Internet Searching and Thinking Skills

March 5, 2010 · Posted in Studies · Comment 

A recent study from UCLA (reported here) found that Internet searching exercises the brains of older people by activating their neural circuitry, confirmed by MRI records. While similar studies have not been carried out in younger students, I have always held the position that learning to search correctly and efficiently involves higher order thinking skills that are a potential benefit for students of any age. What is surprising is how few post secondary students know how to construct effective search queries. I believe it’s a skill that should be taught and reinforced, even at the post secondary level.

While search engines such as Google are becoming ever more effective at natural language searching (e.g., “How tall is the Empire State Building?”), it is still the case that forming good search queries usually results in better information. It’s also the case that the actual formation of those search queries involves thinking skills that are applicable to Boolean math and logic.

For younger students, the simple knowledge of using quotes and minus signs (-) to structure searches can be a powerful tool. For example, let’s assume that a fifth grader is looking for information on the Protestant theologian Martin Luther. Entering Martin Luther as a search query will return a lot of useful information, but it will also return information on the much more prevalent Martin Luther King. A simple application of quotes and a minus sign:

“Martin Luther” -King

instructs a search engine to search for the literal phrase “Martin Luther” but not the term “King.”

Although plus signs (+) are no longer necessary with most search engines as they interpret a search item without a + to be a required term, younger students may benefit from using a plus sign in constructing a search query. For example, to find out about Martin Luther (but not Martin Luther King) and about Luther’s role in the Protestant Reformation, a student could use:

“Martin Luther” -King +”Protestant Reformation”

Even with younger students, Boolean logic terms can be used to create a query. It’s instructive, especially with younger students, to create Boolean queries and examine their results. For example,

“New York” AND “hot dogs”

returns very different results than does

“New York” OR “hot dogs”

Using an everyday action–in this case, searching for information–can create a significant learning opportunity for students.

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