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Finding Information: Understanding Your Information Need

Introduction to Understanding your Information Need

An information need is a gap between what you know and what you need to know to solve a problem or answer a question.

Understanding your information needs is a critical skill in today’s digital age. It is important to determine what information we need, and how to find it efficiently and effectively. Whether we are students working on a research assignment, or professionals trying to make important business decisions, understanding our information needs is the first step in finding the information that is most relevant and useful to us.

In this section, we will consider:  

  • Why and how we use information in higher education
  • How information purpose can change methods used, tools selected, and sources obtained
  • Steps to identify and define our information needs

Understanding your Information Need

Why do we Seek Information? 

Checking the weather, catching a bus, defining a new word, applying for a job – these tasks all rely upon our ability to find, access, and use information effectively. Information seeking at university isn’t about developing entirely new skills but adapting the skills you already have to new situations.

We often associate finding information with summative assignments, but you’ll probably spend a lot of time exploring, browsing, questioning, synthesising, and digesting information way before essays have even crossed your mind. In life and study, we seek information for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Recreationally, for pleasure
  • Fact-checking
  • Topic overview
  • Ideas generation
  • In-depth research

Recognising the function of the information you’re looking for can help you to decide what you need, and how you might find it.

Identifying Information Needs

To define your information need, you must:

  1. Understand the context and purpose of the information-seeking task
  2. Identify what sources you’re being asked to find
  3. Recall relevant existing knowledge and identify any gaps or uncertainties

Before attempting to search, ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. Why are you looking for information? Do need a topic overview or are you conducting in-depth research? This will change where and how you look.
  2. How many sources do you need? Do they need to be high-quality academic sources, or will a Wikipedia article suffice?
  3. What do you already know about the topic? What could you easily find out (e.g., via your course materials)? What don’t you know? What questions do you have?

Complete the matching task below to consolidate your understanding. Match the information-seeking task to the most suitable solution.