Publication Date


Document Type


Committee Members

Kimberly Barrett (Committee Member), Herb Colle (Committee Member), Corey Miller (Committee Member), Valerie Shalin (Committee Chair), Debra Steele-Johnson (Committee Member)

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher education constitutes a sociotechnical system. Some students enter with cultural experiences that support the new endeavor whereas others are woefully under-supported. Student preparedness often is tightly coupled with student background. Some ethnic minorities and students from impoverished backgrounds enter the university setting with a high risk of not persisting or completing their higher education pursuits (e.g., Kuh, Kinzie, Bridges, & Hayek, 2007). Traditional conceptualizations of risk identify immutable factors, such as SES, with little opportunity for immediate mitigation. Traditional interventions to mitigate risk include either fitting the student to the system (e.g., Tinto, 1993) or fitting the system to the student (Banning, 1980). Both approaches have their challenges (Anderson, 1981; Swartz, 1977). A third approach acknowledges the relevance of student knowledge regarding the functions and organization of the sociotechnical system. Dumais and Landauer (1984) found that even the most basic information is categorized based on group membership, contextual constraints, and the task at hand. This categorization of information is an essential facet of cultural, or system knowledge and can affect the ability for individuals to make sense of new surroundings. The interface between the student and the system may function as a boundary object (Starr, 1998) to provide an opportunity to bridge the gap between users and the system. The present study examined the university information search problem and its interaction with risk in a series of three converging studies. Ethnographic observation and structured interviews illustrated the information search problem. A performance study of information search using two different interfaces to the university system revealed an interaction between risk and interface. High risk users were better at overcoming knowledge limitations and interface deficiencies than not high risk users, generally by breaking the rules of the experimental instructions. These findings revealed the role of strategy in distinguishing between risk levels and the potential cultural mismatch between the assumptions of the high risk student and the sociotechnical system.

Page Count


Department or Program

Department of Psychology

Year Degree Awarded


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.