Posted by: | November 11, 2019

Reflection #5 – Learning is Messy

“What topic are you going to focus on?” I ask Keith as I kneel down next him.

“I can’t decide. I’m stuck,” he mumbles, leaning forward and staring straight into his computer screen as he talks.

Block (2014)

I feel Keith’s pain. How many times have I been there, just in grad school alone? Learning IS messy, no arguments here.

In his article “Embracing Messy Learning”, Joshua Block (2014) discusses the need for messiness in the learning process. Although Block’s article discusses messiness in terms of project-based learning, I would argue that messiness in the learning process is not specific to any one teaching/learning methodology or approach, especially if it requires critical thinking.

Interestingly, I could not help but think of Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP) while reading this article. If that doesn’t officially qualify me as a library nerd, nothing ever will.

In the ISP model, Kuhlthau’s the early stages are marked by feelings of doubt, confusion, and frustration – in other words, messiness. These feelings of uncertainty gradually give way to a sense of direction, confidence, and satisfaction (Kuhlthau, Heinström & Todd 2008). Similarly, Block (2014) notes that the early stages of a project are often marked by feelings of exasperation and frustration. While Kuhlthau et al. do not label the search process as “messy”, the range of emotions that information seekers move through in the process of researching a topic is akin to what learners experience when they are integrating new knowledge and working on projects.

To assist students with the transition from messiness to focus, both Block (2014) and Kuhlthau et al. (2008) recommend providing support. For Block that support comes in the form of asking questions, selective modeling, and presenting students with structures to develop new ideas. He reminds us that without struggle, progress cannot be made and calls for teachers to remember that struggle and frustration are part of the creation process. Meanwhile, Kuhlthau et al. assert that letting students know that anxiety, doubt and frustration are to be expected helps them feel less discouraged when it happens. Both Block and Kuhlthau have a point. It would be wise for teachers to remember that the struggle with research projects is both real and necessary. Of equal importance is the need for librarians and educators to make students aware that the struggle is normal.

Finally, if the experience of struggle is a universal part of information seeking and learning, how can we as librarians find ways to better support those who are caught up in the messiness of the process? Can we bake that support into our information literacy and K-12 programs? As librarians and educators, how can we help teach students that this process is normal?

I suspect the answer to all of these questions is that we can, and some of us already do.


Block. J. (2014, January 7). Embracing messy learning. Retrieved from

Kuhlthau, C., Heinström, J. & Todd, R. (2008). The ‘information search process’ revisited: Is the model still useful? Information Research, 13(4). Retrieved from’information_search_process’_revisited_Is_the_model_still_useful

Rutgers School of Communication and Information. (2019). Information search process. Retrieved from


  1. Hi Christine,
    you make many important points in this reflection! I especially like the questions you ask at the end.
    I work at a high school library, and the juniors are required to write a 10-page research paper on any topic they choose. Again and again, it’s not the act of writing that is hard for them—it’s all the steps leading up to the writing process. Many students choose a topic that is too narrow and can’t find any research to back up their theses, and other students choose topics that are too broad and are overwhelmed with the amount of information they have to sift through. This causes frustration, doubt, and anxiety. I am constantly reminding them not to stress—this is all a part of the research process, and they’ll adjust their thesis until it’s a manageable one.
    You make a good point that learning is messy, and messy learning is normal.

    • Hi Jacqueline, thank you for reading my post! Have you found anything that works for getting your students to understand that projects and information seeking are messy? I’m really curious to know if there are any tried and true approaches.

  2. Hi Christine,

    I have definitely felt that pain before particularly in middle school and high school when we were given ‘choose your own topic’ assignments. I had no clue what direction I needed to go towards or even where to begin. It always made me feel a bit bad that I didn’t have a clear cut plan of what I wanted to do. Inspiration honestly hits me at weird moments and as an artist, I felt that doubly so. Finding my way back onto that path of learning and inspiration honestly took years. I’d be on it one year and off it for the next three to six years.

    I also agree that messiness is its own form of learning that is not inherently dedicated to one teaching method or the other.

    Also yes! I remember fondly looking over the Kuhlthau ISP or Information Search process and being like “well this is the closest to me I’ve ever felt learning wise.”

    I feel like the journey to learning and discovering information is indeed interesting and far more than what we believe. We don’t expect it but it can be an emotional process.

    I think that the struggle to getting there is just as important if not more than the end result. I really would like to see how educators and librarians alike can work to provide the support to patrons and students who might be dealing with this struggle. I think that this is a great opportunity to build into new information literacy programs.

    • Hi Tiffany, I really resonated with a couple of points you made. First, your comment about inspiration hitting you at weird times – me too! Often after I have been grappling with something for a while, it’s as if I turn an invisible corner and voila! a light goes on.

      Second, I loved the point you made in your last paragraph, “I think that the struggle to getting there is just as important if not more than the end result.” That statement really struck me. It seems you can’t have one without the other – although there are those wonderful times when everything just flows (rare for me, but always welcome!).

      Lastly, yes, there is an opportunity here to build new information literacy programs that recognize that learning is messy and that aid students (and others) in working through the “struggle”.

  3. Hi Christine,

    Block article resonated with me as well. I didn’t even think of Kuhlthau’s ISP model, but I do remember looking at it when I took Information Communities and thinking, Oh wow this is close to what I do. The creative process (and I mean to include writing academic papers) is dependent on this “messy” stage. When I wrote my blog I automatically thought about a mad scientist or composer or artists working frantically over a pile of notes or drawings or transcriptions, and I think we do that all the time as creative, thinking beings. I don’t know if that thought ever quite solidified in my mind until I thought about Block’s article. Linking it to Kuhlthau’s research makes me even more reflective and thoughtful about it. I think your question of what we can do to help facilitate this process is a great way to help support our students. Great post!

    • Vincente, thank you for reading my post and sharing your thoughts with me. I really like how you describe the creative process and found your analogy of the mad scientist or composer frantically working atop a pile of notes/drawings to be apt! I don’t know about you, but somehow knowing that learning is messy has not made the process any less uncomfortable to go through.

  4. Oh how wonderful! INFO200 and Hyperlinked collide and it feels so right. you make a good point about messing learning and info seeking behavior. I like your thoughts about helping our users through the messiness.

  5. I love the connection you made to Kuhlthau’s ISP model! The emphasis on how normal it is to struggle is so important, too.

    Like Jacqueline, I couldn’t help but relate this to my current job in the realm of education. I’ve been working on the production of a book for math teachers, and it really emphasizes how normal it is to feel confused and uncertain. (The word “struggle” is in the title!) Being a great teacher (whether it be for math, or for the literacies that librarians nurture) is all about learning how to help provide that structure and support to make sure the messiness can reach those final stages of increased self-awareness and accomplishment.

  6. Hi Christine,

    I really appreciate your mention of Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP), since I can absolutely relate to feelings of doubt, confusion, and frustration with some (probably more than “some”) projects. 😛 However (and this has only taken several years to embrace), those early stages often yield the most resourceful efforts. Inevitably, I have always found a way through the muck to arrive at my “AHA” moment, at which point everything seems to magically coalesce.

    Great job!

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