Building Good Search Skills: What Students Need to Know

| March 20, 2012 | 9 Comments
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The Internet has made researching subjects deceptively effortless for students — or so it may seem to them at first. Truth is, students who haven’t been taught the skills to conduct good research will invariably come up short.

That’s part of the argument made by Wheaton College Professor Alan Jacobs in The Atlantic, who says the ease of search and user interface of fee-based databases have failed to keep up with those of free search engines. In combination with the well-documented gaps in students’ search skills, he suggests that this creates a perfect storm for the abandonment of scholarly databases in favor of search engines. He concludes: “Maybe our greater emphasis shouldn’t be on training users to work with bad search tools, but to improve the search tools.”

His article is responding to a larger, ongoing conversation about whether the ubiquity of Web search is good or bad for serious research. The false dichotomy short-circuits the real question: “What do students really need to know about online search to do it well?” As long as we’re not talking about this question, we’re essentially ignoring the subtleties of Web search rather than teaching students how to do it expertly. So it’s not surprising that they don’t know how to come up with quality results. Regardless of the vehicle–fee databases or free search engines–we owe it to our students to teach them to search well.

So what are the hallmarks of a good online search education?

SKILL-BUILDING CURRICULUM. Search competency is a form of literacy, like learning a language or subject. Like any literacy, it requires having discrete skills as well as accumulating experience in how and when to use them. But this kind of intuition can’t be taught in a day or even in a unit – it has to be built up through exercise and with the guidance of instructors while students take on researching challenges. For example, during one search session, teachers can ask students to reflect on why they chose to click on one link over another. Another time, when using the Web together as a class, teachers can demonstrate how to look for a definition of an unfamiliar word. Thinking aloud when you search helps, as well.

A THOROUGH, MULTI-STEP APPROACH. Research is not a one-step process. It has distinct phases, each with its own requirements. The first stage is inquiry, the free exploration of a broad topic to discover an interesting avenue for further research, based on the student’s curiosity. Web search, with its rich cross-linking and the simplicity of renewing a search with a single click, is ideally suited to this first open-ended stage. When students move on to a literature review, they seek the key points of authority on their topic, and pursue and identify the range of theories and perspectives on their subject. Bibliographies, blog posts, and various traditional and new sources help here. Finally, with evidence-gathering, students look for both primary- and secondary-source materials that build the evidence for new conclusions. The Web actually makes access to many —

but not all — types of primary sources substantially easier than it’s been in the past, and knowing which are available online and which must be sought in other collections is critical to students’ success. For example, a high school student studying Mohandas Gandhi may do background reading in Wikipedia and discover that Gandhi’s worldview was influenced by Leo Tolstoy; use scholarly secondary sources to identify key analyses of their acquaintance; and then delve into online or print books to read their actual correspondence to draw an independent conclusion. At each step of the way, what the Web has to offer changes subtly.

TOOLS FOR UNDERSTANDING SOURCES. Some educators take on this difficult topic, but it’s often framed as a simple black-and-white approach: “These types of sources are good. These types of sources are bad.” Such lessons often reject newer formats, such as blogs and wikis, and privilege older formats, such as books and newspaper articles. In truth, there are good and bad specimens of each, and each has its appropriate uses. What students need to be competent at is identifying the kind of source they’re finding, decoding what types of evidence it can appropriately provide, and making an educated choice about whether it matches their task.

DEVELOPING THE SKILLS TO PREDICT, ASSESS, PROBLEM-SOLVE, AND ITERATE. It’s important for students to ask themselves early on in their search, “When I type in these words, what do I expect to see in my results?” and then evaluate whether the results that appear match those expectations. Identifying problems or patterns in results is one of the most important skills educators can help students develop, along with evaluating credibility. When students understand that doing research requires more than a single search and a single result, they learn to leverage the information they find to construct tighter or deeper searches. Say a student learns that workers coming from other countries may send some of their earnings back to family members. An empowered searcher may look for information on [immigrants send money home], and notice that the term remittances appears in many results. An unskilled searcher would skip over words he doesn’t recognize know, but the educated student can confirm the definition of remittance, then do another search, [remittances immigrants], which brings back more scholarly results.

TECHNICAL SKILLS FOR ADVANCED SEARCH. Knowing what tools and filters are available and how they work allows students to find what they seek, such as searching by color, domain, filetype, or date. Innovations in technology also provide opportunities to visualize data in new ways. But most fundamentally, good researchers remember that it takes a variety of sources to carry out scholarly research. They have the technical skills to access Web pages, but also books, journal articles, and people as they move through their research process.

Centuries ago, the teacher Socrates famously argued against the idea that the written word could be used to transmit knowledge. This has been disproved over the years, as authors have developed conventions for communicating through the written word and educators have effectively taught students to extract that knowledge and make it their own. To prepare our students for the future, it’s time for another such transition in the way we educate. When we don’t teach students how to manage their online research effectively, we create a self-perpetuating cycle of poor-quality results. To break that cycle, educators can engage students in an ongoing conversation about how to carry out excellent research online. In the long term, students with stronger critical thinking skills will be more effective at school, and in their lives.

What do you think it is most important for students to know about online research? Please share in the comments section below.

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  • Hugh G

    Re: “An empowered searcher may look for information on [immigrants send money home], and notice that the term remittances appears in many results. An unskilled searcher would skip over words he doesn’t recognize know, but the educated student can confirm the definition ofremittance, then do another search, [remittances immigrants], which brings back more scholarly results.”

    By the way, this exact functionality comes embedded into DevonAgent Pro.  I highly recommend the DEVONThink software for students who are exploring complex topics. Students need to start building their own databases, for Google has a specific set of rules which may not suit a student’s needs, and the various paywalls obstruct the process of synthesis between sources and disciplines.

    • Sunny Jackson

      If it’s not free, a student won’t use it. That’s how it goes. These things should be marketed to educators who can purchase them for their classes, not to the students themselves.

  • Anonymous

    When I had a Fellowship at the University of Oklahoma helping run an internship program, teaching them how to be ahead of the problem and find the answer themselves was a key tenet of their training. 

    I found this infographic from HackCollege last fall that I recommended. It’s aptly titled “Get More out of Google” 

  • Torrey Trust

    I just posted about the necessity of helping students improve their search skills on the UCSB GradPost (a blog for graduate students): I think your article does a great job of highlighting some key ways to help students use metacognitive skills to understand what works and what doesn’t when searching for information and resources. 

  • Alv_us

    Thank you for putting this in print – School librarians have been preaching this for the last decade!  We see students skim for information, and miss the depth of details.  When educators work together to teach students to look further, so much more can be accomplished.  Keep up the good work!  Don’t forget to check in with your librarian for team teaching opportunities.

  • Simon Knight

    Doing research on this in terms of what info retrieval tells us about how people conceptualise knowledge (and, what restricting access to such tools tells us about how policy makers conceptualise knowledge) – their epistemic beliefs.  On the practical side I’ve been curating here:

  • Julsj

    Great article, it validates my job!  Did you realise that you are talking about what Teacher Librarians call Information literacy. I have just about finished my Masters in Teacher Librarianship and the main thrust of our job is to teach students and teachers how to access, search,validate and critically evaluate the information they find. A full time job and getting more and more critical as you have discussed above.  Julia

  • Elissa Field

    This article makes several great points. It affirms some of the things my teaching team is doing well (I teach Writing in a school with heavy emphasis on such skills), and expands some of the ideas I’ve had for building student skills further. In particular, over the past year I’ve noticed that online searches buoy blogs higher and more legitimate sources lower in search results — to the point I encourage students to skip Google altogether and start their searches on legitimate sites (like the New York Times, for example). The tip about revising search terms to use higher vocabulary search words is a great way to help students reach those richer sources.

  • annraj

    “At some point, the learning style has to be effective, along with
    being efficient. Techniques and technology aren’t the most effective
    ways to do it better/best, and after a point, the time you spend on all
    of that is going to be counter-productive. Reminds me of the author of
    Lean In, who mentions keeping a diary for scheduling appointments.
    Antique method for some, serves the purpose effectively and efficiently
    for many- its not the method, its what works for you the best.” I help students in writing masters their dissertation and other research works. Kindly mail me if you need any assistance or tips email: