Online Graduate Students’ Information-Seeking Behavior and Information Needs

This past weekend I attended my school’s annual staff retreat, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to sit down with some of my colleagues one-on-one to discuss their information needs and information-seeking behavior as online graduate students. I interviewed two women who have completed online graduate programs in the last two years and two men who are currently working towards graduate degrees online. Another colleague, who completed an MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching) online last spring, responded by email since, she is on sabbatical in the United States this semester. I based my interview questions around the theories that focused on the individual search models we studied in week two, opposed to the group theories we studied in week three, because they are a better fit for academic information seekers.

I hope that data I compiled through the interviews and the theory discussions will help you, my fellow LIBR 200 classmates, to better understand our own information needs and information-seeking behaviors as online graduate students.

Our information needs form around peer-reviewed research which is the bench-mark of academic scholarship. Many of us do not live near our universities’ physical locations, so our information resources need to be accessible online, through mail, at our local public libraries, or through other remotely accessible sources. For my colleagues who I interviewed here in Hungary, having access to online peer-reviewed journal articles is what makes it possible for them to complete their master’s degrees online outside of the United States.

Now that we understand our information needs, what methods do we take to gather and use information?  Three of the theories we studies this semester particularly fit online graduate students, Kuhlthau’s (1991)”Information Search Process,” Heinström’s (2005) “Fast Surfing, Broad Scanning and Deep Diving,” and Erdelez’s (2005) “Information Encountering.”

Kuhlthau (1991) proposed six stages in the information search process (ISP), each having an emotion attached. According to Kuhlthau, researchers progress through the “initiation,” “selection,” “exploration,” “formulation,” “collection,” and “presentation” stages during the ISP. This model fits well for online graduate students, since her studies were originally conducted on students and it appears that we all generally follow the same process when researching. In my interviews with my colleagues this is generally the method they followed when I asked them to “describe for me the process that you normally take when researching for an assignment? What is your beginning, middle, and end?”

One interviewee, who is working on his MA in religion, spoke about how he starts his research with developing the topic for his assignment and predicting what type of information he would need. This lines up with Kuhlthau’s “initiation” and “selection” stages. He then goes onto the “selection” and “exploration” stages where he uses online databases to find peer reviewed articles through reading the abstracts and summaries. In the “formulation” and “collection” stages he focuses on the articles which best fit his topic. We did not discuss his final stage of presenting his information, but another colleague stated at the end of her research she “finalizes her paper or presentation.”

When I asked “If you feel comfortable could you describe how each phase of the process feels?” they each spoke about the same type of emotions that Kuhlthau wrote about in her study, but there was an initial difference in the response between men and women to my question. The men’s first response was “huh? what do you mean feels?,” while the women dove right in and told me at first they feel anxious, which is the similar to the feelings of “uncertainty and apprehension” (366) that Kuhlthau discovered occurs at beginning states of the ISP. The men, after they started to grasp what I was asking, went straight to frustration, which Kuhlthau attached to the “exploration” stage. One student stated “if the databases would work better it would be less frustrating!” According to Kuhlthau this is because, “at this stage an inability to express precisely what information is needed make communication between the user and the system awkward” (366). The one respondent by email also wrote about frustration being part of the ISP.  In the middle stages most of the students, spoke about feeling excited as they found information about their topics and then relieved once their research was completed. These two emotions line up with Kuhlthau’s theories that during the “focusing” stage people’s “confidence increases” (368) and that during the “presentation” stage the researcher feels “relief.”

In my discussions with the students about their search process we talked about if they feel they are “fast surfers,” “broad scanners,” or “deep divers.” These terms are based off of Heinström’s 2005 study “Fast surfing, broad scanning and deep diving: The influence of personality and study approach on students’ information‐seeking behavior.” Although, Heinström’s study focuses on how personality affects students’ research techniques, I was not able to get that deep with my interviewees. I would suspect that personality affects their research approach, but also academic discipline and time constraints also influence how they search. All five stated that at some point in their research process they use the “broad scanning” method of finding many different articles for their research. Two only use “broad scanning;” while two use “broad scanning” and “deep diving; and one uses all three methods. The two who only use the “broad scanning” method use it because there just is not enough time to really “dive deep” into the research.

Online graduate students, such as ourselves and my interviewees, who are required to use 20 or more sources for our research assignments, need to use the broad scanning method for at least part of our research to interact with enough journal articles. The students I spoke with all recommended broad scanning to other online graduate students.

Lastly, for a bit of fun, I used Erdelez’s “Information Encountering” (2005) idea to see if I could place each of the five interviewees into one of her three categories: “non-encounterers” who rarely come across random information that they save for another time when they are looking for information, “occasional encounterers” who once and awhile stumble onto some interesting information they will save for later, or “super encounterers” who are always on the lookout for interesting information. Each of the three types of “information encounterers” were found among my interviewees. In her response to my question: “When looking for information do you ever ‘stop and “collect” useful or interesting information [you] bump into’ (Erdelez, 2005,  26) when researching for school?” my colleague, who works with students with disabilities and answered by email, gave an enthusiastic super encounterer answer: “YES!! I have so many articles stored and saved for future reading on particular disabilities that I am likely to work [with], though many articles were applicable to a particular school project.”

On that note I will leave you, my fellow LIBR 200 classmates, with a question to continue the discussion I started with my colleagues last weekend: which of the three theories above best describes your own academic search process?


Erdelez, S. (1999). Information encountering: It’s more than just bumping into information. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science 25(3). Retrieved from

Heinström, J. (2005). Fast surfing, broad scanning and deep diving: The influence of personality and study approach on students’ information-seeking behavior. Journal of Documentation, 61(2).  Retrieved from

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.  Retrieved from




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3 Responses to Online Graduate Students’ Information-Seeking Behavior and Information Needs

  1. Jenny Clark says:

    Hi Andrea,

    What a great post! How fascinating that men and women responded differently to your questions. That is a very intriguing observation! I’m sure that many of us will come across gender, culture, and age differences in our research that we won’t expect. You seemed to ask very thought-provoking questions that really probed your subjects. I have to say, while reading your posts and the articles provided in class, I am really learning a lot more about myself as a student as well. A happy accident! I look forward to reading your posts each week 🙂


  2. Andrea says:

    Hi Jenny,

    I am sure that gender, culture and age will play into our research. One of the people I interviewed was significantly older than the other people I interview and I was wondering if that affected some of her answers, but I wasn’t sure, so I did write about that in my post. It would be interesting if I could find a non-American to interview for one of my later posts or research paper.

    I, too, have learned so much about my own research process from the interviews and the articles we have read for class. I also saw the interviews as a way to get ‘study’ tips for my own research.



  3. Pingback: A lack of library services and training on online databases unethical? » Andrea's MILS Blog

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