design and implement plans. (Sharan & Sharan, 1994). These strategies have been known to develop such interpersonal and social skills as shared decision making, conflict management, communication, self confidence, respect for others and collegiality. The social dividends include positive interdependence, heterogeneity, and shared visions and responsibilities, (Slavin, 1990). The authentic learning environment of collaborative strategies also enhances potentials for transfer to team based activities in professional practice. (Johnson and Johnson, 1994).

A collaborative learning project was designed to teach interpersonal and social skills as well as some fundamental topics in information use (e.g. human information processing). This experimental unit was integrated in Psychology of Information Use, a core course at Emporia State University library school, in Kansas, between 1993 and 1995. The course description indicated that students would: "review [of] basic concepts in the cognitive and communication sciences and examine how they apply to the planning of information services for a population with varying cognitive, learning and communication styles" (Agada, 1995, p. 1). The collaborative learning project was based on a course objective which required that students "understand [their own] unique style(s) of information processing and relate that understanding to the cognitive styles of others" (Agada, 1995, p. 1).

The project was designed to impart the attitudes and skills necessary for team work with peers and mediating clients' information seeking. Prior to the project, a course unit was devoted to lectures, readings and discussions of collaborative work and group dynamics. A checklist of roles and behaviors which facilitate or impede individual and group tasks was distributed and discussed. The need for clear and specific instructions is emphasized when collaborative learning strategies are used to impart social skills to children (Adams & Hamm, 1996). Since the students in this case were adults (many already had library jobs), the instructor adapted the discovery (Bruner, 1975) and experiential (Dewey, 1933) learning approaches which emphasized learning by doing. Thus, although clear objectives were set for the project, the guidelines for implementation were relatively open, allowing for initiative and reflection on the part of students. The instructor closely monitored the students' processes and intervened when necessary; the latter being kept to a minimum. The absence of teacher-directed learning encouraged the students to impose their own structures to facilitate individual, task and group roles and goal attainment. By applying the theoretical models learned from the previous course unit, monitoring, reflecting on, evaluating and adapting their behaviors, the students were engaged in situated learning environments, which have high transfer potentials (Johnson & Johnson, 1994).

Project Description

The project objectives, instructional and evaluation modes varied from semester to semester to accommodate class size, structure (weekends or week days), time constraints and the experiences and input of previous participants. Needless to say, features of the project were added, modified or deleted with each use. In all cases, however, the projects entailed at least ten hours of independent research and group discussions. The instructor observed the group processes for a few minutes at a time. Few attempts were made to direct the processes and often they were in response to students' queries. The projects terminated with debriefing sessions with the instructor. Participants kept a journal of their Expert Group interactions (explained below), noting and explaining their roles, tasks and outcomes. They also submitted reflective papers based on their perceptions and evaluations of the project. Each Expert group submitted a paper which synthesized the research undertaken by the group These sources as well as their course evaluations formed the bases for the project evaluation.

The interpersonal and social skills processes monitored included establishing group goals; playing leadership and other roles (e.g. gate-keeping, harmonizing, summarizing) as necessary; negotiating individual and group responsibilities; responding to cues initiated by others; diffusing conflict; bringing group processes to closure; reflecting on and interpreting self and other's behaviors. The cognitive/academic skills included defining a topic (e.g. the brain and mind); analyzing it into its component subtopics (e.g. mental models within the "brain and the mind" Expert Group topic); reviewing the literature on assigned subtopic; preparing a paragraph explaining the scope and content of the subtopic; giving two presentations, both packaged to ensure effective communication and diffusion; using strategies to check for group members' understanding of topic presented, evaluating presentation content and strategies.

Group Processes

The Group Investigation Method (Sharan & Sharan, 1994) was adapted to structure the group processes. This method required that students use interpersonal and study skills to attain specific learning goals. Students collaborated in carrying out their investigations and in planning how to integrate and present their findings. They also jointly evaluated their academic and social skills. The activities were organized in a ten - step sequence. Though arbitrary, the number of steps was found necessary to ensure systematic coverage of all the processes involved. The processes consisted of identifying tasks, managing interactions and evaluating outcomes in two concurrent groups. The groups were the expert and learning groups. The expert groups consisted of students who were to jointly research a topic. By the end of their task, they were "experts" on the topic and had to teach this topic to their respective learning group members. Among other things, the expert group processes taught the students how to define, negotiate and allocate tasks, how to empirically test and critique a research model as well as communicate technical subject matter to fellow "experts". The learning group processes on the hand taught the students how to interpret technical subject matter to suit the comprehension levels and learning styles of peers who had not researched the same topics. Thus, while the expert groups simulated aspects of team work with fellow professionals, the learning groups simulated some aspects of professional-client interactions.

Step One: Cognitive Styles of Learning Group Members:

Students were assigned to Learning Groups of four members. Each member chose a topic for investigation. The options were: the brain and the mind; human developmental stages; artificial intelligence and virtual reality; and human creativity and problem solving. Participants were to investigate the implications of these topics for understanding information needs and seeking behaviors. At this meeting the students got to know each other, and shared information on their preferred learning and communication strategies. These strategies reflect their cognitive and problem solving styles. Individuals who differ in their cognitive styles are said to approach similar information processing situations in different ways (Riding & Cheema, 1991; Mitroff & Mason, 1983).

Group members were administered the Learning Style Inventory (Kolb, 1984) to ascertain their learning styles. This inventory identifies four major learning styles: (i) concrete experience, i.e. oriented to feelings derived from specific experiences; (ii) reflective observation, i.e. oriented to watching, listening and seeking meaning through multiple perspectives; (iii) abstract conceptualization, i.e. oriented to logical analysis of ideas, systematic planning and intellectual understanding of problems; and (iv) active experimentation, i.e. oriented to learning by doing. The validity of the inventory was discussed, particularly in relation to members' reflections on their preferred learning modes and related experiences. Implications for presenting information to them later in the semester were also explored.

Step Two: Expert Group Topics:

Members of the Learning Groups were reconstituted into Expert Groups based on their research topics. Thus each Expert Group consisted of between 6 to 10 members investigating the same topic, e.g. artificial intelligence and virtual reality. At their first meeting, the members got acquainted with each other and shared information on their respective learning styles, interests in and experiences with the topic. They also shared ideas on strategies to locate relevant sources for their research.

Step Three: Expert Group Definition of Topic:

At this meeting the members exchanged information they located on the topic, defined its components and shared responsibilities for investigating the component units. If two or more students chose the same subtopic, some negotiation was necessary to resolve the conflict of interest. Sometimes a leader emerged at this point.

Step Four: Expert Group Allocation of Subtopics:

Each participant prepared a brief paragraph describing the scope of their subtopics and negotiated overlaps in their respective coverage. Often, their areas of responsibilities had to be redefined to ensure coherence and comprehensiveness of coverage. The order for presentations at the next meeting was also determined.

Step Five: Expert Group Presentations:

The members took turns to present their research in the order determined in Step Four. Their 20 minute presentations covered the key concepts, history, current developments and professional implications of the subtopic. The format was informal and interactive, with lots of question - and - answer exchanges. Bibliographies of about five useful sources on the respective subtopics were also shared. Since these groups were fairly large, the emphasis was not on repackaging information to match individual learning styles. However, the presentations were tailored as closely as possible to suit the backgrounds and interests of group members. For example, linkages were made in the presentations to subtopics investigated by other members. The presentations were also illustrated with relevant anecdotes, imageries, analogies as well as technology (e.g. multi-media presentations).

Step Six: Expert Group Research Processes:

At this meeting, the group discussions turned to metacognitive aspects of their research activities. They analyzed their research processes using one of several models. These models which had been studied in an earlier course unit included the Information Seeking Process (ISP) (Kulhthau, 1994) and Information Problem Solving (The Big Six) (Eisenberg & Berkowitz, 1990). These models delineate the processes involved in undertaking research or problem solving. Group members analyzed their cognitive, affective and overt behaviors at each stage of the process, interpreting similarities and differences between their respective experiences on the one hand, and between their experiences and the models on the other. They also sought to explain the influences of subject matter, level of expertise, aptitudes, cognitive styles, and other personality and situational factors on their search behaviors and outcomes. In addition, their discussions examined the nature of models and their usefulness to professionals in mediating information seeking.

Step Seven: Expert Group Dynamics:

The discussion at this meeting turned to the dynamics of the Expert Group sessions. Drawing on knowledge learned from the course unit preparatory to this project, participants (who had kept journals of their group interactions) analyzed and interpreted their interactions. The principles and procedures for task-oriented groups developed by Kurt Lewin and his colleagues in the Group Dynamics movement (Schmuck & Schmuck, 1992) and the works of Levy (1993); and Penland and Fine (1974) served as core resources. Various helpful roles played by individuals included negotiating, consensus building, gatekeeping, drawing others into discussions, listening, summarizing as well as leadership and team support. Participants also assessed the frequency, context and efficacy of such interactions. Actions which were disruptive (e.g. domineering, aggressive, passive) of the group process were identified and remedial and preventive measures suggested.

Step Eight: Expert Group Self Evaluations:

Group members defined the criteria by which they evaluated their learning and group interactions. Two kinds of evaluations are undertaken: self evaluations by each participant; and group evaluations of each member. Members who were being evaluated had to depart the room when they were being evaluated by their peers, so their presence would not influence the tenor of discussions. On their return, a group member explained the group's assessment of the member's scores reflecting their strengths and weaknesses but without revealing the contributions of individual members to the assessment process. The evaluations were focused on identifying helpful communication and social skills as demonstrated in the group processes. Participants were also advised on their research presentations. Without being confrontational, these evaluations suggested skills aspects that needed further attention. Such feedback was helpful in their subsequent preparations for the Learning Group presentations. These evaluations also formed the bases for discussions of appropriate criteria and modes of social skills evaluation as well as the differences between their self assessments and how they were assessed by their peers. In some cases, members were defensive. Such cases were referred to the instructor in the debriefing sessions.

Step Nine: Learning Group Presentations:

The Expert Group members were reconstituted into their initial four-member Learning Groups. Each "expert" presented a report based on a coherent synthesis of the researches conducted by their (Expert Group) peers. The presentations, which were each 20 minutes long were delivered in informal and interactive formats. Since the Expert Group presentations cumulated to over 100 minutes duration, the Learning Group presentations required considerable skill in editing and compressing information. This exercise called on the student's abilities to interpret, evaluate, and package information for presentation in a variety of formats to ensure comprehension by group members (Dervin, 1983). A variety of methods, including demonstrations, games and simulations, brainstorming and group discussions, were adapted to meet diverse comprehension levels and learning styles. Presenters also checked to ensure that they were understood by their audiences.

Step Ten: Debriefing Sessions:

The instructor met with the expert groups separately and with the whole class to review the processes. Questions on unresolved issues such as defensiveness of members, or ineffective roles, are discussed with the instructor. The instructor in turn posed questions such as:

What did you learn about yourself from the exercise?
What did you learn about social interactions from the exercise?
What did you wish you had done differently in the exercise?
How could the exercise be better structured to suit your needs and those of the group?
What impact would this experience have on your social interactions in other settings?

These questions facilitated reflection on and evaluation of the individual and group processes.


Authentic evaluations of a project of this nature would entail observations of students' behaviors and outcomes in subsequent group work. However, evaluation of the present project could only be based, in the mean time on students' subjective impressions as reflected in anecdotes in their reflective essays and course evaluations. The following assessment of the strengths and limitations of the project was therefore based on analysis of these sources.

Gains in Social Skills

The participants played a variety of task, group and individual oriented roles at different points in the life of their groups. Naturally, the more assertive and out-going members were more instrumental in facilitating the group process than the shy and reserved. However, many who categorized themselves among the latter admitted that the exercise forced them to interact more than they would have done in more traditional class formats. Such interactions lead in some cases to the formation of social networks with their peers outside of the class project.

One of the participants observed in her course evaluation that she: "...really enjoyed it [collaborative learning project] and feel I know others in the class better than I've found in other classes." Another projected the impact of the exercises beyond library school: "The Expert/Learning Group process was extremely thought provoking. I will probably carry many of the lesions I learnt during the process with me for many years."

Participants had to remain continuously engaged in the group activities at the cognitive, affective and behavioral levels. As a result, some of them became reflective of strengths or the lack thereof in their social skills repertoire. An excerpt from a student's reflective essay illustrates this point: "I was one of those who did some gatekeeping as I was very focused on the need to accomplish the task. This would fit with my style as a converger, a person who would rather deal with problems than interpersonal issues...but this is an area I need to continue to work on. One of the members of the group was extremely tense and nervous about her presentation. I did not notice this until I observed another person trying to ease her tension."

Gains in Cognitive Knowledge

The research and presentation exercises required students to be actively involved in and take responsibility for their learning. Such learning modes induced awareness of objectives and appropriate learning strategies. Many students observed that the processes of analyzing topics, investigating, and presenting information provided rehearsal opportunities and served to further encode and consolidate what was learned. As a result, they felt that their multiple presentations not only enhanced their study processes but also reduced their anxiety and consequently improved the quality of their presentations. The question and answer sessions also provided practice in developing questioning and listening skills. Similarly, the need to evaluate others' ideas and sometimes confront them with opposing points of view engendered such dispositions as empathic understanding, critical thinking and cognitive flexibility on the part of many participants. The instructor found that the groups who were most reflective of their processes also wrote the best research papers.

As a result of the use of models to analyze her research process, for example, a student offered this insightful critique: "While all of the models seem to move through a similar pattern for approaching research, they all seem to be based upon the premise that the best approach is founded on the library's bibliographic tradition. There seems to be a fundamental contradiction in applying these models to the concept of information seeking. We are using models which describe how we are taught to use existing systems. Perhaps we should be developing models which examine how people question and strive to develop systems...looking at how information might otherwise be made available to accommodate the many ways questions arise and the variety of learning styles of those who ask questions."

Limitations of the Project

Time constraints and the artificial nature of the "group cultures" limited the task - oriented group processes. The structure of the semester long class meetings, for example, meant that many aspects of the group dynamics concluded prematurely. Some groups neither attained maturity nor had the opportunity to redefine and restructure themselves for greater efficiency (Penland and Fine, 1974).

Other limitations of the project relate to the use of the Learning Style Inventory to assess preferred communication and learning styles. The students expressed concerns that resonate with the larger issues of the validity of personality and attitude inventories which tend to "pigeon-hole" people. Since the course had stressed, and students had observed cross person and cross situational differences in information behaviors during their group exercises, some students perceived a contradiction between principle and practice. However, it is noteworthy that this observation might not have been obvious to the students had the subject of learning styles been taught using the oral lecture method alone. This concern also offered the opportunity to discuss the role of models both in theory construction and professional practice. With the latter, it was emphasized that learning styles be perceived as frameworks for continuous diagnosis of clients' preferences. Models therefore ought to be used to guide reflective and therefore flexible, rather than rigid prescribed action plans (Schon, 1982).

The most persistent pedagogical issues however arose from the lack of specific guidelines for group transactions. The following comments in the course evaluations illustrate the frustration of those who had low tolerance for such ambiguity: "The expectations of what we should be doing in our expert and learning groups should be made clearer at the start of the course." Also: "There seemed at times that the structure of the class or flow was unorganized. While I think the aspect of flexibility is important, it just seemed like I didn't know what was going on." This is a common concern with discovery learning. However, the frustrations expressed here were motivated in part, by grade anxiety, although students had been assured that group grades were not based on individual's "right" or "wrong" behaviors. Their concerns were also a reflection of anxiety over the shift from the more structured, teacher - directed learning approach to a student - centered approach.

Discussion and Conclusion

The challenges posed the information professions today call for getting the best combinations of people for the job by collaborating across unit, institutional and professional boundaries. Mediating information seeking for instance, is increasingly being conceptualized as collaborating with clients to solve their problems. Increased specialization and diversity in the workforce today create difficulties of collaboration across cultures, work patterns, experiences, priorities, and perceptions. The more diverse the backgrounds of collaborators, the greater the need for the skills of empathic understanding of other's views, negotiation, compromise and conflict resolution. These skills require more than cognitive learning. They draw on the affective and psychomotor domains and are therefore best imparted through rehearsals and practice. Unlike traditional pedagogy which is based largely on oral lectures, collaborative learning strategies create active learners of participants. When used with discovery and experiential learning, participants take initiative to structure their group interactions and task behaviors. Such activity oriented learning addresses the three domains of learning: cognitive, affective and psychomotor; thereby reflecting situated or authentic learning environments which are reputed to have high retention and transfer values.

As described in this article, modeling, role playing, behavioral assignment and rehearsals could be structured around relevant instructional objectives to impart appropriate collaborative skills in LISE students. These strategies could be used for project design and problem solving in reference, management and other courses in the LIS curriculum. They could also be used to anticipate the work experience of information professionals by creating collaborative work teams between LIS students and their peers in computer, MIS and business schools for examples. Implementing these models of instruction however, requires an educational environment that encourages innovation, risk taking and experimentation. Although some movements in educational reform espouse this orientation, the grade fixation of current educational practices and the quest for certainties (in predetermined standards and forms of performance) make collaborative learning models a risky option for individual instructors. This is especially true where other units on campus do not subscribe to the same instructional philosophy and assessment of instructors is influenced to a large degree by students' course evaluations.

The natures of reality and the future painted by the gurus of modern management (e.g. Drucker 1992) and the new science (e.g. Gleick 1987) indicate that professional programs and the information professionals in particular need to critically review their curricula content and pedagogy to integrate collaborative work skills. As the experience of the author suggests collaborative strategies can be designed to prepare students for team work with peers and mediating clients' information seeking. The strategies described in this article enable students immerse themselves in situations which are almost as realistic as they could find in work settings. Here, unlike the work setting, their peers and the classroom environment provide safe and non-threatening environments for rehearsal.


The author wishes to thank all the students who participated in the projects in the School of Library and Information Management, Emporia State University in Emporia, U.S.A., and at the program's distance sites in Alburqueque, New Mexico; and Portland, Oregon; and whose papers were cited in this work.


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Paper presented at the 1998 midyear meeting of the Association for Information Science, May 17-20, 1998, Orlando, Florida.

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