Kuhlthau, the research process

uncertainposterHave you  experienced that moment where an academic task or question seemed so big that it made you slightly anxious? I have, and I see my students go through it too. Research essays, the IB Extended Essay and the IB Internal Assessment are all big academic inquiry processes where students are required to research and grapple with a large amount of information that has to be distilled and synthesised into a coherent and sophisticated argument.

Professor Carol Kuhlthau has researched the research process. I find her notion of the “uncertainty principle” very interesting and recognisable. She describes it as follows: 

“Uncertainty is a cognitive state that commonly causes symptoms of anxiety and lack of confidence. Uncertainty and anxiety can be expected in the early stages of the information searching process. Uncertainty, confusion, and frustration are associated with vague, unclear thoughts about a topic or problem.

As knowledge states shift to more clearly focused thoughts, a parallel shift occurs in feelings of increased confidence. Uncertainty due to a lack of understanding, a gap in meaning, or a limited construct initiates the process of information seeking”

(Kuhlthau, C. C. (1993). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. Norwood, NJ: Ablex., p. 111)


Below is a visual representation of the uncertainty experienced during a research / inquiry process:

uncertainty graph Source: Zhe’s Reaction Blog https://blogs.psu.edu/mt4/mt-tb.cgi/87882%5B/caption%5D


Kuhlthau describes 6 stages of the research process. I have made my own visual representation and you can read a description of the stages below.

Kuhlthau 6 stages of research process

Stage 1: Initiation

The students recognizes the need for new information to complete an assignment. They may discuss the topic with others and brainstorm the topic further. This stage of the information seeking process is filled with feelings of apprehension and uncertainty.

Stage 2: Selection

The student decides what topic will be investigated and how to proceed. Some information retrieval may occur at this point. The uncertainty associated with the first stage often fades with the selection of a topic, and is replaced with a sense of optimism.

Stage 3: Exploration

Information on the topic is gathered and a new knowledge is created. Students try to find new information and try to fit it in with previous understanding of the topic. In this stage, feelings of anxiety may return if the information seeker finds inconsistent or incompatible information.

Stage 4: Formulation

The student evaluates the information that has been gathered. At this point, a focused perspective begins to form and there is not as much confusion and uncertainty as in earlier stages. Formulation is considered to be the most important stage of the process. The student will formulate a personalized understanding of the topic from the general information gathered in the exploration phase.

Stage 5: Collection

The student knows what is needed to support the focus. Now presented with a clearly focused, personalized topic, the student experiences greater interest, increased confidence, and more successful searching.

Stage 6: Search closure

Now, the student has completed the information search. They summarize and report on the information. The student will experience a sense of relief and, depending on the fruits of their search, either satisfaction or disappointment.

I intend to share these stages and their associated feelings with my students because many will recognize the emotional journey that every good inquiry task takes you on. I can see this work particularly well for my Extended Essay students, the IB History Internal Assessment, the MYP Personal Project and any other research task.


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