Evidence A: Information Seeking Behaviors of Youth

The Information Seeking Behavior of Youths

  1. Abstract

This paper will examine the history of research regarding the information-seeking behavior of children by examining past and current studies, information-seeking systems that have been aimed at children including their function and design, and evaluate the information retrieval systems that are available for children. The purpose of this paper is to help create an effective information retrieval system that is built to cater to the cognitive and developmental needs of children.

Keywords: information seeking behavior, information retrieval system, library, student, children, online databases

  1. Introduction

Typically information seeking systems, or more accurately information retrieval systems, is designed to help humans navigate large amounts of information in order to locate the single piece of information that is actually needed. It is through these systems that we “travel a narrow road towards our goals…with a sea of selective information… on one side and a spiraling abyss of confusion and information overload on the other” (Marchionini 1995, p2). The objective of the information retrieval systems is to “enable users to find relevant information from a stored and organized collection of documents” (Chowdhury 2010, p2).

Obtaining and using information are important skills in an increasingly information society. Information is described by Marchionini as “anything that can change a person’s knowledge” (1995, p3). In the hands of the right person, or user, it can change their entire existence. Thus, encouraging and making learning easier are important issues. A vital part of this is starting informational literacy early on. Public libraries are an important part of building informational literacy while knowledge workers build the information retrieval systems.

But information retrieval systems involve “time and effort to build, maintain and use” (Marchionini 1995, p2). The systems are typically designed with the user in mind since they are driving the entire information seeking process; it is the user who has the informational need. It is the user who “is the focal point of all information storage and retrieval systems because the sole objective… is to transfer information from the source to the user” (Chowdhury 2010, p225). The needs and characteristics of the user drive the type of information collected by the system, the nature and level of analysis made regarding stored information, and design of the user interface.

Actions taken by the user include “problem recognition and acceptance; problem definition and clarification; source selection; query articulation; query execution; result examination; information extraction; and reflection, iteration, and termination” (Marchionini 1995, p10). These processes can fluctuate depending on the user; factors include gender, age, race, and social status e.g. “abilities, experiences, and resources” – otherwise known as the personal information infrastructure (Marchionini 1995, p11). These processes are funneled into the information retrieval system through an interface through a query (Chowdhury 2010, p5). For an information retrieval system to be considered successful, the user is a key element. It is no wonder that the most effective information retrieval systems are the ones with interfaces designed with a specific user in mind.

Seeking information is “fundamentally an interactive process” (Marchionini 1995, p17). It makes sense that the user needs to be engaged and catered to so as to encourage a positive outcome. It is “naïve to believe that any single interface can serve the needs of all users for all tasks” (Marchionini 1995, p21). The user of the information retrieval system “defines the task, controls the interaction with the search system, examines and extracts relevant information, assess the progress” and decides when their need is met (Marchionini 1995, p33). Yet categorizing users is by no means an easy task.

Information-seeking behavior research has widely been focused in the library and information science field, moving from system-oriented perspective to user-centered perspective (Dresang & Koh 2009). It is widely considered that “information needs of children and young people are poorly covered in the literature of library and information science” in the past 20 or so years (Shenton 2004), which led to a lack of “effective tailoring of the content provision of information services and systems to meet young people’s requirements” (Shenton 2007). Many researchers, including Shenton, did not distinguish between the “information needs developmentally …or the qualitative differences” between children still developing, preteens and teens (Meyers et al 2009).

So where do you start and how do you create an effective information retrieval system when the user in general are the youth? Information retrieval is “a communication process” (Chowdhury 2010, p6) so it is essential there is an understanding of how young adults use information systems, particularly in an electronic environment. The Internet is a popular source for the youth and where they are most likely to go to find information.

  1. What it is or is about

Computer literacy and information literacy for children became a concern to both schools and libraries between the 1980s and 1990s when electronic information sources became available. Yet it was unclear how to effectively teach these new literacies. Among the schools of thought that followed were Mancall and Desking who created instructional guidelines to teach students how to use online databases for information retrieval (Cool 2004, p3). Aversa favored the methods distinguishing “system independent skills,” directly relating to the information retrieval process, from “system dependent skills” which directly related to the performing effective searches in the information retrieval systems (Cool 2004, p3). Montgomery compared teaching information literacy to teaching reading, emphasizing the need to teach “the mechanics of how to work the system…the development of cognitive processes of categorization, concept formation, and symbol manipulation” (Cool 2004, p4). Among these different ideas and methods of teaching information literacy, there was a consensus that new technologies could greatly improve the information literacy of youth.

In her article “Information-Seeking Behavior of Children Using Electronic Information Services during the Early Years: 1980 – 1990,” Colleen Cool points out that studies done up to that point “were not designed to test ideas about children’s information-seeking behavior” but a description of how to use the new systems in schools (2004, p5). Early research and studies focused on children’s use of electronic information systems – primarily the effectiveness of online retrieval versus manual retrieval, the types of materials retrieved, and the relevance of those materials. Data was collected on the techniques and methods that students utilized in their keyword or touch screen searches to locate the items they needed, focusing on their developmental ability and skill (2004, p11). Research found that online catalogs with too many steps and too much text were frustrating for students; often they would give up before locating the piece of information they were supposed to locate.

Other flaws Cool pointed out included the lack of examination of how students conducted their searches or how they made decisions in conducting their searches, and too narrow definitions and measurements of success – students were supposed to find one single piece of information again. There was little to no concern with their performance overall or their actual ability.

Later focus shifted to mental models, information strategies that consisted of bodies of research studying the behavior of children as they use the information retrieval systems. User-oriented studies concerned the children’s thought-processes when conducting information retrieval system searches, their mental strategies, and the search techniques that they use in order to create better information retrieval systems. Spavold’s 1990 observational study on children’s use of online databases in the UK showed that children worked best when they were “information providers, contributing to the database, as well as information searchers” (Cool 2004, p18). Meaning, children have a better understanding of the system when they help in its creation. They will understand how it works and create better search queries. Spavold noted that children with no exposure to the information retrieval system generally regard the process as “magic” and have trouble forming search queries (Cool 2004, p18).

Spavold discusses “mental map” model formed and preferred by children in their use of databases, over abstract or theoretical models they were given. Children are unable to think conceptually or in the nonfigurative. Spavold goes into depth about recreating and reflecting the mental processes they are able to replicate into the databases, so they have a “relevant cognitive framework” already in place (Cool 2004, p20). System designers must remember that children have different mental processes than adults and “be sensitive to children’s particular information abilities and needs” (Cool 2004, p28). It is worth noting that Spavold’s view of mental models differs than that of Marchionini and others in that it focuses on the experience of information searches in electronic databases rather than the information retrieval system in general. Carter’s 1989 two-year study showed that children could be taught Boolean logic and search strategies if given solid instruction.

Marchionini’s research towards the end of the 1980s looked at cognitive approaches children used in regards to information retrieval systems. Knowing their typical mental model and behavior would help information retrieval system designers in creating systems that fit their developmental abilities (reading skills, vocabulary knowledge, and translating topics into keywords). His study found that too complicated menus made the children confused and lose their place in the search query. In 1988, Marchionini and Liebscher compared the analytical, Boolean search strategy with the ‘browsing’ search strategy using two different groups of high school students. Both groups performed well although the Boolean search group had higher precision in performance. In a 1989 study, Marchionini found that all of the high school aged children in the study used natural language in their search queries. In a 1991 study, Marchionini found that junior high school aged children did better with menu-driven systems than command driven systems. His work suggested that children have a propensity for a “kind of exploratory and self-directed learning” and could be taught with effective training (Neuman 2004, p69). Ultimately, what these researchers found was that the “mental model” or “preexisting mental framework” will shape the user’s interaction with the information retrieval system.

Methodological approaches, the importance of indexing, and the study of the interaction between children and the computer were the most important ideas that came out of the 1980s – 1990s research. Spavold and others also reiterated the need to help young people develop confidence in their own abilities as they learn to navigate the information system, and cautioned against making the information systems too simple and easy (Cool 2004, p29).

The emergence of the electronic information resource (EIR) marked a shift from a focus on simply accessing information to learning from it. The emerging field of information literacy helped create a broader and better framework for learning in electronic environments and the issues involved. Young learners should be not only taught how to access information but shown a “broader range of information” and opportunity (Neuman 2004, p66). Mancall stressed “the importance of teaching logic and critical thinking skills” to students so they could master the research process on their own (Neuman 2004, p66). This technological skillset and experience (“abilities to access, evaluate, and use information to build knowledge, to think critically, and to solve problems”) are valuable in the real world. Entertaining and educational information retrieval systems are more appealing and useful to children if they “meet their cognitive and affective requirements.” Children can easily fall anxious and overwhelmed by information when using information-retrieval systems (Large et al 2008). The keys to use are simplicity and clarity often times.

So how do you create an effective information retrieval system aimed at youths?

  1. Brief history


  1. Major approaches or perspectives

The Constructivist Theory states that “knowledge is transformed by the learner” or more simply put “the individual seeks meaning from the information s/he encounters in order to construct his or her own knowledge” (Large et al 2008). Children make sense of the world around them by creating meaning from learned information and integrate it into their experiences. The Internet has increasingly become a more important source of information for children.

The K-W-L method used by teachers has been adapted by reference librarians to the information needs and information-seeking strategies of children, particularly since children not only need answers to their questions but also explicit bibliographic instruction (Pattee 2008). Working off the knowledge that children understand information and information needs differently, information workers must recognize that children often have difficulty expressing their needs. Hence, the K-W-L or “What do I know” about a topic, What do I want to know, and following their research, What I learned (Pattee 2008).

  1. Current developments

Early digital information systems were created using CD-ROM technology, which had many of the advantages of children’s books using visual interfaces and graphics. But by the late 1990s, the Web became the primary source for delivering information. Web search engines aimed at children in existence include Yahooligans!, Ask for Kids, Lycos Zone, and Kidsclick (Large et al 2008). But content from these search engines are limited to sites with pre-selected and age-appropriate material. The trend on these sites is to categorize and index content loosely (Large et al 2008). Yet studies have shown that children were disinclined to use them over adult-geared search engines such as Google or Yahoo, citing excessive “(over)use of color, distracting animation, and child-friendly but meaningless names.” And neither were these kid-friendly search engines much easier for children to use, or more likely to bring up relevant results. (Large et al 2008).

In “Children’s use of Yahooligans! Web search engine. III. Cognitive and physical behaviors of fully generated search tasks,” Bilal found that children preferred self-generated search queries or questions rather than fully assigned ones (2002). Children were more excited, in control, and enthused when they were able to choose their own research topic. They also tended to be more successful when they browsed rather than searched by keyword. However, that may be due to the poor design of the search engines than a reflection on the children’s behaviors themselves (Bilal 2002). Bilal also found that children tended to search for “specific answers to the task [assigned] rather than develop [an] understanding of the information found” (Bilal 2002).

One of the most current trends in the research of the information-seeking behavior of youths is to make the body of knowledge we have from adult information-seeking behavior relevant to children, preteens and teens.

In “Making Sense of an Information World: The Everyday Life Information Behavior of Preteens,” Meyers, Fisher, and Marcoux looks at “Tweens” – children between the ages of 9 to 13, ages distinct from children and young adults. Using Devin’s sense-making, Fisher’s information grounds, and Chatman’s normative behavior as frameworks for their study, they collected data on tweens information seeking behaviors through focus groups and interviews. The study was intended to help understand their information seeking habits and encourage their informational literacy (Meyers et al 2009). As stated in the article, “everyday-life information-seeking” is an area too little studied and possibly the most important.

Project CATE (Children’s Access to and Use of Technology Evaluation) looked at pre-teen (age 9 to 13) behaviors in an information service environment. The study found that the information-seeking behavior and information use of children was “decidedly social,” preferring to work in groups and marked their preference for “face-to-face information sharing venues” (Meyers et al 2009). Children liked to seek information from those most accessible, their peers or an adult expert such as a teacher. Teens tend to be “highly skeptical of libraries and books as sources of everyday information” (Meyers et al 2009), which is surprising considering the general public library emphasis on teen services. Further investigation into tween’s everyday information-seeking behavior was undertaken in a study entitled Talking With You: Exploring Interpersonal Information-Seeking, funded by the National Science Foundation (Meyers et al 2009). The study expected that tweens, assumed to be society’s most tech-savvy age group, would use “media-rich interpersonal information-seeking behavior” (Meyers et al, 2009), utilizing new technologies like e-mail, IM, web pages, message forums, Wikis, and blogs as well as old avenues like telephone, books, and teachers. Yet this was not necessarily true. Distrust and restrictions placed by adults garnered unease and a fear of seeking help from the tweens as they matured (Meyers et al 2009).

Shenton discusses young people’s information seeking behavior in relation to research from the last 35 years in his article “The Paradoxical World of Young People’s Information Behavior” (Shenton 2007). His research addressed the increasing popularity of the Internet for youth’s school and entertainment needs. One of the paradoxes that he points out in regards to modern information retrieval is that they “often demand that [users] demonstrate knowledge on the very matter of which they are ignorant” (Shenton 2007). Shenton’s study showed that children struggled with learning and using keywords or index topics, especially if teachers used natural language in everyday classes. The “limitations in the vocabularies of small children” are a very real problem, although the same problem can be encountered in those of any age. In Shenton and Dixon’s 2003 study, the youths in question were experienced with the Internet and web searches, yet they were often disillusioned with the results. The results would either be not being able to find the answer, an answer of “poor quality,” or that the child would be distracted while surfing the Internet. The finding was that “young people are often critical of particular information resources, yet continue to use them habitually” (Shenton 2007). In short, they would rather use the Internet, which is easy to access, than search for a print or other more authoritative source. Shenton and Dixon also found that youth were “source dependent.” Youth thinking tended to be linear – if they decided they had an informational need, they would go to a source they already knew. If the answer was not there, they did not tend to seek out a different source or find out about it in any other way (Shenton 2007).

Chung and Neuman’s 2007 study concluded that teenagers believed that “the process of information retrieval was a simple type-and-click operation” thanks in large part to Google (Shenton 2007). They lacked the ability to discern reliable sources from unreliable sources, and did not click past the first search result from a query for the most part. Burke’s work in the 1970s revealed that “content was being sacrificed for stimulus. Too much importance was placed on immediacy by students and teachers alike; students were not pushed to understand or reason. This is true still today when compared to Chung and Neuman’s study, and other current studies.

Researchers have been hard pressed to find patterns in young people’s information needs or behaviors so developing models of stages and sequences are hard to do without resulting in superficial constructs. Many young people prefer quick and easy short cuts to find information so flexible systems, strategies, or designs are often best (Shenton 2007).

The Radical Change Theory originally developed in the 1990s regarding children’s literature becoming more visual and graphic is now used to apply to youth’s information behavior based on “digital age principles of interactivity, connectivity, and access” and their new expectations regarding resources (Dresang & Koh 2009). The approach obtains evidence systematically to explain positive impacts of the digital age environment by identifying the characteristics and behaviors that modern children exhibit. The study looked at cognitive, non cognitive, and socio cultural factors, and identified three types of youth information behavior:

Type One: Changing Forms of Seeking Information and Learning (the cognitive aspect of information seeking), Type Two: Changing Perspectives (identity and value negotiation), and Type Three: Changing Boundaries (information access and seeking community) — Dresong et Koh 2009.

These types of behavior are not mutually exclusive and can help one understand how the digital age impacts youth’s behavior in general, not just their information-seeking behavior. Digital age youth are “creator(s) of information in a larger social context” (Dresang & Koh 2009). They express their opinions online via social media and message boards and shape their identity simultaneously. They create more sophisticated information forms via web pages, digital photos and videos, and presentations. There is more openness, flexibility, and diversity in online resources. Children are not limited to a card catalog or hardcover books. They can collaborate online for information seeking and information sharing, as well as for fun (Dresang & Koh 2009).

Large, Nesset, and Behesti’s article “Children as information seekers: what researchers tell us” examines the problems that can confront children as they search for information, evaluate information, and use the information for their information needs. They argued that both Piaget’s theory and the Information-Processing theory affect all study of information-seeking behavior of children. Piaget argued that children were unable to perform abstract and hypothetical thought, and could only master certain concepts at specific development stages. Yet later research showed that children could be taught certain concepts at younger ages if given proper instruction, emphasizing the need to adapt to a child’s age and developmental level when teaching or designing an information-retrieval system for them.

Information seeking for children is “by no means a simple and straightforward task” as researchers have found (Large et al 2008).Researchers noted that students encountered several common problems as they use information retrieval systems to conduct searches including the strict typing, spelling and vocabulary requirements for keyword searches and their lack of understanding subject headings in an OPAC system (Large et al 2008). Using synonyms to generate keywords is hard for children to do. Homonyms also pose a similar issue. Spell-checkers are more effective for adults than children as children can misspell words unpredictably, testing the spell checker program and producing questionable results. Children also either tended to give up after the first try or retype in the same search query, but expecting different results (Large et al 2008).

Browsing is often their preferred method of searching due to their undeveloped reading skills. Children tend to select reading material by looking at the cover of the book or item rather than the inside cover or back page, or inside the book. They would then locate the information they needed using sequential or selective access. Relevancy is judged based on the title or browsing the contents. Articles are usually short and arranged alphabetically to be easier to find (Large et al 2008).

  1. Emerging trends (if apply)
  1. Conclusion

While modern children tend to be experienced computer users, it doesn’t always mean that they’re efficient or effective information-seekers since information retrieval “calls more heavily upon linguistic and categorization skills than technological skills” (Large et al 2008). Children can encounter the same issues that adults do in information-seeking, only their problems are magnified though little research compares the information-seeking behaviors of children with adults (Large et al 2008).

Creating simpler information retrieval systems seems like an obvious choice but it is not an easy task. Teaching children to use Boolean logic, using as many synonyms as possible when entering keywords, and using natural language instead of subject headings or in addition to them would be a good start. Also, if children prefer working in groups for the social experience, allow them to search online together or connect to the system at the same time virtually. This may make the experience more fulfilling for them and make them less likely to give up after the first or second try if they do not receive the results they want. Teaching them to re-evaluate their search query is a good method. So would making the information retrieval system visually appealing, with attractive font size, illustrations, and vocabulary that would encourage the children to browse the system and search past the first page of results from a search query. Retrieval systems need to continue to adapt and adapt, depending on their target audience and user-base. Never assume the child doesn’t know anything or can’t learn.

  1. References

Dresang, E. T. (1999). More Research Needed: Informal Information-Seeking Behavior of Youth on the Internet. Journal Of The American Society For Information Science, 50(12), 1123-1124.

Dresang, E. T., & Koh, K. (2009). Radical Change Theory, Youth Information Behavior, and School Libraries. Library Trends, 58(1), 26-50.

Large, A., Nesset, V., & Beheshti, J. (2008). Children as information seekers: what researchers tell us. New Review Of Children’s Literature & Librarianship, 14(2), 121-140.

Meyers, E. , Fisher, K. , & Marcoux, E. (2009). Making sense of an information world: The everyday-life information behavior of preteens. Library Quarterly, 79(3), 301

Pattee, A. (2008). What do you know?. Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, 6(1), 30.

Shenton, A. & Dixon, P. (2004). The nature of information needs and strategies for their

investigation in youngsters, Library & Information Science Research, 26(3). Pp 296-310

Shenton, A. (2007). The paradoxical world of young people’s information behavior. School Libraries Worldwide, 13(2), 1.

Shenton, A. , & Hay-Gibson, N. (2011). Modelling the information-seeking behaviour of children and young people inspiration from beyond LIS. Aslib Proceedings, 63(1), 57.