Thoughts on teaching web search strategies

A post by Clarence Fisher on Serious Search Skills really got me thinking this evening. Clarence mentioned how difficult it is to teach students search skills in a world where Google is so good. He also linked to these notes from what looks to have been an excellent talk given by Daniel Russel on Google Search Techniques. I really liked Clarence’s idea of trying to get a few minds together to create some really authentic questions that could be used to teach search and was going to leave him a comment, but realised that my comment was going to be blog post length. So …..

I have been struggling for a while to teach my students good search skills. To be honest I can’t say that I have been very successful. What I mean is that I feel I have been fairly successful at teaching my Technology class search techniques like brainstorming keywords, using parentheses,using the negative sign and using the advanced search boxes; but I have had very little success in convincing them that these skills are really of much use. In a world where they can just type the question into the search box and the answer will most likely turn up in the search results there is very little incentive for them to put in the extra effort required to use more advanced methods.

I did have some success with my grade 6 class this year when I explained to them that when they type a full question into the Google search box the top hits are going to be question and answer sites like Yahoo answers. We had already spent a fair amount of time learning about good sources and how to judge validity online so this had an impact on them. If you can’t type in the question, then you are left trying to figure out keywords. This is a lot harder than it sounds. I would tell my students to try and imagine the website that has the answer that they want and then the kinds of words that would be on it. This sounded good to me, but when I step back and reflect I realise that I can do this because I have a strong foundation in both language and experience that makes this process a lot easier for me.

So this all leads me to a few thoughts/big ideas about developing a web search curriculum:

  1. The place to start is not in the technology class but maybe in the English class. The kind of thinking that students need to do when trying to formulate a search query is really language thinking. Trying to find alternative words to describe an idea, or synonyms for a word they want to use are all the kinds of skills that should fit in well to an English curriculum.
  2. These skills need to be rienforced all the time. It’s not enough to teach a search unit and then expect students to get it. We need to figure out what the skills are they need to have and then give them weekly practice using these skills. I have tried doing a weekly Google a Day, but find that it is only good on the day it is published. If you wait until the next day all a student has to do is type in the question and someone will have published the answer to it. It also pretty much goes without saying that these skills really need to be taught by all teachers in all subjects where they apply, which means any really effective web search curriculum is going to have to be developed as part of a school wide initiative.
  3. Searching the web is about a lot more than putting keywords into a Google Seach box. This is where my students really get bogged down. When they are faced with a page of results they don’t really know what to do with them (unless it’s a simple question and the answer is provided in the results). There is a whole series of skills involved in skimming through a set of search results, some of which are deciding on which websites are the most valid for your purposes and looking at the titles provided to decide which are the most relevant. Then students need to decide whether to invest time in skimming a few hits, or refining their search based on what they see. I have had very little luck teaching students to refine their search. Their tendency is to give up if the answer they seek isn’t right in front of them. I see this next step of interpreting search results as a processing issue that needs to be carefully scaffolded for students.
  4. Language matters. Once my students actually find a website they are understandably reluctant to read everything on it. I do find Daniel Russel’s advice to use the ctrl-f (find) function to be a very useful one. As is the ability to set the reading level of your results in the advance tab (it would be great if there was a short cut for doing this). I am pretty sure that more lessons can be developed to help students become better at skimming websites and making quick decisions about whether they are useful. For example, I can imagine students coming into class and there is a QR code on the screen with a question. For their class starter they have 2 minutes to scan the code and try to answer the question using the skimming skills they are developing.
  5. To really help our students become better searchers we need to be looking over their shoulders. I have tried getting them to write down all of their search terms but this quickly becomes onerous and sort of misses the point. This year my grade seven class made screen casts illustrating different search techniques. I felt I was moving towards something useful here. First, they had to come up with a question that their particular search technique could help them answer. Then they had to script what they were going to say. Finally they used Jing to capture their screencasts. I could assess how well they really understood their search technique based on their final products. I now find myself imagining some sort of web browser plugin that keeps track of all their search terms and the sites they visit while searching and displays this information in such a way that the searcher can give themselves feedback on the effectiveness of their search skills.

Just a few thoughts. I am also becoming a big fan of using databases and tools other than Google precisely because they aren’t as helpful. Still, it looks like Google is going to be where our students go for information for quite some time and as a result spending some time developing a really relevant web search curriculum could be a good idea.

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