[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

    bracket, double quote, or what sort of subject term, or title search, or keywords.

    In both studies, students familiarity with types of search were limited toprimarily keyword and subject searches. In the first study many of themmade mistakes even with these two basic search methods. For example,instead of using controlled vocabulary exclusive to the library catalog,students used phrases they considered to be indicative of subject headingswhen they performed subject searches, implying a lack of knowledge of thepurpose of controlled vocabulary (Chu & Law, 2008).5.4.3. Second Stage: Advanced Beginner Level of Information SearchExpertise

    At this stage, which can be termed the stage of understanding (Kuhlthau,2004), students began to gain more knowledge of available sources/databases and acquired better search skills. In the first study, student CDat the third meeting said:

    I have learned how to use Dialog@Carl and ERIC to find journal articles, and

    the Dissertation Abstracts Online Database to locate theses. In the past,

  • 74 Samuel Kai-Wah Chu et al.I mainly focused on books for my research, but now I will use other types of

    sources like dissertations. This is a very important understanding. (Chu &

    Law, 2008, p. 171)

    In the second study, when asked about important learning regardinginformation sources or search techniques at the end of the second meeting,CC responded with names of two databases WorldCat and NDLTD and explained her learning about searching on Google:

    Actually I have not used the advanced search of Google in the past. That was

    something new that I can actually search within a domain.

    They also had a better understanding of the function and application ofsearch operators and the impact this would have on kind of informationthey retrieved. Student HL from the first study said:

    In the beginning, I did not know how to use search operators like truncation,

    proximity, wildcards, and parentheses. y After learning the importance ofthese features, I used them in my search. For example, I would add/omit certain

    search terms and connect the terms with operators. (Chu & Law, 2007b, p. 304)

    Student KR from the second study noted at the first meeting that althoughI knew the Boolean Operator OR before, I didnt use it well. According tohim his learning about search operators included understanding the ORBoolean operator and the Times cited and Related records searchtechniques.

    During the first study, two distinct aspects of learning were noticeable atthe second stage: (1) the distinction between keyword and subject search and(2) the basics of constructing a statement for a keyword search. An observedfeature common to both studies was, in the novice stage, students usedsimple English words to construct search phrases and in this second stage,they constructed statements that were more sophisticated, involving linkingsearch terms with the logical use of search operators. This improved thequality of retrievals.5.4.4. Third Stage: Competent Level of Information Search Expertise

    At this stage, students had acquired good knowledge of the core groups ofsources/databases, and knew for which purposes they should use them. Inthe first study student CD, at the fifth meeting, said:

    Because of my familiarity with many more databases than before, I now know

    how to access much more information than in the past. This has helped me to

    be more comprehensive in my information search. So it has provided much

    contribution to my research. (Chu & Law, 2005, p. 635)

  • Information Literacy in Higher Education 75In the second study, student CA during the second meeting, while in thisstage of learning, understood that ProQuest is mainly for Theses y andstudent CH during meeting three learned how to y find more articles inISI Web of Knowledge y and hence y use it in future for my ownresearch.

    Having gained an in-depth understanding of core search operators forkeyword searches, students employed search operators, such as parenthesisand proximity, synonyms, and alternative terms, apart from the basic AND,OR, and truncation operators as explained by student BW during meetingfive, in the first study:

    Commands like truncations and proximity operators are very useful. For

    example, a search on qualitative interview will miss a lot of records, but adding

    a proximity operator between the two words will find a lot more. (Chu & Law,

    2008, p. 172)

    Student KR from the second study at the fifth meeting expressed his initialinability to use the proximity search operator effectively and his lack ofunderstanding that this operator is database specific, and how he hadlearned these during the course of the study.

    The finding that students in general make more use of search commandsand features as their search experience increased is consistent with Vakkariet al. (2003), Halttunen (2003), and Halttunen and Jarvelin (2005). Becauseof self-sufficiency in constructing efficient search statements, retrievals weremore relevant and they became more information literate. Student LM fromthe first study explained how his improvement in IL helped him makeprogress in his research:

    The improvement in my information search skills has much influence on the

    conceptual framework of my research. Originally my research looked at several

    perspectives of teacher development critical, practical, and technical. My

    improved search skills have helped me find information sources on a new and

    emerging perspective the learning perspective y . This new perspectiveencompasses the three original perspectives I have been working on. Now I have

    multi-perspectives from which I could look at the research findings y . Theimprovement in my information search skills has thus sped up the entire process

    of finishing my PhD research by several months. (Chu & Law, 2008, p. 172)5.4.5. Fourth Stage: Proficient Level of Information Search Expertise

    The two main components that define this fourth level of expertise are:

    1. familiarity with different types of databases and2. familiarity with a wide range of searching features, search operators, and

    search methods. (Chu & Law, 2008)

  • 76 Samuel Kai-Wah Chu et al.In the first research study, 5 out of the 12 students, who were considered tohave reached the proficient level, distinguished themselves from the otherswith their ability to both find what they needed and to find it quickly.However, only one student CK exceled in both knowledge of databasesand in constructing sophisticated search statements, attaining the highestlevel of IL according to the RISE model. In the words of this student CK, atthe fifth meeting:

    I can search for information more accurately and efficiently now. The time

    spent on information search [before I can get a satisfactory result] is shorter. In

    the past, I thought it was good to find many articles and then try to find good

    ones among them. Now, I try to find relevant articles by searching more

    precisely. (Chu & Law, 2008, p. 173)

    In the second study, student KR was one of the two students consideredproficient according to the RISE model because of the significant develop-ment in both knowledge of sources/databases and in constructing effectivesearch statements. He initially confined his searches to only two databasesthat he was familiar with but progressed quickly to performing simultaneoussearches on five or more databases, by the end of the study, adeptly usingadvanced features such as Cited search and Related records. Althoughinitially unfamiliar with search operators such as proximity and negation, bythe fourth meeting student KR employed complex operators to refine hisresults and retrieve the most pertinent ones.5.5. Discussion

    In both studies, students were at first unfamiliar with much of the search-related knowledge and skills. The investigations indicate that a primaryfactor that contributed to their growth and advancement through the fourstages of search expertise was training provided by the expert searcher usingscaffolding method, which was both customized and systematic. Studentsgained IL skills through specific scaffolding sessions and through observingand imitating the techniques that were employed by the expert informulating query statements and his choice of databases (Chiu et al., 2011)

    Observations during the studies revealed that the two componentialelements under analysis, namely, knowledge of sources/databases andknowledge of search skills, were both required for improvement in IL in thestudents. Expertise in one of these elements alone was not sufficient.Also, students were observed to develop their expertise only to a point ofsufficiency. Once they had achieved a desired level of proficiency thatequipped them to conduct their research, they found no reason to proceedfurther.

  • Information Literacy in Higher Education 775.6. Conclusion and Recommendations

    Even though the two studies were conducted a decade apart, the similarity inobserved behaviors of the post-graduate students indicates that, despitedramatic developments in their technological environments, the IL ofstudents remains a challenge. This research indicated that informationsearch training is not only imperative at the post-graduate level but alsonecessary to customize such training to individual faculties or even atthe departmental level to cater to varying information needs. Identificationof students abilities as they progress through the four stages of searchexpertise, and catering training needs to advance them accordingly, isnecessary. It may be possible to develop the two elements of knowledge ofsources/databases and that of search skills independently. However,since it was found that an uneven development in the two elements couldaffect students abilities to find needed information, it is suggested thattraining for students should equip them with good knowledge and skills inboth areas.

    Scaffolding support seems to have had a considerable influence instudents improvement in their search expertise. Incorporating this aspectinto student training programs can help shorten the learning curve ofnovices in becoming experts.

    These findings have implications for how technology could be improvedto facilitate IL and specifically search skills. These include:

    modification of the interface design to simplify subject and keywordsearch and standardization of search operators across various sources and databases.

    The main limitations in both the studies were small sample sizes. However,the longitudinal nature of both studies and the similarities in their resultsindicate potential application of the RISE model to other representativegroups to help in the improvement of IL.References

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    Information Literacy in Higher Education: Research Students Development in Information Search ExpertiseIntroductionLiterature ReviewMethodologyFindings and DiscussionResearch GoalsStages in information needsA componential model of development in information search expertise

    First Stage: Novice Level of Information Search ExpertiseSecond Stage: Advanced Beginner Level of Information Search ExpertiseThird Stage: Competent Level of Information Search ExpertiseFourth Stage: Proficient Level of Information Search Expertise

    DiscussionConclusion and RecommendationsReferences


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