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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Digital Consumers

February 26, 2008 · Posted in citizenship, Studies, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

In a recent article on Ars Technia (The “Google generation” not so hot at Googling, after all), Nate Anderson reviewed a study by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee that examined the internet researching habits of the “Google Generation”–those born after 1993 that have no memory of life prior to the World Wide Web. (The full report is available as a PDF file and is well worth reading.) One of Anderson’s statements struck an immediate chord with me:

“Knowing how to use Facebook doesn’t make one an Internet search god, and the report concludes that a literature review shows no movement (either good or bad) in young people’s information skills over the last several decades”

It was somewhat gratifying to see empirical evidence of a trend that I have observed anecdotally for quite some time. We tend to assume that, because post-secondary students typically have laptops, WiFi enabled cell phones, and other digital tools that they are expert technology users. I would agree that most of the “Googlers” are highly facile with the tools and processes that they use, but I would also assert that these tools may be limited in scope and are not necessarily the tools that will bring academic success. Students are quite adept at using social networking tools such as FaceBook and MySpace and with shopping sites, but many do not know the basics of productivity applications such as PowerPoint, Word, or image editing tools. Many do not know how to install software or add a printer. Wikipedia is often the first and only source of information for a research topic. And, for as much time as they spend Googling, many do not know how to form cogent search queries.

We tend to call students of this generation “digital natives.” I would assert that they may be more properly called “digital consumers.” And, we tend to blame them for their lack of skills when, in reality, we–their teachers–are the culprits.

One of the roles that educators at all levels need to embrace is that of a guide to the appropriate uses of technology for learning. Social networking tools such as blogs and wikis have tremendous potential for engaging students in the learning process if they are applied thoughtfully and evaluated rigorously. We should be teaching and reinforcing good research skills every day in every classroom, including instruction on how to compose search queries and where to look for reliable sources. (Check this web site from for 25 sites for reliable, researched facts.) We should be working digital content creation–digital photography, digital video, podcasts, etc.–into our lessons on a regular basis. And we should be good models to our students, using technology in our own teaching and learning processes.