Undergraduate Students Experience Cognitive Complexity in Basic Elements of Library Research

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



J. Robert Van Pelt and John and Ruanne Opie Library


Google's success in building a search engine that easily handles natural language, corrects spelling errors with intelligent “did you mean” prompts, and delivers reliably relevant search results, has led to trust in the search engine itself, along with self-confidence in users' searching skills. Although academic library search tools have attempted to replicate Google's form and functionality, students are often met with confusing, unexpected, or incorrect results. The online information seeking behavior of undergraduate students is a highly-studied topic across library literature, but the role that cognitive complexity plays in search remains largely unexplored. We use Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) methodologies to study undergraduate College of Engineering and College of Sciences and Arts students' search processes. We may expect that undergraduate students experience cognitive complexity with more advanced search techniques, like proximity searching, truncation, wildcards, or Boolean expressions, for example. However, analysis reveals that undergraduate students experience cognitive complexity in basic elements of library research: a) deciding which terms to use, b) knowing if they are searching in the right place, c) examining each article to weed out less relevant articles, and d) evaluating the quality of a source. Our findings reveal a sizable disconnect between what librarians may expect are basic elements of the search process and what students experience as cognitively complex.

Publication Title

ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings