Today research sources are so readily available that search skills not only could be integrated into every aspect of the classroom environment, but they should be. The main goal of teaching search skills in the classroom is to change the way people think about search. Search is freely available to anyone with access to the internet, but not all students are well versed in search skills. The one constant in the search environment is change. Students should be flexible in their search methods so that they can adjust their searching style to improvements and tools that will come about. A student who does not have up to date search skills is in danger of being left behind in the expanding world of internet research.
The first thing every student and teacher should know is the structure of the search engine results page. Most search engines include ads which help the search companies make money. It is very important to know the difference between the ads and the desired search results. Often the ads that come up are tailored to the keywords being searched, but they do not always meet the searcher’s requirements.
The teacher’s roll in an internet research lesson plan is to guide students in new ways to develop a search strategy. Students and teachers should form their question appropriately. Define what it is that students must search for, but in a way that will enable them to define their own questions. Question forming is critical to understanding what research is needed. For example, students writing an essay or research paper on animals looking up dog food for example should frame their question in ways that make them think about what they want to know. Dog food may bring up a lot of sales pages, but if the student wishes to learn about dog food production, that is an entirely different search.
When searching, students should learn how to achieve balance between too broad a search and too narrow a search. The more words a student adds into the search engine, the fewer results will come back until the search engine can give no results at all. However, too many results can be as bad as having no results at all, because it can take hours to sift through all the unwanted information. The Control-F (Command-F on Macintosh) function or Edit>Find can help students sift through a page or two of unwieldy search results, but many times, the keywords need some adjustment.
Students need to think about appropriate keywords to search based on the question that is being researched. A good way of looking at the subject of keywords is to think about what words someone else would use to describe the subject. Web content is written by many different kinds of authors. Keywords should be modeled after the kind of author that will provide the sort of article that the student wants to find.
Make sure the keywords actually go with the subject that is being researched. For instance, if a student is looking into the production of maple syrup, bees and honey do not come into the equation, even though the final ends products of both are viscous and sweet. If there is a question regarding the meaning of a word, most search engines have build in definition functions. Use the appropriate form, such as Google’s “define” term and have the student input the unknown keyword.
Keywords should be kept simple in the beginning searches, adding more only if they are needed. However, certain searches need to contain more words. If a student needs to find the author of the book, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” all words in the title should be left in place. Because the words in that title are so common, placing them in quotation marks to assure exact phrasing will eliminate a lot of unwanted results. If search results are unmanageable with simple keywords, pad the search terms with keywords that help narrow the results. If the student wants a forum concerning a certain subject, then have the student consider adding the keyword, forum, for instance.
If a certain set of keywords fails, synonyms can be useful as keywords instead. If a synonym does not come to mind, try adding ~ in front of the term for suggestions of synonyms. Descriptions are also useful. Imagine a spider hanging outside the window. There are dozens of reasons why a student might want to look up the spider. Is it poisonous? Is it beneficial? How does it live? What is it called? Simply searching for the keyword spider will bring up a lot of irrelevant results. Knowing that the spider has black legs with yellow spots and putting the key words: spider black legs yellow spots into the search engine should get better results.
Search engines provide a lot of different kinds of content, including maps, news, images, videos, full text of books and patents. The spider example is probably best done as an image search. Image searches will locate keyword information on a page, but display prominent images that are likely to go with the descriptors. Any time a student needs to identify an unknown plant, animal, or other visual item, a image search can be more useful than any other kind. Students should keep in mind, however, that the image shown is not always the one that matches the text on the page.
A number of very specific searches provide information functions beyond searching for articles and images. These can be useful for asking certain types of questions. Google, for instance, can calculate simple math and give conversions between different units, including currency, track flights, track packages, look up local movies and weather, check stock prices, find area codes, check sports scores, and even look up earth quake data for a given area. Properly framing the keywords will open up a whole new world of search results.
The biggest hurdle an educator faces when teaching search skills is changing the way students think about their searches. Framing the question helps define the subject being researched, enabling students to brainstorm keywords that are likely to appear in the kind of articles they need to find. Students can narrow their searches with carefully chosen and added keywords. Finally, students should be aware of the ever expanding array of searches waiting to answer any questions that come up in school, day to day life, and the workplace.