Undergraduates' information differentiation behaviors in a research process: a grounded theory approach



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This research explores, using a Grounded Theory approach, the question of how a particular group of undergraduate university students differentiates the values of retrieved information in a contemporary research process. Specifically it attempts to isolate and label those specific techniques, processes, formulae—both objective and subjective—that the students use to identify, prioritize, and successfully incorporate the most useful and valuable information into their research project. The research reviews the relevant literature covering the areas of: epistemology, knowledge acquisition, and cognitive learning theory; early relevance research; the movement from relevance models to information seeking in context; and the proximate recent research. A research methodology is articulated using a Grounded Theory approach, and the research process and research participants are fully explained and described. The findings of the research are set forth using three Thematic Sets— Traditional Relevance Measures; Structural Frames; and Metaphors: General and Ecological—using the actual discourse of the study participants, and a theoretical construct is advanced. Based on that construct, it can be theorized that identification and analysis of the metaphorical language that the particular students in this study used, both by way of general and ecological metaphors—their stories—about how they found, handled, and evaluated information, can be a very useful tool in understanding how the students identified, prioritized, and successfully incorporated the most useful and relevant information into their research projects. It also is argued that this type of metaphorical analysis could be useful in providing a bridging mechanism for a broader understanding of the relationships between traditional user relevance studies and the concepts of frame theory and sense-making. Finally, a corollary to Whitmire’s original epistemological hypothesis is posited: Students who were more adept at using metaphors—either general or ecological—appeared more comfortable with handling contradictory information sources, and better able to articulate their valuing decisions. The research concludes with a discussion of the implications for both future research in the Library and Information Science field, and for the practice of both Library professionals and classroom instructors involved in assisting students involved in information valuing decision-making in a research process.