Acquiring search expertise : learning experiences and threshold concepts

Tucker, Virginia Miller (2012) Acquiring search expertise : learning experiences and threshold concepts. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Expert searchers engage with information as information brokers, researchers, reference librarians, information architects, faculty who teach advanced search, and in a variety of other information-intensive professions. Their experiences are characterized by a profound understanding of information concepts and skills and they have an agile ability to apply this knowledge to interacting with and having an impact on the information environment.

This study explored the learning experiences of searchers to understand the acquisition of search expertise. The research question was: What can be learned about becoming an expert searcher from the learning experiences of proficient novice searchers and highly experienced searchers? The key objectives were: (1) to explore the existence of threshold concepts in search expertise; (2) to improve our understanding of how search expertise is acquired and how novice searchers, intent on becoming experts, can learn to search in more expertlike ways.

The participant sample drew from two population groups: (1) highly experienced searchers with a minimum of 20 years of relevant professional experience, including LIS faculty who teach advanced search, information brokers, and search engine developers (11 subjects); and (2) MLIS students who had completed coursework in information retrieval and online searching and demonstrated exceptional ability (9 subjects). Using these two groups allowed a nuanced understanding of the experience of learning to search in expertlike ways, with data from those who search at a very high level as well as those who may be actively developing expertise. The study used semi-structured interviews, search tasks with think-aloud narratives, and talk-after protocols. Searches were screen-captured with simultaneous audio-recording of the think-aloud narrative. Data were coded and analyzed using NVivo9 and manually.

Grounded theory allowed categories and themes to emerge from the data. Categories represented conceptual knowledge and attributes of expert searchers. In accord with grounded theory method, once theoretical saturation was achieved, during the final stage of analysis the data were viewed through lenses of existing theoretical frameworks. For this study, threshold concept theory (Meyer & Land, 2003) was used to explore which concepts might be threshold concepts. Threshold concepts have been used to explore transformative learning portals in subjects ranging from economics to mathematics. A threshold concept has five defining characteristics: transformative (causing a shift in perception), irreversible (unlikely to be forgotten), integrative (unifying separate concepts), troublesome (initially counter-intuitive), and may be bounded.

Themes that emerged provided evidence of four concepts which had the characteristics of threshold concepts. These were: information environment: the total information environment is perceived and understood; information structures: content, index structures, and retrieval algorithms are understood; information vocabularies: fluency in search behaviors related to language, including natural language, controlled vocabulary, and finesse using proximity, truncation, and other language-based tools.

The fourth threshold concept was concept fusion, the integration of the other three threshold concepts and further defined by three properties: visioning (anticipating next moves), being light on one's 'search feet' (dancing property), and profound ontological shift (identity as searcher). In addition to the threshold concepts, findings were reported that were not concept-based, including praxes and traits of expert searchers. A model of search expertise is proposed with the four threshold concepts at its core that also integrates the traits and praxes elicited from the study, attributes which are likewise long recognized in LIS research as present in professional searchers.

The research provides a deeper understanding of the transformative learning experiences involved in the acquisition of search expertise. It adds to our understanding of search expertise in the context of today's information environment and has implications for teaching advanced search, for research more broadly within library and information science, and for methodologies used to explore threshold concepts.

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ID Code: 63652
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Weedman, Judy, Bruce, Christine, & Edwards, Sylvia
Keywords: online searching, online searchers, search expertise, novice searchers, expert searchers, experienced searchers, threshold concepts, library science instruction, information science instruction, MLIS curriculum, iterative search
Divisions: Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Science and Technology
Past > Schools > Information Systems
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 23 Oct 2013 00:19
Last Modified: 09 Sep 2015 02:47

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