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Information Search Process (ISP)

In the 1980s and early 1990s many information models were developed. The Information Search Process (ISP) by Carol Kuhlthau is unique because it is based on research specifically designed in this area. Studies from various disciplines, but particularly writing were used to support her model.

Kuhlthau observed the reactions of students, examined strategies such as journaling, case studies, interviewing, and tracked student progress. These observations make her approach to information inquiry particularly rich. Beyond the basic model, her research stresses the attitudinal and emotional aspects of the inquiry process. For instance, she talks about the importance of providing students with a "invitation to research" that encourages students to visualize the possibilities. She also discussed the "dip in confidence" experienced by learners as a natural part of inquiry.

The Information Search Process Model

Carol Kuhlthau's library research process was published in her 1985 book Teaching the Library Research Process which was updated in 1994. The process includes seven stages. Within each stage is a task, thoughts, feelings, actions, and strategies. An updated version of this process was renamed the Information Search Process (ISP). The process includes the following stages:

Initiating a Research Assignment
Feelings: apprehension, uncertainty

Selecting a Topic
Feelings: confusion, sometimes anxiety, brief elation, anticipation

Exploring Information
Feelings: confusion, uncertainty, doubt, sometimes threat

Formulating a Focus
Feelings: optimism, confidence in ability to complete task

Collecting Information
Feelings: realization of extensive work to be done, confidence in ability to complete task, increased interest

Preparing to Present
Feelings: sense of relief, sometimes satisfaction, sometimes disappointment

Assessing the Process
Feelings: sense of accomplishment or sense of disappointment

Feelings, Thoughts, Actions and the Uncertainty Principle

One of the most interesting aspects of Kuhlthau's work is her emphasis on the attitudes and behaviors of students during the process. She states that "in an ideal situation, students begin to search for information because they want to know more about something that is interesting or troubling. In such cases, the motivation to seek information arises naturally out of the person's own experience."

She finds that although students often start a project with enthusiasm and initial success, they often become confused and uncertain as they progress. Whether working on a class research project or simply using the library, she speculates that a substantial number of people give up after their initial search for information. According to Kuhlthau, "this dip in confidence seems to be a natural stage in the ISP. This Uncertainty Principle is expanded by six corollaries: process, formulation, redundancy, mood, prediction, and interest.

View a chart showing the connection between the stages of the information search process and student feelings, thoughts, and actions.

Kuhlthau finds that students go through a number of different feelings as they proceed through the stages including uncertainty, optimism, confusion, frustration, doubt, clarity, sense of direction, confidence, relief, and satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Their thoughts go from ambiguity to specificity and their interest increases. Their actions move from seeking relevant information to seeking pertinent information.

Zone of Intervention

Uncertainty is related to unclear thoughts about a topic or question. Teachers need to be aware of this uncertainty and be prepared to help students deal with their frustrations. The zone of intervention is the time when a user needs help to move ahead. Librarians need to identify this "teachable moment" and be prepared with learning materials to provide assistance. No matter how much experience students have with the process, they still experience uncertainty when faced with a new problem or task.

According to Kuhlthau "Intervention based on an uncertainty principle encompasses the holistic experience of using information from the perspective of the individual student."

She identified five zones of intervention with levels of mediation including organizer, locator, identified, advisor, and counselor. The levels indicate a need for a particular type of scaffolding to facilitate student work.

Process intervention strategies include collaborating, continuing, conversing, charting, and composing.

Information Search Process in the Digital Age

Carol Kuhlthau's work transfers well into the digital age. By combining a constructivist approach to information age learning, she's expanded her thinking to include strategies for coaching students in the ISP in the following areas of collaborating, continuing, conversing, charting, and composing. According to Kuhlthau the constructive process of learning involves: acting and reflecting; feeling and formulated; predicting and choosing; interpreting and creating.

video clipView Four Basics Steps (1:49)

Carol Kuhlthau discusses the move from teaching traditional library skills to helping students develop information skills. She discusses four basic steps: (1) recall, (2) summarize, (3) paraphrase, and (4) extend.

Use of this video clip complies with the TEACH act and US copyright law. You should be a registered student to view the video.

eye means readRead Information Search Process by C.C. Kuhlthau from Rutgers University.

Read Students and the Information Search Process: Zones of Intervention for Librarians by Carol Collier Kuhlthau (Advances in Librarianship, Vol, 18, 1994).

Read Learning in Digital Libraries: An Information Search Process Approach by Carol Collier Kuhlthau (Library Trends, Spring 1997, Vol 45, Issue 4, p708, 17p.) (IUPUI password required)

lambLamb's Latitudes
Collaboration takes lots of work. Positive relationships start slowly and build over time. Partnerships require trust and caring. You can't wait around the media center hoping for teachers to come visit. You must go to them in their classrooms, lounges, and offices. Start with simple, motivating activities and projects. My first year as a media specialist I used a two-pronged approach. I looked for one friendly teacher at each grade level and began building a relationship. At the same time, I sought out teacher teams who already worked well together and asked if I could join them. Once these teachers saw the benefits of collaboration it was easy to get to the rest of the teachers on board. They even started coming to me.

Learn More

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier. Accommodating the User's Information Search Process: Challenges for Information Retrieval System Designers.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier (August 1987). Cognitive Development and Students' Research. School Library Journal, 33(11), 46. (From EBSCOhost, requires IUPUI login)

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier. The Concept of a Zone of Intervention for Identifying the Role of Intermediaries in the Information Search Process.

Kuhlthau, Carol, Maniotes, Leslie K., and Caspari, Ann K. (2007). Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. Westport, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited.

Shannon, D. (2002). Kuhlthau's Information Search Process. School Library Media Activities Monthly, Vol. 19, Issue 1, p. 19-23

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier (1988). Meeting the needs of children and young adults: Basing library media programs on developmental states. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 51-57.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier (1994). Impact of the Information Search Process model on library services. (Research Quarterly, Vol. 34, Issue 1, p. 21-26.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier (Fall 1989). Information Search Process: A Summary of Research and Implications for School Library Media Programs. SLMQ, 18(1).

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier (1997). Learning in digital libraries: an information search process approach. Library Trends, Vol. 45, Issue 4, p. 708-725.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier (1994). Students and the Information Search Process: Zones of Intervention for Librarians. Advanced in Librarianship, Vol. 18.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier (1985, 1994). Teaching the Library Research Process. West Nyack, NY: Center for Applied Research in Education, Scarecrow Press.

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