Date of Award

August 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Library and Information Science

First Advisor

Iris Xie

Committee Members

Dietmar Wolfram, Jin Zhang, John Surber, Colleen Cool


Digital Libraries, Help-seeking, Interactions, Learning Styles, User Studies


Users' information needs have to be fulfilled by providing a well-designed system. However, end users usually encounter various problems when interacting with information retrieval (IR) systems and it is even more so for novice users. The most common problem reported from previous research is that novice users do not know how to get started even though most IR systems contain help mechanisms. There is a deep gap between the system's help function and the user's need. In order to fill the gap and provide a better interacting environment, it is necessary to have a clearer picture of the problem and understand what the novice users' behaviors are in using IR systems.

The purpose of this study is to identify novice users' help-seeking behaviors while they get started with digital libraries and how their learning styles lead to these behaviors. While a novice user is engaged in the process of interacting with an IR system, he/she may easily encounter problematic situations and require some kind of help in the search process. Novice users need to learn how to use a new IR environment by interacting with help features to fulfill their searching needs. However, many research studies have demonstrated that the existing help systems in IR systems cannot fully satisfy users' needs. In addition to the system side problems, users' characteristics, such as preference in using help, also play major roles in the decision of using system help. When viewing help-seeking as a learning activity, learning style is an influential factor that would lead to different help-seeking behaviors. Learning style deeply influences how students process information in learning activities, including learning performance, learning strategy, and learning preferences. Existing research does not seem to consider learning style and help-seeking together; therefore, the aim of this study is to explore the effects of learning styles on help-seeking interactions in the information seeking and searching environment.

The study took place in an academic setting, and recruited 60 participants representing students from different education levels and disciplines. Data were collected by different methods, including pre-questionnaire, cognitive preference questionnaire, think-aloud protocol, transaction log, and interview. Both qualitative and quantitative approaches were employed to analyze data in the study. Qualitative methods were first applied to explore novice users' help-seeking approaches as well as to illustrate how learning styles lead to these approaches. Quantitative methods were followed to test whether or not learning style would affect help-seeking behaviors and approaches.

Results of this study highlight two findings. First, this study identifies eight types of help features used by novice users with different learning styles. The quantitative evidence also verifies the effect of learning styles on help-seeking interactions with help features. Based on the foundation of the analysis of help features, the study further identified fifteen help-seeking approaches applied by users with different learning styles in digital libraries. The broad triangulation approach assumed in this study not only enables the illustration of novice users' diversified help-seeking approaches but also explores and confirms the relationships between different dimensions of learning styles and help-seeking behaviors. The results also suggest that the designs and delivery of IR systems, including digital libraries, need to support different learning styles by offering more engaging processing layouts, diversified input formats, as well as easy-to-perceive and easy-to-understand modes of help features.