Kuhlthau’s Stages of Research Anxiety

I saw an unrelated reference today to something that reminded me of the research by Professor Carol Kuhlthau on research anxiety and the various stages that the typical student or researcher needs to pass through when conducting research. Many students are not aware of the phases they must pass through as part of the research process, so I sometimes find it useful to discuss these stages of research anxiety.

For readers not familiar with her work, there is a nice online article called “Information Search Process: A Search for Meaning Rather than Answers” that provides a basic overview of the 6 stages of the information search process:

1) The initiation phase, where the researcher faces a fair degree of uncertainty, not sure of what they need to know.

2) The selection phase, where the researcher narrows down the topic and gains some sense of confidence.

3) The exploration phase, where the researcher may encounter more confusion and doubt and may have difficulty in articulating their information needs.

4) The formulation phase, where confidence increases again as the researcher develops a more focused perspective on the topic.

5) The collection phase, where the researcher gathers information on the more focused topic; generally, the researcher’s confidence is higher as he or she gains a better understanding of the topic.

6) The presentation phase, where the researcher finishes the task and documents his or her work. If the search has gone well, the researcher is happy; if the the search has not gone well, the researcher will likely be anxious.

One might assume that the advent of technology and online searching might improve the information search process and reduce anxiety, but in the foregoing article, Kuhlthau suggests that technology does NOT necessarily reduce anxiety, due in part to a sense of potentially being overwhelmed by multiple sources of possible information:

Advances in information technology that open access to a vast assortment of information has not helped the user’s dilemma and in many cases has intensified the sense of confusion and uncertainty. New information systems may deepen the problem by overwhelming the user with “everything” when a few well-chosen introductory pieces might be more appropriate for initial orientation.

A list of her publications is available on her faculty page.

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