Kuhlthau’s ISP – not just a model but a dead on play-by-play for a struggling uni student.

I have just read many articles on various information search models and couldn’t help comparing Kuhlthau’s (2012) Information Search Process (ISP) to my own experience with university assignments (especially as I have just completed two assignments for my TL course). Kuhlthau writes, “after the [information] search is completed, the topic understood, and the problem solved, a person may look back and deny the chaos and confusion that was actually experienced in the process” (para. 27). Oh boy, this was not the case for me! I fully recognise how much I was in the weeds (or “in the dip” as she calls it) for much of the initiation, selection and exploration sections of her ISP model. As I was reading about each of the stages in her article I found myself laughing at myself and thinking back to me working on my first assignment and the anxiety and uncertainty I took out on my husband before the clarity in the latter stages of her model.

But wait, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the model I should briefly explain it for you, and for my own future reference.

Kuhlthau’s model of the Information Search Process (ISP) consists of six stages describing the experience users go through in the process of information seeking including thoughts, feeling, and actions in all six stages.


 Stage 1. Initiation the person “becomes aware of the lack of knowledge or lack of understanding” (Kuhlthau, 2012, para. 4) and often has feelings of apprehension and uncertainty; thoughts are vague; and actions involve discussing possible approaches to the topic.

Stage 2. Selectionthe person often feels a brief sense of optimism and readiness to begin the search as a general area, topic, or problem is identified (Kuhlthau, 2012, para. 4) even though thoughts are still vague and actions include conferring with others or making a preliminary search of information available.

Stage 3. Exploration Although one would expect confidence to continue to climb over the stages, confidence actually declines once again and feelings of confusion, frustration and doubt increase in this stage. Thoughts “centre on becoming oriented and sufficiently informed about the topic” (Kuhlthau, 2012, para. 7) but people often find their confidence “in the dip” (Kuhlthau, 2012, para. 4) when inconsistent and incompatible information is found. *This stage is considered the most difficult.*

Stage 4. Formulation Action in this stage involves a focus being given to the search topic and is often compared to the formulation of a hypothesis. Feelings of uncertainty are replaced with feelings of confidence and a sense of clarity in thoughts. *This is the turning point of the ISP.*

Stage 5. Collection – Actions involve selecting information relevant to the focused perspective of the topic and making detailed notes on that which pertains specifically to the focus” (Kuhlthau, 2012, para. 9). Feelings of confidence increase and thoughts related to interest in the search topic deepens.

Stage 6. Presentation – Thoughts concentrate on culminating the search with a personalised synthesis of the topic or problem” (Kuhlthau, 2012, para. 10), feelings of relief and accomplishment occur, and actions involve a summary search in which information relevance decreases and information redundancy increases. Note: If the search has gone badly, a feeling of disappointment can be felt in this stage.

(For a chart of the stages of the ISP go to Kuhlthau’s homepage)


As a Teacher Librarian, the goal of the library and information services is not based on reducing uncertainty, but instead on supporting user’s construction process as we have just seen uncertainty is inevitable and vital in the search process. Without it, the user cannot pass through the stages of the ISP and gain valuable experience. The TL must identify the “Zone of Intervention” (Kuhlthau, 2012, para. 29) (based on Vygotsky’s 1978 zone of proximal development) – that is the area in which information users can do with advice and assistance in areas he or she cannot do alone.

In my recent assignment experience, my husband acted as my TL helping me to identify when I needed my own intervention, even though he could not help with content. In the school setting, I feel it is important for students to be told aspects of this model to recognise that uncertainty and low confidence is normal and part of the process. They need to be told that the first stages will seem overwhelming, but if they keep perusing clarity and confidence will come in the later stages. In my experience, students want the correct answers and the correct search resources right off the bat and when they don’t find them, or feel a topic is too large, often fail to persevere and fail to go to the stage of formulation and hypothesis. It is up to the TL to intervene to make sure this doesn’t happen and keep the students on the ISP path to success information searching.



Kuhlthau, C. C. (2012). Information Search Process. Retrieved August 28, 2012 from

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.


One thought on “Kuhlthau’s ISP – not just a model but a dead on play-by-play for a struggling uni student.

  1. Pingback: ETL401 Assignment 2 Part B: Critical Reflection | A TL's Learning Journal

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