How To Make Students Better Online Researchers

I recently came across an article in Wired Magazine called “Why Kids Can’t Search“.  I’m always interested in this particular topic, because it’s something I struggle with in my middle and high school classes constantly, and I know I’m not alone in my frustrations.

Getting kids to really focus on what exactly they are searching for, and then be able to further distill idea into a few key specific search terms is a skill that we must teach students, and we have to do it over and over again. We never question the vital importance of teaching literacy, but we have to be mindful that there are many kinds of “literacies”. An ever more important one that ALL teachers need to be aware of is digital literacy. I could go off in many directions on this, but for the purpose of this post I’m focusing strictly on the digital literacy of searching.

In the past, we spent a lot of time in schools teaching kids how to do library research, and how to use a variety reference materials like dictionaries, encyclopedias, microfiche, card catalogs, public records, anthologies, and other sources too numerous to recall. Many of these forms of reference are no longer used, as they (or incarnations much like them) are all now available to us on the internet.

However, when we made this switch to internet-based resources, we somehow left a gap in education and made no real focus on teaching kids how to find valid, credible, useful resources online. The result is our frequent frustration with a generation of kids who will still type in the word “Egypt” and grab the first search result that pops up on Google when studying anything remotely related to the topic.

As they get older, kids often employ the tactic of typing a question into the search bar – “How do I find out about mummies in Egypt?” This actually gives Google a little more to work with – namely the word “mummies”, but this additional boost is thwarted because the search is in the form of a question. Top results yield links to, YahooAnswers, and other equally useless (academically speaking) results. Anyone – you, me, a 2nd grader, or a Kardashian, can post an answer on these sites. True the internet is becoming more semantic all the time, but we are far from there yet, and these kinds of searches are almost always a waste of time.

The real answer?

SPEND TIME teaching your kids the digital literacy skill of proper searching. It’s never too early for them to learn. Are they old enough to learn to use a dictionary or an encyclopedia? That’s the time! Here are the levels that need to be taught:

1. It begins as a critical thinking and language skill – narrowing their focus to a specific idea, and then selecting the few key terms and some alternatives that will help them.

2. Utilizing the various “search help” tools that many search engines offer – Google offers the ability for kids to narrow the search by time, type (images, news, dictionary, reading level), and also offers a nice advanced search tool. Some simple Boolean tools, such as +, “and”, and – are still extremely useful to know.

3. Critically sorting through the results – is the top result always the best? Often the answer is no. Google sorts its results based on the amount of hits a URL gets and sorts that way. It’s not so much academic as it is a popularity contest. Remember, Google can’t think (yet), so it’s still up to us to make the determination about what will be useful. Taking some time to teach kids about credible resources, scholastic research-based resources, and most importantly valid resources, is a worthwhile and necessary exercise. As an example, my students blog, usually about academic topics they are studying in school. If one of my students posts a movie of their re-enactment of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, their post will likely pop up in any given search about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. Are they a valid scholastic resource? Are they experts? ’nuff said.

4. Sometimes, supply your kids with the internet resources you want them to use. If your focus is on finding the information within a given resource, maybe it’s not necessary to always pile on the extra step of searching for the resource – especially if this is still a skill they struggle with. You can go old school and write the links on the board, or the easier route of pasting or embedding the links into your class webpage. Either way, this practice actually sets a bar for students – they become more accustomed to the type, format, and quality of resource that is valid for academic research. Obviously, they need to learn and use search skills, but this “calibration” every once in awhile is actually a good thing for setting expectations.

Useful Links For Searchers

Here are some links that offer some resources for teachers trying to teach students the digital literacies involved with searching.


  1. Pete Laberge

    September 30, 2012 at 12:16 am

    Well, one way to make kids better, at searching would be for modern teachers to actually do some teaching. Teaching is a lost art today. It was lost about 22 years ago. Some 99% of today’s teachers know nothing, hence teach nothing. They are experts, however, at blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, texting, setting-up their own websites, emailing, and of course LOL-cats.

    Since the kids know zero facts, and have zero procedures/techniques in their heads, they have no knowledge base to use to look up facts. I am far from being a search expert, but often use Google to look things up. Generally, it is things I learned years ago, but cannot at the moment recall the bit that I need to know. Most of the things I learned in life, a few in school. But I have a fairly well stocked knowledge base of facts and procedures to use. If I cannot recall, who King Tut was, I can ask “name me a famous Egyptian mummy”. I can often recall 1/2 of something, so I can look up the rest, via the part I know. I can recall that some guy did the laws of gravity, and an Apple fell on his head. By keying in a few search references, eventually the net pops up with Isaac Newton. So it does give me an advantage.

    But if the kids do not have any facts in their little gourds, they cannot imagine what to look up. How and why could a kid look up Newton, unless the kid knew that gravity existed, and someone codified the rules of it, or “discovered it” several centuries ago?

    You have to teach kids a few rudimentary facts about the world, and a few rudimentary ways to do things, before you can expect them to go look up new things to learn. Of course, for that you would need teachers. It is nice to call yourself a “learning facilitator”, or a whatever, but as Lincoln said: “A cow has 4 legs. Calling the tail a leg, does not make it one.”

    The reason search techniques etc must be retaught each year, is that the platforms change constantly. One year it is MS search, but Mirthcosoft replaced that with “Bing? Go!” , So people moved to Ya? Who? Now Google is the flava of da dayo. And there a re about 1000 other variations. Microsoft has had a dozen operating systems, all wildly different in the last dozen years, and Apple the same. We do not teach kids one widely used suite of programs used in business, oh no, they get taught 57 different niche programs. Their little minds have only room to absorb so much cr@p at such a rate. They spend so much time just re-learning how to tie their shoes, that they never go on to learn how to tie a tie….

    As for Yahoo Answers and Answers com, well, they pay to be high in search results. And they have so many pages of answers, that they rank high. Same as Wikipedia. But Yahoo Answers has a lot of stupid questions. So naturally there are bound to be some stupid answers. None-the-less, depending on what you are looking for, some of these sites may have some pretty darned good answers, or leads to answers, depending on who answered the question. Of course, since electronic ink is even more expensive than standard black ink jet printer ink, we often have a case where answers must be short an pithy, because a there is not enough room to leave a decent answer. After all, how complete can you be in a 100 character tweet? (Since if you want to address it to more than one person, you hemorrhage characters!) The problem is that no one today knows how to write in complete sentences. And that will affect the quality of a reply to a question.

    As well, kids have a billion distractions today. They never get to learn, and practice, and retain something… before it is either mutated, or not available. As a result, every year they have to start getting schooled from scratch.
    What incentive is there to learn anything, when you know that next year it will all be useless?

    So kids have simply stopped caring, And stopped learning. And stopped recalling or remembering. One hopes the next generation may do better. But for now, schooling is a waste. But every kid out there knows how to make a video. They just cannot figure out why…. So other than for fun to amuse themselves, why should they? Indeed, why do anything,when tomorrow it will not matter.

    • TF

      November 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm

      Your rant is a little oversimplified and ridiculous. I hope you are not a teacher, because you have a horrible attitude.

      If we do not teach the children how to research, then how will they know how to research? We cannot just assume they will naturally know. Children now are surrounded my more media and viewpoints then any generation before and therefore have much more knowledge. You saying otherwise is just an old person ranting about “this generation”.

      Get over it, and talk to a teacher or student (they both will offer you some insight you obviously need).

  2. Nicola McNee

    September 30, 2012 at 3:33 am

    I’m a school librarian who has become increasingly frustrated with trying to teach key wording skills that kids never use! I’m currently undertaking some research to understand how they search and how I cn help them search better. I think we should concentrate on understanding their natural way of searching which is more visual and less wordy than our generation and help them improve on it. helping them browse the search results page better is where we should start I think.

  3. Ian Farrow

    October 1, 2012 at 5:05 am

    Perhaps this should become part of the national curriculum in both Junior and Senior schools.

    Google are attempting to address this very issue by offering a free Power Search with Google course for anyone who registers. Upon completion a certificate is available! . Well done Google!

    Having completed this course I would advise anyone that uses the internet to take it as they will no doubt learn something as well as increase their speed and accuracy when searching Google.

  4. Alicia

    October 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    The link for “Great Tech Expectations: What Should Elementary Students be Able to Do and When?” goes to the website regarding how to spot a fake website. I am interested in reading the article about “Great Tech Expectations”.

  5. Penny

    October 2, 2012 at 6:22 am

    Teachers need to be taught how to search, I have been teaching search to teachers and they are amazed at what they don’t know. A great point to start is teachers do the Google Power Searching Course. I have developed a metacognitive search map for students, anyone is free to use it, or incorporate the ideas into their own work Enjoy!

  6. Dierdre Shetler

    October 3, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    I cannot agree more. I teach computers and I literally spend half the school year talking about search skills with my students. I teach exactly the things you talk about above. I truly believe it is one of the most important skills kids will ever learn, next to reading, since it affects virtually all of their online interaction. I also agree with @Penny above that teachers need to be taught as well. Most of my staff at school don’t know that typing in complete questions should be avoided or that .com stands for commercial (i.e., trying to make money) and what better domains might be, etc. (Domains are another thing that kids can watch for when trying to decide which websites are most trustworthy.)

  7. ClassLink

    October 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    It is indeed a problem with today’s students. Undoubtedly, we can get a lot of information online but they’re not always from a reliable source. It’s very important to teach kids the logical way of using search engines. Thankfully, this article gives a good insight on what the teachers should do to help students improve on their researching skill. And one of the best ways i think is using Google Tools when searching.

  8. KA Koskela

    October 15, 2012 at 10:55 am

    I saw one response from an identified school librarian (Nicola) and want to point out that we are specifically trained to teach the research skills that are mentioned here. Many teachers never talk to their school media specialists, have them come in and talk to their students, or consult during the process of developing assignments that require some type of research. That, of course, assumes that their school HAS a media specialist available!

  9. Pingback: How to Obtain Digital Literacy of Searching | uNewHaven Blogs

  10. Dr. Michael Bell

    November 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    As a retired school and university librarian, I am in total agreement with the absolute necessity of teaching students how to find, evaluate, and use information. Facts come and go, but research skills will empower students throughout life.

    Still, as this article points out “maybe it’s not necessary to always pile on the extra step of searching for the resource …. You can … write the links on the board, or embed(ding) the links into your class webpage. Either way, this practice actually sets a bar for students – they become more accustomed to the type, format, and quality of resource that is valid for academic research.” I couldn’t agree more.

    To facilitate students’ (and teachers’) search for high quality information, I have developed three (Google custom) search engines that only include websites previously recommended by teachers and librarians on their own websites. I reevaluate each resource, and, if appropriate, I include it in the appropriate search engine collection. These three Google alternative search engines are: Kidtopia for k-4 students ( ), Infotopia for grade 5- 12 students ( ), and the Academic Reference and Research Index for advanced high school and college students
    ( ).

    Not too long ago, a leading Canadian teachers’ association had this to say about Infotopia:

    “This is the alternative to google that we should be telling our students about! Infotopia is a search engine that uses limited and “approved“ sources (resources it lists for searchers so that you know where the information is coming from). Perhaps its best feature is the refinement bar on the top of a search that allows searchers to easily apply limitations and refinements to it.”

    `Provincial Intermediate Teachers` Association (Canada)

    Dr. Michael Bell

  11. Dave Crusoe

    November 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I appreciate the steps Tracie has outlined in her article — thanks, Tracie!

    But I’d like to build on the article and commentary by pointing out that conducting a successful search relies on a range of competencies and understandings. It isn’t unitary, and it can’t be taught in a single day. For example:

    (1) Some engines utilize strict Boolean, while many others do not. Major commercial search engines are moving further and further from true Boolean to the point that it’s more important to teach keyword and phrase selection, and responsive searching (refinement based upon the results one receives) than it is to teach about Boolean sets. Results just aren’t as simple as sets any longer!

    (2) Teaching students how to read results is important. For instance, if one can identify the difference between .edu and the other domains (.org is no longer meaningful), and understand if the distinction is or isn’t relevant, this is helpful.

    (3) Teaching students to read the top two pages of results is also helpful; in our observations, researchers typically pick one of the first 2-4 results as their reading/picks. What about the other pages — that may be lower in the algorithmic ranking, but more relevant to the critical task at hand?

    So, my point is that teaching search and research is about teaching a complex skill. As educators, it’s worth thinking about with your colleagues across grade levels. What will you try to teach this year, and how will you grow it next? Or how will education progress, through pacing, challenge and sophistication, throughout the year? How will rubrics help students understand what they have to improve or understand? What role do assessments have, if any?

    There are a number of complex questions we’ll need to address if we’re to teach students to a sophisticated level, and it’s a great time to start.

    –Dave / Public Learning Media (creators of, among other tools)

  12. Oyunu

    November 21, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    It’s impressive that you are getting thoughts from this article as well as from our dialogue made at this time.

  13. Legetøj

    November 23, 2012 at 12:49 am

    I lige this article – and i think in that we will see a huge different i how students (the young ones) use the internet and Google for finding information. Many school here in Denmark have started to give the young students laptops, so they can use it while the are in the classroom.