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 Continue reading