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ACRL Framework for Information Literacy Toolkit

This module will provide an understanding of the theoretical and pedagogical foundations of the Framework and how it reflects new directions in teaching and learning that can make librarians stronger teaching partners.

Essential Questions

  • How can an understanding of the theoretical and pedagogical foundations of the Framework contribute to improving teaching and learning?

  • What makes the Framework new and different as an approach to teaching and learning?

  • How does the Framework link information literacy practice to the larger trends in teaching and learning?

Learning Outcomes 

By engaging with this module and its content, you will:

  1. Identify relevant dimensions of threshold concepts, Understanding by Design, and metaliteracy in order to understand how they help shape the Framework as theoretical and pedagogical foundations.

  2. Outline the ways in which the Framework offers a new approach to information literacy practice in order to make changes in your teaching and learning at the individual and institutional level.

  3. Formulate essential questions that represent the conceptual understandings of the Frames as the first step in identifying student learning outcomes.

  4. Become familiar with new directions in teaching and learning that align with the Framework in order to engage with faculty to improve student learning in the disciplines.

Guided Reading Activity #1

Read the Introduction to the Framework with these questions in mind:

  • Why was the Framework created?

  • What are the key theoretical and pedagogical foundations that inform its content?

  • What new possibilities are presented by the expanded definition of information literacy that is offered here?

  • What are some of the ways the Framework can be used?

Guided Reading Activity #2

Look over the key dimensions outlined below for the three main theoretical and pedagogical foundations of the Framework (threshold concepts, Understanding by Design, and metaliteracy) and then delve into some of the Key Readings in this module to expand your perspective. There are also brief definitions under the Key Concepts in this module.

As your understanding of the richness of this foundation grows, consider the following questions: Do these foundations reflect the way you teach now? How can each of these foundations help you to change your classroom teaching? What elements can you use (or do you already use)?

1. Threshold concept theory and practice

Threshold concept research and practice has continued to grow since the approach was introduced by Meyer and Land in 2003. It is enlightening to step outside library literature to learn more about how threshold concepts have been explored, integrated, and expanded in multiple disciplines and across disciplines. Look for similarities with the approaches to teaching and learning in Understanding by Design and metaliteracy.

Key dimensions:

  • Characteristics (as proposed by Meyer and Land)
    • Transformative
    • Integrative
    • Irreversible
    • Troublesome
    • Bounded
  • Explores why students get stuck at certain places and how we can use this to redesign teaching and improve learning
  • Emphasizes the dialogue between teaching partners and with students (Glynis Cousin’s ‘transactional curriculum inquiry’)
  • Moves students through the liminal space along the path from novice to experts

Consider this snippet from Land, Cousin, Meyer, and Davies (2006): “The significance of the framework provided by threshold concepts lies, we feel, in its explanatory potential to locate troublesome aspects of disciplinary knowledge within transitions across conceptual thresholds and hence to assist teachers in identifying appropriate ways of modifying or redesigning curricula to enable their students to negotiate such transitions more successfully.” (pp. 204-205)

Sample the following Key Readings for more in-depth insight into threshold concept theory and practice: Cousin, G. (2006); Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003); Land, R., Cousin, G., Meyer, Jan H. F., & Davies, P. (2006).

2. Understanding by Design (UbD)

Key dimensions:

  • Enduring understandings or big ideas
  • Essential questions
  • Backward Design

Consider these snippets from Wiggins and McTighe (2005) which prompt us to think about how to apply this to using the Framework for our instruction:

“We suggest that different kinds of understandings exist, that knowledge and skills do not automatically lead to understanding, that misunderstanding is a bigger problem than we realize, and that assessment of understanding therefore requires evidence that cannot be gained from traditional testing alone." Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 5)

"Our designs, not just our teaching style, must ensure that students see learning as anchored in questions and requiring cycles of questions-answers-questions. The key to understanding by design is to cause rethinking through appropriate inquiry and performance." (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 32)

Teaching from questions: "If knowledge is made up of answers, then what were the questions that gave rise to textbook or teacher answers and current subject-matter knowledge answers?" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 33)

"Practically speaking, we must turn content standards and outcome statements into question form and then design assignments and assessments that evoke possible answers." (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 27).

Sample the following Key Readings for more in-depth insight into Understanding by Design: McTighe & Wiggins (2013); Oakleaf (2014); Wiggins & McTighe (2005).

3. Metaliteracy

Key dimensions:

  • Reflective learning and reflective teaching
  • Learning as behavioral, cognitive, affective, and metacognitive
  • Students as creators of knowledge, not just consumers
  • The importance of engaging students

This description of metaliteracy from Jacobson and Mackey’s website ( illustrates the learning domains of metaliteracy:

Metaliteracy learning falls into four domains: behavioral (what students should be able to do upon successful completion of learning activities—skills, competencies), cognitive (what students should know upon successful completion of learning activities—comprehension, organization, application, evaluation), affective (changes in learners’ emotions or attitudes through engagement with learning activities), and metacognitive (what learners think about their own thinking—a reflective understanding of how and why they learn, what they do and do not know, their preconceptions, and how to continue to learn).

Sample the following Key Readings for more in-depth insight into metaliteracy: Mackey & Jacobson (2014); Jacobson & Mackey (2016).

Guided Reading Activity #3

The Framework is aligned with the larger world of teaching and learning through its theoretical and pedagogical foundations and the intent to engage in wider conversations with faculty and other educational partners who are also grappling with how to transform teaching to deepen learning within and across disciplines. Explore the handouts on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), Signature Pedagogies, and Decoding the Disciplines as relevant and revealing approaches to how we teach and what student learn. Consider these questions:

  • How does the Framework fit into SoTL?
  • What does SoTL mean for librarians? How can it help them grow as educators?
  • What are our traditional ways of teaching? Can we articulate a signature pedagogy for information literacy?
  • How can we work with faculty to shape a signature pedagogy for information literacy within the disciplines?
  • How could you apply the Decoding the Disciplines process to your instruction, in collaboration with faculty partners?

1. You are planning a professional development session for your librarians on how the Framework can facilitate your conversations and collaborations with academic faculty. How could they use or adapt this 'elevator speech' handout as a springboard for a conversation with a faculty colleague or for a presentation with a department?

2. You want to collaborate with a faculty colleague to use the Framework to develop student learning outcomes for a required course in their discipline.

  • How can you use the Framework to generate a conversation about mutual goals for student learning? What are the enduring understandings or big ideas for the course? Through this dialogue, can you create a shared understanding through the lens of both the discipline and information literacy?
  • During the semester, can you work with your faculty colleague to identify the places where students are getting stuck? How can this be used to improve and redesign your teaching?  

3. The Center for Teaching and Learning on your campus is sponsoring a workshop on SoTL. How can the Library contribute? What can the Library gain?

1. Thinking about the major Framework foundations of threshold concepts, Understanding by Design, and metaliteracy, create a chart (either individually or in pairs, if working in a group) that lists at least two ways each of them helps you to change how you teach and what students will learn. Do you see common elements?

2. How does the Framework’s expanded definition of information literacy compare to the definition in the Information Literacy Competency Standards? Both are provided in the accompanying handout. Examine the two definitions side-by-side and write about the similarities and the differences. How are the theoretical and pedagogical foundations of the Framework reflected in that definition? What does that mean for your own definition and practice of information literacy?

3. What is new and compelling about the Framework? Working on your own, or with a partner or in a small group, choose one of the ‘new and compelling’ elements of the Framework in the accompanying handout and explain how this represents a new approach.

4. How do we move from the Framework’s conceptual understandings to learning outcomes? Wiggins and McTigue tell us that “practically speaking, we must turn content standards and outcome statements into question form and then design assignments and assessments that evoke possible answers.” (Understanding by Design, 2005, p. 27). 

Look at the handout comparing standards and essential questions. Then look at the handout on developing big or essential questions related to the concepts of the frames. How does this shift our perspective on learning? In what ways do essential questions engage students in their own learning?

Now practice generating essential questions. You can review the Characteristics of Essential Questions Handout to see how Wiggins and McTighe describe what makes a good essential question. Choose a frame and turn the concept of the frame into question form. Create at least one essential question for that frame (more if you are inspired!). If doing in pairs or groups, use the same frame and compare the essential questions.

You can use the Backward Design Worksheet to practice creating essential questions in the context of a discipline. This is the first part of Step 1: Identify desired results. Choose a course for which you offer instruction and then select a frame that relates to the big ideas or enduring understandings of the course. (Hopefully, you will be doing this in collaboration with the discipline faculty). Then determine what essential question related to that frame will be the focus of your instruction.

The essential question will lead you to what the student will need to learn so that you can then create the learning outcome. You can see this in the Frame/Big Question/Learning Outcome Handout. These are the two parts of Step 1 of the backward design process. You can use the Backward Design Worksheet to move through the steps of the process. Module 4 of this Toolkit provides more practice with moving to the learning outcomes. 

Backward design

Backward design, which is at the heart of Wiggins and McTighe's Understanding by Design, is a planning sequence for designing a lesson or course that has us begin with the end (the desired results) in mind and design toward that end. We start with what we want the students to learn--the enduring understandings or big ideas--rather than first outlining what we will do in the classroom. There are three stages: 1. Identify desired results; 2. Determine acceptable evidence to demonstrate results (assessment); and finally, 3. Plan learning experiences and instructional strategies.

Big ideas

Big ideas are the enduring understandings of a course and a discipline that we want students to dig into and take with them in the near and long term, after facts and details have faded. A big idea has also been described as a linchpin idea, one that is essential for deeper understanding and transfer of learning.

Decoding the Disciplines

Decoding the Disciplines is a process for improving student learning by charting the path between expert and novice through identifying bottlenecks in student learning and making explicit the knowledge of experts in the disciplines, in order to model these ways of thinking and doing for students, and to expand this knowledge across time and across disciplines.

Essential questions

Essential questions play a big role in Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design. Essential questions point to big ideas that we want learners to come to understand and can be used to frame our key learning goals. They stimulate student thinking and inquiry that leads to an exploration and engagement with the important ideas or understandings that help students connect knowledge and transfer learning. 


​Metaliteracy is an expanded way of understanding information literacy that includes learners as producers, creators, curators, and sharers of information; acknowledges and incorporate the changes brought on by emerging technologies and collaborative online spaces; and, centers metacognition, or thinking about one's own thinking, in the successful development of information literacy knowledge, skills, and dispositions. 

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) is an intentional, ongoing, and systematic inquiry into how students learn and understand complex ideas about a discipline which uses evidence and analysis of student learning to improve teaching and learning and to share this scholarship for discussion and use by other members of the professional community.


Signature pedagogy


A signature pedagogy is an approach to teaching disciplinary habits of mind through a deep and reflective examination of what this really means. In developing a signature pedagogy, faculty in a discipline describe the distinctive ways of thinking and knowing in their discipline, identify the traditional ways of teaching in that discipline, look at evidence of what students are actually learning, and from that, articulate a signature pedagogy that truly teaches students to know and do in that discipline, as well as to develop a metadisciplinary perspective that allows them to value different ways of knowing and doing, see connections, and transfer learning across boundaries.

Stuck places

Stuck places are stumbling blocks to student understanding which vary from student to student. A key element of threshold concept research and practice is to explore why and how students get stuck when encountering threshold concepts and how we can use this to help them move through difficult or troublesome conceptual and affective transitions.

Threshold concepts

Threshold concepts, as introduced by Meyer and Land in 2003, are those ideas in any discipline that are essential portals to ways of knowing and doing in that discipline, without which the learner cannot progress, but which present difficulties and anxiety for the learner.  Passing through the 'portal' reveals a previously hidden and now interconnected view of the subject landscape which represents a transformed way of understanding.

Understanding by Design (UbD)

Understanding by Design (UbD), developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, is a conceptual framework, design process and template which shows educators how to design a curriculum that emphasizes understanding and uncoverage of ‘big ideas’, builds lessons around essential questions, and engages students through active learning and authentic assessment to determine whether they have truly understood and can apply knowledge in a meaningful way.

Cousin, G. (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet,17. Retrieved from

Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education: Introduction. (2015, 2016). Retrieved from

Jacobson, T.E., and T.P. Mackey. (2015). Metaliteracy in Practice. Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman.

Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F., & Flanagan, M.T. (Eds.) (2016). Threshold Concepts in Practice. Educational Futures: Rethinking Theory and Practice, vol. 68. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Land, R., Cousin, G., Meyer, Jan H.F., & Davies, P. (2006). Implications of Threshold Concepts for Course Design and Evaluation. In J.H.F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.), Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (195-206). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mackey, T. P., & Jacobson, T. E. (2014). Metaliteracy: Reinventing information literacy to empower learners. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines. (ETL Project, Occasional Report 4). Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh.

Oakleaf, M. (2014). A roadmap for assessing student learning using the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 40(5): 510-514. Preprint available at

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.