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Information Search Process & Guided Inquiry

What is the Principle of Uncertainty for Information Seeking?

According to Kuhlthau, uncertainty is a cognitive state that commonly causes affective symptoms of anxiety and lack of confidence.  Uncertainty and anxiety can be expected in the early stages of the ISP.  The affective symptoms of uncertainty, confusion and frustration are associated with vague, unclear thought about a topic or question.  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.  

The principle is expanded by six corollaries: process corollary, formulation corollary, redundancy corollary, mood corollary, prediction corollary, and interest corollary.

For more information on the principle of uncertainty, read Kuhlthau's article Accommodating the User's Information Search Process: Challenges for Information Retrieval System Designers.

Six Corollaries of the Principle of Uncertainty

1.  Process Corollary
The process of information seeking involves construction in which the person actively pursues understanding and meaning from the information encountered over a period of time.  The process is commonly experienced in a series of thoughts and feelings that shift from vague and anxious to clear and confident, as the search progresses.

2. Formulation Corollary
Formulation is thinking, developing an understanding and extending and defining a topic from the information encountered in the early stages of a search.  The formulation of a focus or a guiding idea is a critical, pivotal point in the ISP when a general topic becomes clearer and a particular perspective is formed as the person moves from uncertainty to understanding.

3. Redundancy Corollary
The interplay of seeking what is expected or redundant and encountering what is unexpected or unique results in an underlying tension of the ISP.  Redundant information fits into what the user already knows and is readily recognized as being relevant or not.  Unique information is new and extends knowledge and does not match the person’s constructs requiring reconstruction to be recognized as useful.  Too much redundant information leads to boredom, whereas too much unique information causes anxiety.  The lack of redundancy in the early stages of the ISP may be an underlying cause of anxiety related to uncertainty. Uncertainty may decrease as redundancy increases.

4. Mood Corollary
Mood, a stance or attitude that the person assumes, opens or closes the range of possibilities in a search.  According to Kelly, an invitational mood leads to expansive, exploratory actions, whereas an indicative mood fosters conclusive actions that lead to closure.  The person’s mood is likely to shift during the ISP.  An invitational mood may be helpful in the early stages and an indicative mood in the later stages. A person in an invitational mood would tend to take more expansive, exploratory actions, while a user in an indicative mood prefers conclusive actions that lead to closure.

5. Prediction Corollary
The ISP is a series of personal choices based on the person’s predictions of what will happen if a particular action is taken.  People make predictions derived from constructs built on past experience about what sources, information and strategies will be relevant and effective. These predictions lead to the choices they make in the stages of the ISP.  People develop expectations and make predictions about the sources used or not used, the sequence of source use, and the information selected from the sources as relevant or irrelevant.  Relevance is not absolute or constant but varies considerably from person to person.

6. Interest Corollary
Interest increases as the exploratory inquiry leads to formulation in the ISP.  Motivation and intellectual engagement intensify along with construction.  Personal interest may be expected to increase as uncertainty decreases. The person’s interest and motivation grows as the search progresses.  Interest is higher in later stages after the person has formed a focus and has enough understanding of the topic to become intellectually engaged.  

Note: Taken from Kuhlthau's Information Search Process.

Zone of Intervention

Uncertainty is related to unclear thoughts about a topic or question. Teachers need to be aware of this uncertainty and be prepared to help students deal with their frustrations. The zone of intervention is the time when a user needs help to move ahead. Librarians need to identify this "teachable moment" and be prepared with learning materials to provide assistance. No matter how much experience students have with the process, they still experience uncertainty when faced with a new problem or task. According to Kuhlthau "Intervention based on an uncertainty principle encompasses the holistic experience of using information from the perspective of the individual student." She identified five zones of intervention with levels of mediation including organizer, locator, identified, advisor, and counselor. The levels indicate a need for a particular type of scaffolding to facilitate student work. Process intervention strategies include collaborating, continuing, conversing, charting, and composing.


Kuhlthau, C. C. ( 2004). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. 2nd edition, Westport CT: Libraries Unlimited.


Interventions for Librarians



For examples of how you might intervene as a teacher librarian, view Todd's presentation Learning for Gen Next: A Guided Inquiry Approach. Be sure to pay careful attention to the graphic organizers and questions he recommends using with your students. 

For examples of interventions to guide students in seeking meaning from information for deep understanding, read Kuhlthau's article Students and the Information Search Process: Zones of Intervention for Librarians.

Studies on the ISP





For a summary of research and implications for school library media programs, read Kuhlthau's article Information Search Process: A Summary of Research and Implications for School Library Media ProgramsHer insight to the five studies and the process survey included in the appendix are useful for school library media programs. 

Teacher Resources

For strategies for supporting students through the emotional ups and downs that threaten to short-circuit the learning process, read Brenda Dyck's article Big Projects: No Wonder Students Get Frustrated!