How to Teach Your Students to Be Savvy Searchers

April 26, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom, Professional Development

The ability to conduct online research is an invaluable skill students will need both in the classroom and later on in their careers. As Tasha Bergson-Michelson points out in a recent post on KQED’s MindShift blog, the internet has made it “deceptively effortless” for students to conduct scholarly research – or so they might think. However, we all know there is a difference between simple sleuthing and seeking out quality, credible, and thorough information online.

This variance is only complicated by the fact that free search engines, like Google and Bing, are much easier to use than fee-based databases, which undoubtedly yield more reputable results. As a recent graduate who often relied on resources such as JSTOR and LexisNexis, I can wholeheartedly vouch for the importance of learning how to use such tools, and I can also say that I was not exactly prepared to do so when I first began my higher education career.

Let’s face it, yielding the most efficient results can vary greatly depending on keywords and search techniques, and some fee-based search engines are not exactly user-friendly. MindShift’s “Savvy Searcher” Tasha Bergson-Michelson, who doubles as a librarian for Google’s Search Education Team, asked the question: Is the ubiquity of web search good or bad for serious research and what do students really need to know about online searching to do it well? She points to a post at The Atlantic where Wheaton College Professor and blogger Alan Jacobs suggests, “Maybe our greater emphasis shouldn’t be on training users to work with bad search tools, but to improve the search tools.”

So what are the hallmarks of a good online search education? The Savvy Searcher provided a few key suggestions:

  • The curriculum must focus on skill-building, much of which is based on intuition and can’t be taught overnight. “Search competency is a form of literacy […] it requires having discrete skills as well as accumulating experience in how and when to use them,” she said. Continuous exercises, guidance, and researching challenges are crucial in developing successful search skills.
  • It must also be thorough and multi-faceted. The Savvy Searcher suggests breaking the lessons down into phases such as inquiry, literature review, and evidence gathering. “At each step of the way, what the web has to offer changes subtly,” she said.
  • It also must provide tools for understanding sources – and not just dividing them into “good” and “bad.” Newer formats, such as blogs and wikis, must be discussed and made clear that both can be credible and fallacious and each has its appropriate uses. The Savvy Searcher says, “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.”

The Savvy Searcher also stresses the importance of developing technical skills when it comes to performing advanced searches and teaching students to filter results by domain file type or date, for example. However, one of her main suggestions is to instill in students that it takes a variety of sources to carry out scholarly research. “They [should] have the technical skills to access Web pages, but also books, journal articles, and people as they move through their research process,” she said. “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.” Read her full post here.

Need help teaching these skills to your students, but don't know where to start? Check out the lessons on searching in our free Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum. For example, this lesson on strategic searching is designed to help high school students think critically about their online searches so they are effective and produce relevant results. It includes handouts with practical tips like how to use synonyms and quotation marks to get the results you're looking for.  We also have beginning lessons on teaching search in the middle elementary and early elementary grades.

For additional resources, MindShift also provided a list of ways to improve your sleuthing skills and tips on how to choose the right keywords for yielding the search results.

Photo by Moore Memorial Public Library.