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Digital Literacies in Higher Education: Information Overload

Key messages from the JISC-funded project focussing on postgraduate students at the Institute of Education

Information Overload

In the study, students frequently mentioned a feeling of being overloaded and overwhelmed with information (both in the digital sense and course related). This is closely linked to the issue of time pressures particularly at the beginning of an academic year/course. 

A more serious issue under this theme was students’ difficulty negotiating with the following resources and felt that institutions and libraries too often went with traditional choices:

  • library catalogues,
  • databases and
  • referencing software.

Another key issue for students in this area lay in developing skills in effectively organising their digital work (personal digital libraries, digital notes, etc.) and transferring their existing analogue practices to the digital (annotating, notetaking/notemaking, data capture/storage, etc.).


'And it's just like, you just end up completely bogged down without any sense of ...progress or achievement or, you know, there's not even, it's not even like kids get a tick, you know, when they've done, you know, when they get a sum right they get a tick ... I just can't cope with it, I just can't do it. As far as I'm concerned it's very easy to just forget all about it. It just sits in the computer somewhere or other and I don't know what I need to do and what I haven't done, I have no sense of how to organise my work.'


picture of person using computer

Key Messages

1. Introduce pre-orientation week (on and offline) to deal with information overload at the start of each academic year or course.

2. Provide training in both traditional, subscribed resources and and open source resources.

3. Provide training in managing and organising information in digital and analogue platforms as well as the training on how to work across both platforms.

4. Provide training in information literacy, including information evaluation and embed this into the curriculum.


'I haven't been in education for a while now... my last experience of education was at the IOE and we didn't have Blackboard and we didn't have this and we didn't have that...I thought oh, I was coming home, you know. I was, like oh, brilliant, you know, I know how everything works. And then you're just, um, bamboozled with, you know, this database and that database... it's like information overload... And that's not because you're attempting to be ignorant or you are ignorant, it's just information overload.' 

picture of pile of papers and mobile phone

'There (are) guidelines on everything and there is a lot of information and resources and help available but when you start  ... I felt also a bit overwhelmed with not actually knowing where to turn for definitive type answers. So, it took me a bit of time also to work through it. So, I think it was like a bit of information overload for me as well.'

'...I feel like I can't process the amount of information I'm supposed to process in any other way than using IT and yet when I do it using IT I don't gain anything. I ...feel like I'm just throwing it all into a black hole and I don't know where it is ...'

 'I think the danger with having referencing software is that you tend to just, it's like having a great big box, you know, you just, sort of, throw things in there, you think, oh, I'll read that later, I'll read that later, and then you don't really remember what you've read and what you know.'