How Effectively Do We Use Search Engines? Brent Atkinson CEP 806
Issues Last year I had my students create researched based websites on endangered animals. They were given eight days in the computer lab to use the internet to find answers to a variety of general questions about their selected animal. During those eight days I found many students getting “lost” in a search engine, unable to efficiently find the needed information. At the end of the eight days, many students were far from being through with their research.
Based on past observations I was able to make the following predictions:
If given a question to answer, students type the entire questions into the search field
Students are unaware of advanced search features, such as using quotes or a minus (-) sign in their searches
Explanation of Predictions I believed students would type the entire question for one main reason: The advertising of Ask.com (formerly askjeeves.com) on television will have lead them to believe a search engine is a “smart” device that can actually answer questions for you.
Explanations, continued My belief that students do not use advanced search options came directly from my observations last year. Whenever I tried to help a student find an answer and showed them the “advanced search” link, they expressed that they had never seen that link before.
Importance of Effective Searches The issue of effectively using internet searches is extremely important to our work on research projects. I teach in a school of 1250 students. We have one open computer lab and one traveling laptop cart. This means each teacher is able to use a maximum of 12 days in the computer lab each year. As you may be imagining, we need to use our time efficiently.
Importance of Effective Searches If I can learn how to better prepare my students for finding information before we enter the computer lab, our research time can be streamlined and we would have either more time to create the actual website or an entirely different unit could be planned, using the computers.
This inquiry project was conducted with 110 eighth grade students from four different class periods as research samples.
The sample students were:
Between 12-14 years old
Male and Female
Caucasian, African-American, Asian, and Hispanic
From many different academic achievement levels
Survey Results and Analysis Search Engine Preference:
Survey Results and Analysis Although what search engine a student chooses to use is not of much consequence when searching the entire web for information, knowing that 81% of students use Google would help in preparation for searching. I would use Google as my model when teaching students about search engines, then explain that similar features are found on other search engines as well. Search Engine Preference:
To help answer this question, I categorized the students’ responses into three groups:
Key Words with Common Words
Survey Results and Analysis Key Words – The student selected only the important words from the given question. Student example from survey Q1: metric prefixes Key Words with Common Words – The student did not type the entire question, but included many unnecessary, common words in their search . Student example from survey Q1: other metric prefixes smaller than milli- larger than kilo Whole Question – The student typed the given question, word for word. Student example from survey Q1: What are some of the other metric prefixes that are smaller than milli- and larger than kilo-?
Survey Results and Analysis Student Search Words Results:
Survey Results and Analysis As you see, only 25% of students are effectively searching using only Key Words. If the three metric prefix example searches from students are typed into Google, the “Key Word” search returns 1,124,000 web pages. The Key and Common word search returns 38,900 pages and the Whole question search returns 41,800 pages. When shown the search results, the students quickly saw that it was easier to find the answer to the question using the Key Words approach. When the students tried the other searches, they found the same thing. Searches containing only Key Words made finding information much easier and they were able to find more pages that confirmed original findings.
Only 25.5% of students have used the “advanced search” feature on a search engine
Only 14% of students know what quotations around search words will do
Only 8% of students know what a minus (-) sign in a search will do
Insights Analyzing the preceding data, I see that my original predictions held pretty true. Most of the students (75%) are not using search engines in the most effective manner. The students who were including more than just Key Words were taking much longer to find the answers to the questions when given access to the internet. Many were unable to get all the answers in the given amount of time. The students using just Key Words answered all questions quickly and easily, with lots of time to spare. While I was observing students search and asking them questions, the majority of students replied that the information they were using to answer the given questions was actually coming form Google (or the search engine used). Only a handful of students replied that the information was coming from a website outside of the search engine.
Insights That last statement poses a new question: Do students even know how search engines work? I think they might believe Google is similar to a site like Wikipedia, that houses the information you are looking for. They are not aware that Google simply brings third party websites to our fingertips (or mouse clicks). Having that knowledge may allow them to better understand why typing a whole question does not bring back the best results.
Insights I believe that since many adults had to teach themselves how to search we assume that students “just know” very similarly to how they seem to “just know” how to use new technologies. If given time, students will figure out efficient search strategies, but if we actually spend time to teach these strategies we will help the students to figure out their “search style” sooner, allowing them to make better use of the massive amount of information available on the internet,
Insights The biggest thing I will take away from this research will be the importance of spending time away from computers and internet access to plan your research attack. Students are, in general, not proficient searches and if given free range when in the computer lab they will struggle to find answers to questions.
Suggestions From this inquiry project, I would suggest to any teacher who is planning an internet based research project to take two days in the classroom to plan searches. Day One: Give the students their questions (or have them develop their own questions) and have them brainstorm Key Words to search for and have them write them down. Collect the students’ responses and give them feedback. Day Two: Return the student work and let them see your feedback. Pick out a few examples to show to the class using a data projector. Also show the students the “advanced search” option on Google.
Suggestions The students will enter the computer lab the next day with a plan and will likely get a lot more work done. They will also have strategies (advanced search) for when their original Key Words do not produce the desired information.