[Library and Information Science] Developing People’s Information Capabilities Volume 8 || Information Literacy in Higher Education: Research Students’ Development in Information Search Expertise

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  • Chapter 5

    Information Literacy in Higher Education:Research Students Development inInformation Search Expertise

    Samuel Kai-Wah Chu, Sandhya Rajagopal andCelina Wing-Yi LeeAbstract

    A comparative analysis of the results of two longitudinal studiesconducted a decade apart, among research post-graduate students,with the purpose of understanding the progress in their informationliteracy (IL) skills, forms the content of this report. The analysis isbased on the application of the Research and Information SearchExpertise (RISE) model, which traces students progression acrossfour stages of expertise. Such progression was measured across twodimensions of knowledge: that of information sources/databasesand that of information search skills. Both studies adopted basicinterpretive qualitative methods involving direct observation, inter-views, think-aloud protocols, and survey questionnaires, during each ofthe five interventions, which were spread over a one to one-and-halfyear period. Scaffolding training was provided at each meeting anddata were collected to assess the influence of such training ondevelopment of search expertise. A comparison of the findings revealsthat students in both studies advance in their IL skills largely ina similar manner. Scaffolding support was found to help bothDeveloping Peoples Information Capabilities: Fostering Information Literacy in Educational,

    Workplace and Community Contexts

    Library and Information Science, Volume 8, 6779

    Copyright r 2013 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited

    All rights of reproduction in any form reserved

    ISSN: 1876-0562/doi:10.1108/S1876-0562(2013)0000008009

  • 68 Samuel Kai-Wah Chu et al.dimensions of knowledge and that lack of one or the other type ofknowledge could hinder their ability to find relevant sources for theirresearch. The studies make evident the need for training programsfor higher education students, to improve both their knowledge ofinformation sources and their search techniques, tailor-made to closelycorrelate to their specific information needs. The studies provideinsights into student behaviors in the development of IL skills, andthe RISE model offers a framework for application to other similarresearch.

    Keywords: Information search skills; information literacy;novice-expert comparison; developmental studies; componentialmodel of development; library training5.1. Introduction

    The purpose of this chapter is to report the findings of two longitudinalstudies, performed a decade apart, which analyzed the development ofinformation literacy (IL) skills among post-graduate students, specifically tounderstand how they advance in (1) their knowledge of sources/databasesand (2) their knowledge of information search skills. Information literacy inthis context is defined as the ability to find, evaluate and use informationin order to complete a task (Parkes & Walton, 2010, p. 34). The Researchand Information Search Expertise (RISE) model, which relates developmentin research skills and corresponding development in information searchskills, was designed during the course of the first study and subsequentlyapplied to the second. Comparing the findings in the two studies helps inunderstanding the changes in approach to search expertise development,which in turn can be used to devise a mechanism for students to enhancetheir IL.

    With exponential growth in availability of information, it has becomeincreasingly important for information seekers in research-oriented highereducation programs, which demand rigorous investigations and originalacademic contributions, to be able to effectively identify and accesspertinent material from a wide range of knowledge repositories. However,studies reveal that they are unable to perform effective information searches(Chu & Law, 2008; Fleming-May & Yuro, 2009; Green & Macauley, 2007).This makes post-graduate students ideal subjects in research that exploresinformation search behavior.

    The key subjects of the investigations in both studies were a mix ofpost-graduate research students from the faculty of education and the

  • Information Literacy in Higher Education 69department of engineering, and on both occasions, their information searchcapabilities were observed over a one to one-and-half year period with theobjective of identifying critical changes that would indicate qualitativeprogress in their search expertise.5.2. Literature Review

    According to Shen (2007) two of the main difficulties online informationseekers face are compiling and focusing widely scattered information on aspecific research need and in identifying and retrieving the most relevantinformation sources. Expert search skills are required to overcome suchdifficulties. Larkin, McDermott, Simon, and Simon (1980) considerexpertise research as one possible method of helping novices becomingexperts. They said, Our growing understanding of an experts knowledgeand the kinds of processes an expert uses when solving problems enables usto begin to explore the learning processes needed to acquire suitableknowledge and problem-solving processes (p. 1342).

    General expertise studies can be classified into two categories: (i) novice-expert comparison and (ii) developmental studies. Brand-Gruwel, Wopereis,and Vermetten (2005) identified specific traits in information experts, such astheir attention to information problem-solving and assessing the quality ofinformation, which distinguished them from novices in the search process.The exclusive manner in which expert searchers derive their search terms,for example, by better use of synonyms was revealed by Hsieh-Yee (1993).Literature is replete with studies comparing expertise of novices and experts(Chiu, Chu, Ting, & Yau, 2011; Holscher & Strube, 2000; Sihvonen &Vakkari, 2004; Tabatabai & Shore, 2005).

    While comparative studies differentiate the expert from the novice, itreveals little about the process of transformation of a novice to an expert. Tounderstand this transformation, a developmental approach to the study ofexpertise is indispensable (Campbell & Di Bello, 1996). Dreyfus and Dreyfus(1980), in a developmental analysis of chess players, airline pilots, etc.,identified five stages to describe behavioral changes as novices becameexperts. In their 1986 book, they named these as novice, advanced beginner,competent, proficient and expert. Their model, however, is unable to explainwhy the changes occur and expected similar development paths acrossexpertise areas. Campbell and others propose instead that developmentalsequences are domain specific (Campbell & Bickhard, 1992; Campbell,Brown, & DiBello, 1992; Campbell & DiBello, 1996). In their study, theydistinguished seven levels of development in learning and concluded thata longitudinal, developmental study has practical application for skill

  • 70 Samuel Kai-Wah Chu et al.development. These and other developmental studies (Halttunen, 2003;Halttunen & Jarvelin, 2005; Vakkari, Pennanen, & Serola, 2003; Yuan,1997) show that there is progress of knowledge in learners, in all domains,which enables them to advance through ascending levels of expertise.5.3. Methodology

    The two longitudinal studies were conducted, at The University of HongKong (HKU), in the years 2000 and 2010, consisting of 12 and 8 researchpost-graduate students, respectively. Data in both studies were collectedthrough periodic survey questionnaires, notes during direct observations,recordings of think-aloud protocols, and transcriptions of participantinterviews. Both studies ran over a period of 1218 months and consisted offive interventions or meetings with a follow-up interview after the fifthmeeting. During the interviews, students were encouraged to identifychanges in their search methods and discuss factors that had led toimprovements. This approach can hence be regarded as a basic interpretivequalitative study, described by Merriam (2002) as a type of study in whichyou seek to discover and understand phenomenon, a process, theperspectives, and worldviews of the people involved or a combination ofthese. Data are collected through interviews, observations, or documentanalysis. These data are inductively analyzed to identify the recurringpatterns or common themes that cut across the data (pp. 6, 7).

    In each study, during five research meetings that were designed similarly,the students searched the search engines/databases twice on their own,followed by a 1520 minute training session with an expert searcher. Thismodel of intermittent training is closely modeled on Vygotskys (1978) ideaof scaffolding in the zone of proximal development, which is thedifference between what students can do with assistance and what they canaccomplish on their own. Scaffolding refers to the assistance offered tostudents that enables them to successfully complete a task (Halttunen &Jarvelin, 2005).

    During the first study, data gathered from the surveys, taped data fromthink-aloud sessions transcribed into English, written data from directobservations, and interview data were coded into Excel sheets according to acoding guide designed especially for the study. Assessments of advancementin search expertise were made using a grounded theory approach to deducethe various stages of information expertise from collected data. Groundedtheory is defined by Creswell (2009) as a strategy of inquiry in which theresearcher derives a general, abstract theory of a process, action orinteraction grounded in the views of the participants (p. 13). This allowed

  • Information Literacy in Higher Education 71the identification of students at specific stages in the model, commensuratewith their development in IL.5.4. Findings and Discussion

    5.4.1. Research Goals

    The primary goals of both longitudinal studies discussed in this chapterwere to understand the changes in information needs of students due to(i) development in knowledge of sources/databases and (ii) the developmentof information search skills. Findings in both the studies indicate that theparticipants were initially novices in both areas of investigation, but theirsearch skills progressed along with improved subject knowledge during theone-year course of the study. Stages in information needs Students in the initial stage of theirresearch sought general information sources on a subject area but were morespecific in their search on gaining a better understanding of their researchtopic. As education student BW in the fourth meeting of the first study said:

    There are two steps in my information search. First, I wanted all kinds of

    materials on scientific literacy because I did not know what to focus on for my

    research. Now, I am at my second step. I know what I will research and so

    I only want very specific information sources. (Chu & Law, 2007a, p. 33)

    Student CA in the second study, at the first meeting, posed his under-standing of the search process as a question: So the search process is that Istart with broad topic and then keep narrowing down my search, is thatright?

    Students also advanced further by searching for more recent materialon their research topic. At the interview after the fifth meeting, student CDin the first study regarded appreciating the significance of understandingand finding the latest information sources on her research area, as thebiggest change in her information search during the entire research period(Chu, 2005). A componential model of development in information searchexpertise During the first study, a componential model for RISE wasconstructed (see Figure 5.1). Changes in students information needs from generic to specific to current is represented within the triangle in thecenter of the figure. Simultaneously, their development through the four

  • Stages of information search expertiseResearch stage: changes of information

    needs due to the growth in studentssubject knowledge

    Expertise on sources/databases:knowledge of and ability to distinguish

    among sources/databases

    Expertise on search skills: ability toconstruct appropriate search statements


    In theResearch


    Specific informationon a topic

    General informationon a subject area

    Proficient:- Students are becoming efficient and effective in finding what they need

    - Familiar with a full range of keyword search operators and search features

    - Familiar with the important operators for keyword search (mainly the Boolean operators AND and OR and the truncation operator)

    - Used mainly one type of source/database (mostly library catalogs or web search engines)

    - Start to use basic search operators to form search statements for keyword search (mainly the Boolean operators AND and OR)

    - Dont understand how keyword and subject search operate though they are familiar with these methods


    - Students have become self- sufficient and are confident in information search

    - Get productive search outcomes on a consistent basis

    - Familiar with peripheral sources/databases

    - Familiar with many databases in the core type

    - Familiar with the core types of sources/databases in the area of their research

    Advanced Beginner:

    - Stage of understanding (begin to understand the different kinds of databases and searching skills)

    - Get productive search results occasionally

    - Start to understand that there are different databases available for different purposes

    - Use two or more types of databases

    - Stage of confusion (confused about sources/databases and search skills)

    - Mostly unproductive outcomes


    Figure 5.1: Students growth and development in research expertise and in information expertise (Chu & Law, 2008,p. 170).






  • Information Literacy in Higher Education 73stages in searching expertise Novice to Advanced Beginner to Competentto Proficient is represented in the column on the left of the triangle.5.4.2. First Stage: Novice Level of Information Search Expertise

    At the start of both studies, students were either overwhelmed by thenumber of databases or failed to realize there were so many. Many werefrustrated at their inability to identify and use search features and symbolsspecific to each database. These observations can be equated to Kuhlthaus(2004) stage of confusion, in her information search process model, usedto describe a students initial stage in the information search process. Forexample, in the first study, student YH at the second meeting remarked:

    When I first used the library system, it was very confusing to me. There were so

    many sources and databases available. Many seemed to be irrelevant to me.

    I didnt know what contained what. (Chu & Law, 2008, p. 169)

    Similar behaviors were noted in the second study. Student WM said duringthe first meeting:

    Just frustrated that every time I searched, I cannot even get one or two

    [results] y different databases have different kinds of tips, every time you gointo the database you have to look into the tips to see if you [need to] use



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