inquiry cycle

Finding Problems Versus Solving Them:
Inquiry in Information Seeking

Bertram C. Bruce

Graduate School of Library & Information Science

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Finding information, especially accurate, timely, and relevant information, is increasingly important in nearly all human endeavors. Accordingly, numerous studies have examined the processes information seekers employ, as well as the strategies information providers use to meet their needs. Most models emphasize satisfaction or closure as the criterion for successful completion of an information search; thus the emphasis is on solving a specific problem. But often, information seeking is part of some larger process, which is invisible to the information provider and often unclear even to the seeker. Successful search may lead not so much to eliminating an existing, well-defined problem, as to delineating a new problem within a complex, ill-defined space. This paper examines information seeking from an inquiry, or problem-based perspective, and argues that the fields of information seeking and problem-based learning can benefit from closer dialogue.


  1. Relation between information-seeking and problem-solving
  2. Tools for inquiry
  3. Problem-solving and learning
  4. Inquiry-based design
  5. Theory of inquiry
  6. Conclusion

(1) Problem-solving within information-seeking


  1. Task Definition [i.e., the information problem]
  2. Information Seeking Strategies
  3. Location and Access
  4. Use of Information
  5. Synthesis [of the information]
  6. Evaluation [closure]

—Mike Eisenberg, Bob Berkowitz

Information seeking within problem solving

Case analysis and problem solving

  1. Comprehend the case situation: collect data, identify relevant facts
  2. Define the problem [not in terms of information]
  3. Identify the causes of the problem
  4. Generate alternative solutions
  5. Decide
  6. Take action

—Edward G. Wertheim

Weak/strong problem solving

—Herbert A. Simon, Allen Newell

Information and Discovery in Neuroscience

—Carole Palmer, Melissa Cragin, Tim Hogan, in press

Multiliteracies, School Libraries, and Cybraries

—Cushla Kapitzke, Bertram C. Bruce, Sharon Comstock

Indigenous understandings: Which process?

studentOne student reported that the first step is to use Wikipedia to contextualize a problem. But there is 'the credibility problem,' because he was instructed that the web is not a valid source...some teachers do not accept anything 'electronic,' so require 'only books'...the student admitted checking out a book that appeared to meet the topic and citing it, despite it never improving his understanding.

What literacies are legitimate in the sociotechnical environment of the high school library? Is a database of magazine articles more credible because it has been purchased and, therefore, presumably vetted? What is the validity of open source information avenues that compete with "traditional" media? Or, is the student demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of "literacy, which solves an information problem?

—Sharon Comstock, field notes

Indigenous understandings: Which tools?

studentWhen asked how he finds information for non-school related subjects, the student said 'Wikis,' because 'they have links I can follow to find out more, and it's free' ...if there were not entries in a topic...'Then I Google: first five pages and that's it. The rest is going to be crap. If it's not in the first five, it's useless.' When asked why Google and not other search engines, he responded, 'It's the best. The others are dumb or have a ton of ads. It's the iPod of search engines!'

studentThe "iPod of search engines" phrase disturbed the librarians. While the student was referring to his informal learning searches, the online surveys concur. Despite the bibliographic instruction sheets stating not to use Google or Yahoo, these are the most consulted by students...physical books are consulted as a last resort.

—Sharon Comstock, field notes

(2) Tools: Personal Information Research Assistant

Personal Information Research Assistant

—Anatoliy Gruzd, Michael Twidale

How PIRA works

—Anatoliy Gruzd, Michael Twidale

Problem of context-independent search

Zhai 1

Put search in context

Zhai 2

User-Centered Adaptive Information Retrieval

  1. treat information seeking process as a system-user dialogue
  2. capture user information and search context and optimize system actions accordingly
  3. personalize search results and the way to present the results
  4. respond immediately to a user's interest shift
  5. leverage user similarities to support collaborative search
  6. based on Bayesian decision theory and language models
  7. systems for searching the Web and bioinformatics literature
  8. —ChengXiang Zhai

Task-dependent search result presentation

(3) Problem-solving and learning

Information literacy evolves in the course of realizing specific work-related tasks and mundane activities, which usually involve a complex system of social relationships, sociotechnical configurations, and work organization.

From the perspective of a situated understanding of learning and learning requirements, information skills cannot be taught independently of the knowledge domains, organizations, and practical tasks in which these skills are used.

—Kimmo Tuominen, Reijo Savolainen, Sanna Talja, 2005


Web Searching, Information Literacy and Learning

—Eero Sormunen, et al.

What does the university know?

Ethnography of the university (2002->)

—Nancy Abelmann, Peter Mortensen

Making ethnographies—EOTU Live


—Anna Callahan

Student inquiries 1

Student inquiries 2

Student inquiries 3

Inquiries into the university

(4) Inquiry-based design

The process of authority

Emergence of the inquiry cycle

inquiry cycleGenuine intellectual integrity is found in experimental knowing.

—John Dewey, Essays in experimental logic, MW.10.365

The Inquiry Page (1997)

Inquiry Page

—Mihye Won, Jenny Robins

Community Inquiry Laboratory

—Cameron Jones, Bertram C. Bruce, Ann Bishop



(5) Theory: Problems of education

Not primarily in methods or content

But in the breakdown in connections between:

Definition of inquiry

John DeweyInquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole

—John Dewey, Logic: The theory of inquiry, LW.12.108

Awakening inquiry

Pine Barrens tree frogThe moment when understanding and action come into dynamic and reciprocal relationship with one another is the moment when inquiry for both students and teachers truly comes alive.

(6) Problems with the separation of information-seeking and problem-solving

Searching the web

The true value of the web lies in the way it can open up our questions. We ask one thing, but the web leads us to ask more questions and to become aware of how much we do not know. A recognition of these problems leads us to move from a conception of searching the web to find a piece of information to one in which a search is embedded in how we think: How can searching become not only "looking up," but truly productive inquiry?

—Bertram C. Bruce, 2000

Learning as lived experience

inquiry cycle

Kiitos paljon! Kysymyksiä?



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