Information Literacy 1 - Defining an Information Need
Valencia College Libraries

Module 1

[Read the following scene. Then, click "next page" to begin the learning module.]


Scene 1

It's the first day of a new semester, and Val, a nineteen-year-old with shoulder length hair, nervously takes a seat in Professor Sage's Comp I class. Professor Sage enters the classroom and the other students settle into their seats. After a brief discussion of the syllabus, Professor Sage begins the work of the class.

PROFESSOR SAGE: Now, I like to know about my students' interests. Are there any writers in the class?

(A couple of hands go up, shyly)


Great! You'll all be writers by the end of this course. We're going to work toward writing a basic 5-paragraph essay, including a thesis statement, introduction, supporting paragraphs, conclusion, and MLA list of Works Cited.

(Groans are heard from the back of the room)


(Waving a hand) Alright, alright, don't worry; we're going to take this process in steps. Starting today, we'll be working on your first assignment, which is to write an annotated bibliography. That's a list of articles, books and web sites about your topic, with a summary of each one. (She begins handing out an assignment sheet to the class)

Next to Val, Matt, a thirty-five-year-old student wearing an Army t-shirt, raises his hand.

MATT: What does the topic have to be?


I'm glad you asked that. I'd encourage you to pick a topic you're personally interested in, since you'll be using this topic all semester long to develop your work and eventually write a full length essay. In fact, your homework for Thursday will be to select a topic with which to work.

For the first time, Val feels a little bit excited about the class. She knows immediately what she wants to write about – tattoos. For a while now, she's been considering getting one ... her thoughts wander off. Professor Sage continues:


Once I've approved your topic, you'll narrow it down to an appropriate research question. Then next week, we'll meet in the library, and the librarian will show us how to research the answers to our questions. (Glancing up at the clock) That's about it for today. Have a great day!

The shuffling of papers snaps Val out of her daydream. What did Professor Sage say about a research question? Her brain reeling with information about the class, the homework assignment, the task of writing a full-length essay and her busy new college schedule, Val tucks her assignment sheet into her bag and exits.


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Introduction: A Need for Information


info1.JPG The first step in research is to define, or clarify, and describe the information needed.     Val has already chosen a topic for her paper - tattoos. She has some personal knowledge about this topic, but she will soon realize that there is a lot she does not know.

The information Val does not yet know, and needs to find out, about tattoos is called her information need.

This module explains the steps Val took to clarify and describe her information need. Be sure to complete all the activities so that you can practice these steps, too.


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Step One: Background Information

typing1.JPG Val starts her research by searching the word "tattoos" in Google.

She looks for some background information about the topic. Basically, she hopes to find some history and an overview of some of the issues regarding tattoos.

She finds what she is looking for in an online encyclopedia.

An encyclopedia is one example of a general information source.

General information sources provide broad coverage of a variety of topics. They include encyclopedias and dictionaries, and are a good place to begin finding background on a topic.

As Val reads more about tattoos, she realizes that there is more to this topic than she thought! She begins to feel overwhelmed...

The bottom line: Finding background information has helped Val clarify her information need by helping her realize that her current knowledge is limited compared to all there is to know about tattoos.


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Step Two: Focusing the Topic

Val is suddenly unsure if she can really do a paper on tattoos. There are so many angles to this topic! Since she's a visual learner, Val draws the following Concept Map to illustrate the possible directions her topic could take:



She realizes that she needs to pick just one of the possible topics from her concept map; otherwise, her research project will be too large for the assignment. She decides that she will stick to the cultural significance of tattoos.

What Val has just done is known as narrowing, or focusing, the topic.

In the activity on the following page, practice ranking the topic ideas from broad to narrow.


Activity: Broad to Narrow Topics





Check your answers:

Note how Val added detail to the topic to make it narrower each time. Researching the dyes and pigments used in Henna tattooing would be a narrower focus than researching everything there is to know about Henna tattooing.


A topic can also be narrowed by focusing on specific examples. Try this more challenging activity. When it is completed correctly, each topic idea should be an example of the one above it.  

Activity: Broad to Narrow Topics II



Check your answers:

If Val researched tattooing in secret society inductions, she would have a narrower focus than if she researched tattooing in all types of initiation ceremonies.

The bottom line: Focusing the topic helps Val clarify her information need. She now knows that she will only need to find information about one aspect of her topic - the cultural significance of tattoos.

Answer the following quiz question to check your understanding of this concept.


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Step Three: Brainstorming Research Questions



On Thursday morning, Professor Sage approves Val's focused topic. To Val's relief, the lesson is about forming a research question - the part she didn't understand before. As she takes out her notebook, she begins to relax just a little.

Professor Sage explains: "When you do research in your personal life, it's usually because there's a question you need to answer. For example, Which car is the best buy? Should I see a doctor?

"Researching for a college paper is the same way. Ask a question that you would like to know about the topic. Your research will help you answer the question."

A good research question is well-defined and open-ended. The following pages will describe these concepts in more detail.


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question1.JPG A well-defined research question is a type of question that includes factors such as which people, problems, places or times the question refers to.

For example, "What are the risks of tattoos?" is NOT a very well-defined research question. It doesn't provide the researcher any frame of reference.

A better question might be, "What are the medical risks of tattoos among young people today?" This question specifies factors such as what kinds of risks (medical), which people (young people) and what time period (today) is being researched. This gives the researcher a clear direction.

In the activity on the following page, help Val determine which research questions are well-defined.


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Activity: Well-Defined Research Questions



Activity: Well-Defined Research Questions: Check your answers:


question1.JPG An open-ended research question is a type of question that does not have an obvious answer and cannot be answered by a single fact or figure. It may sometimes take the form of a comparison, cause /effect, or problem/ solution.

For example, the question, "Does Starbucks ban employees from wearing tattoos?" is NOT open-ended. The answer is either yes, or it is no. There is no room for further study of the question.

On the other hand, the question, "How do attitudes about tattoos compare between Starbucks and other area employers?" is open-ended. This particular example takes the form of a comparison. The answer is not obvious, so research must be done to find examples of tattoo policies among area employers. There is much information to be found on this topic.

In the activity on the following page, help Val determine which questions are open-ended.


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Activity: Open-Ended Research Questions



Activity: Open-Ended Research Questions: Check your answers:


As you may have noticed from the activities, it is possible for a research question to be well-defined but not open-ended, or open-ended but not well-defined. The best research questions are both open-ended AND well-defined.

The bottom line: Choosing a research question helps Val clarify her information need because she now knows that she needs to find information that answers her question.

Answer the following quiz question to check your understanding of this concept.

 Toggle open/close quiz question




Step Four: Key Terms

search2.JPG Val has decided to research the question, "How do perceptions of tattoos compare in Eastern religions, Judaism and Christianity?"

She types this question into Google, but gets only a few results. So, she changes her search a little:

More results appear, but at first glance, they don't seem to help much. Frustrated, Val makes one more change:

Better! Val realizes that changing her search words helps her find more relevant search results. Quickly, she begins listing words she can use. The web sites she has found so far give her some ideas, too.

The bottom line: Making a list of key words helps Val describe her information need because she can now use many terms and phrases to research her question.


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Step Five: The Right Tools


After searching a few web sites, Val wonders if the information she wants is even out there. Suddenly, Val remembers something else Professor Sage said on the first day of class - the annotated bibliography would include books, articles and web sites. She digs out her assignment sheet. The assignment says:

"Include in your annotated bibliography a variety of source types, including current and historical, primary and secondary.   Include newspapers, popular magazines and scholarly journals as well as books and web sites. You are also encouraged to use a variety of media, such as Internet, audiovisual and print sources."

Some of the source types mentioned in the assignment are familiar to Val and some are not. In the three activities on the following pages, help Val brush up her knowledge.


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Activity: Current vs. Historical

Before completing this activity, review the definitions of current and historical.



Activity: Current vs. Historical: Check your answers:




Activity: Primary vs. Secondary

Before completing this activity, review the definitions of primary and secondary.



Activity: Primary vs. Secondary: Check your answers:



Activity: Popular vs. Scholarly

Before completing this activity, review the definitions of popular and scholarly.




Activity: Popular vs. Scholarly: Check your answers:




As she reviews the different types of sources, Val notes that the same sources can be categorized in several ways. She also notices that all of these types of sources can be found in print (hard copy), electronic, or audio-visual media.

The bottom line: Knowing the tools available helps Val describe her information need because she now knows which kinds of information sources to seek out.


 Please continue to the next slide to test your knowledge.


Test Your Knowledge!


 Toggle open/close quiz question



info1.JPG This concludes Tutorial #1: Defining an Information Need. In this module, you learned:

You also acquired the following skills:


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