Determining the extent of one’s information need can be the most difficult aspect of research for college students. Despite the welcoming atmosphere many academic libraries strive to provide, despite the resource guides and even the more than adequate signage, undergraduates students (especially first-years) have tremendous difficulty knowing where to begin their research. Combine this with a certain level of “library anxiety” (Barrett, 2005; Keefer, 1993; Mellon, 1986) and you have one very aimless, sometimes haphazard user-in-need. One of our responsibilities as academic librarians is to help mitigate this anxiety by teaching students how conduct scholarly research at a level appropriate to their needs; and so understanding these needs is oftentimes the first obstacle we must overcome.

How do students initially define their information need?

Knowing where to start in an information search process depends heavily on how aware the user is of his/her need. In some cases, the knowledge gap may only manifest itself as a vague impulse to learn more about a particular topic and, depending on factors such as time, energy, and available resources, may adversely affect the search process, as Bodoff’s (2006) study of search relevance and browsing vs. focused searching behavior illustrates. Yet, in their encounters with academic librarians, most students are quite aware that they need information, the details of such defined by course assignments; the extant and nature of that information however may be a bit fuzzy. This is especially true for undergraduates who are less likely than graduate students or faculty to be familiar with the topic of their research. As one study of the undergraduate research process discovers (Leckie, 1996), undergraduates typically only have lectures and assigned course readings available to give them any immediate sense of context and they will cling to these resources relentlessly, coming back to them again and again, even if they are not the best resources for the assignment at hand.

Some students may begin with general subject resources in order to get  an idea of what’s “hot” in the current field, using available resources such as Wikipedia and popular search engines (if course textbooks and lectures do not provide enough information). Graduate students, at least those in the humanities, will often consult project advisers or instructors to “feel out” what research directions may be appropriate for a particular assignment (Barret, 2005). A more common practice, however, is citation following: students start with a few general resources and follow the citation trail until they have a better idea of current discussions surrounding a subject and the major names in the field. In lieu of not having direct access to the “invisible college”, the networks of scholarly communication, this isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, but it can be problematic for assignments that are not clearly defined or ask the student to speak generally about a subject.

Why do students struggle to define the topic?

Many undergraduates have a great deal of difficulty narrowing a research topic to a level appropriate for their assignments. Fister’s (1992) study of undergraduates provides a useful characterization of the research process. On the one hand (and as I just noted), students are unfamiliar with the subject landscape. Students often browse widely in a particular field, choose a topic and then come back to some of the same material they located before, having discarded the items that do not fit the new perspective. Many students will approach their instructor with a broad topic and rely on him/her to recommend topical issues. On the other hand, undergraduates are often unsure of which type of information sources are the best and, as Leckie (1996) points out, will resort back to sources with which they are already familiar. With both hands tied behind their backs, students have to resort to acrobatics to accomplish their research goals.

Knowing when to stop

Knowing then to stop searching is also problematic for undergraduates. Prabha, Connaway, Olszewski & Jenkins (2007) examine the practice of “satisficing” information needs in the context of undergraduate and graduate research. Satisficing, in short, is the act of “settling” for the information we have when the cost of searching for more information exceeds the value of obtaining more information. In other words, the information already obtained is enough to cover the information need. Prabha et al surveyed current research on satisficing and determined that there were common quantitative and qualitative criteria among students that determined when the research process stopped. Quantitative reasons for stopping include: reaching the required number of citations, reaching the required number of pages, answering all the research questions, and running out of prep time. Qualitative reasons for stopping include: locating accurate information, locating the same information in several sources, gathering sufficient information, and understanding the concept. Prabha et al go on to state that most students stay within the minimum research requirements of the assignment.


The most important observation to take away from all the research on undergraduate information seeking methods is this: students rarely predetermine an end point to their research. As educators and librarians, this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, part of the academic experience is learning how to navigate the scholarly information landscape, something which many first-years have never been required to do before. But knowing this should influence our approach to instruction in two ways:

1) We need to work past the “compromised need”. Even when students come to the library seeking help with a specific question ready, there is a good chance that there is more going on behind the immediate information need. There is a long and rich history of research on how to navigate the field of an individual’s extended information need, from the immediate question all the way back to the sometimes unconsciously determined knowledge gap (see Taylor, 1968; Dervin, 1992; Kuhlthau, 1994; Dewdney & Michell, 1997), and it is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that we should focus our efforts on working toward that essential information need, filling in the gaps and potholes along the way, but always focusing on what Taylor calls the “visceral” information need.

2) We need to work more on helping students, especially undergraduates, to narrow their topic, rather than to narrow search results. As database search engines continue to become more user-friendly, intuitive, and better at ranking results by relevance, the need for highly technical search skills decreases. What does not change, however, is the need for a user to search with narrowly defined search terms (or combination thereof). We could do much more for our users by working with them to narrow their topics and, in effect, shorten the amount of time they spend searching for relevant data.

Navigating the landscape of scholarly research in no easy task for someone unfamiliar with the terrain. As reference and instruction librarians, we are there to help and acclimate new arrivals (and long-time residents!) to the surprisingly complex methodologies that come second-nature to faculty and advanced graduate students. To some extent, it is our purpose of being. Taylor (1968), speaking about one particular reference transaction, notes that a student approached hesitantly and begged forgiveness for interrupting but needed some help finding a particular resources. In reply, the librarian said “If you didn’t interrupt me, I’d be out of a job.”


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