Search Tip for Students: Try Predicting Your Search Results

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Just as having students predict answers to math problems is a way of creating more meaningful learning, prediction can be a useful strategy in successful searching too.

Search results can be presented any number of ways: tables and charts, videos, infographs. We teach students how to develop an understanding of the kinds of information that’s best conveyed with timelines, maps, or diagrams. Using what they know about all the different kinds of content and media, they can apply the same theories of predicting what they might find on their online searches.

Here are some guidelines for asking predictive questions even before they launch their search.

  • When I run this search, what do I expect to appear?It’s extremely useful to get in the habit of spending just an instant anticipating what kind of results you expect your search terms to find. When students do not ask this question and search terms bring back unexpected results, they often come away feeling that there’s nothing there. But when students prep themselves by considering what they expect to appear and then skim the first page of results, they’re better prepared to spot any clues indicating that their terms have a meaning they did not foresee. It can be fun to practice this anticipation in class. Try asking students to anticipate what will appear for the searches [who], [the who], and [a who] in turn.
  • When I find this answer, what do I expect it to look like? This is where students imagine their perfect source. First, what types of words would this trusted source use? Would a doctor write about a busted arm, or possibly stick with the medical term fracture? From the Common Core standards to those from the American Association of School Librarians, we aim for thoughtful searches that consider the audience and purpose and be able to determine the format and voice that will communicate information most clearly. It stands to reason that if we teach students to look at a bunch of data and decide the best format for sharing it, with practice they should also be able to consider the information they need to find and have an idea of the format it will take when someone else has communicated it for their use. As searchers grow more sophisticated at prediction, they use anticipated language and medium in addition to applying advanced operators, color filtering, and other technical search features to build incisive queries.
  • When I click this link, what do I expect I will see? Asking this question also dovetails nicely with skimming the first screen or page of results. Actually seeing results and considering what you can determine about the page behind each can be helpful, as when a middle-schooler I knew was looking for information on what life was like in Colonial times, and came up with results like these:

Not just blindly clicking, but predicting what each page would hold increased his efficiency tremendously.

Have a question for The Savvy Searcher? Contact Tasha on Google+ or at tbm [at] google [dot] com and check out the Search Education Team’s resources. Read more from The Savvy Searcher.


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  • Frank W Baker

    I’m afraid students want it quick and according to the research I’ve seen, they rarely go behind the #1 hit in their search results. They aren’t being taught information literacy skills, or if they are, it’s not sinking in. I’m afraid their prediction will be: I will use the first thing that shows up.

    • Tbm

      My first response is that it seems that we often fail to talk to our kids in great detail about how we make these choices. Without information and modeling, it is hard to do anything else than follow the trend of always going with the first link.

      Some other thoughts:

      In an article I wrote some time back ( “Predict Before You Click: Search Engine Results as the First Defense of Authority”–Knowledge Quest (Jan/Feb, 2010)), I talk about a student who told me that her fifth grade teachers were always talking about using quality websites. When I asked her what they taught her, she responded: “Blah, blah, blah.” To this day, that interaction has stuck with me. I ended up playing with different ways of talking about why students should care and seeing what stuck, and wrote about that. Personally, I try to base these interactions on a really positive ground, and try to avoid putting down links that kids might see their parents, teachers, and peers relying on regularly. I like to frame various resources (online and off) in terms of what they are good for, and when it is great to use them.

      In any event, your point illustrates why I think that it is so important that we actively take on search education, especially in the context of school work. Truly, for many of the needs for which we now turn to the Internet, the first link is sufficient. But that is a combination of great engineering, tons of content, and the resulting fact that we now look for information a lot more frequently within the course of a day than we did when I was growing up (at least that is how it seems to me). So, we need to practice recognizing when the first link is not what we need, and how to make the judgements that follow.

  • MorisonC

    I DO teach students information literacy skills, however, since I  am a female high school librarian who is close to retirement, I believe that:
    1)  some students don’t think I have a clue how to “work” a computer since I’m older than dirt (even though I can help them access files, save, print, etc., etc.)2)  some students don’t hear what I’m really saying to them until they’ve heard it many, many times.  I’ve had seniors who have told me they finally understand what I’ve been telling them for four years.3)  some students are never going to get it, because they don’t care, don’t want to learn, and know everything anyway, so what could I possibly tell them?4)  some think because I am a (pick one) teacher/librarian/old/female/authority figure that I am just overly prejudice against Wikipedia, Google, and everything cool there is on the internet.  Therefore, whatever I say must be disregarded or heard with disdain, since I am so uncool.5) some students do listen and learn the skills I teach.  These are the ones I enjoy teaching.I will continue to teach all students, and will continue to remain uncool, old, and suspect in the eyes of some.  I am friendly, helpful, kind, courteous, etc., etc., and as cool as I can be.  I give as much as I can to help our students, they need to trust me and realize that I have their best interests in mind.   My purpose is not to sabotage their happiness; it is to make their lives better until they are the old, uncool people future teens ignore.

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