Homework: How to make the most of search engines


Doing research on the Internet is a very formative activity. For example, a study has shown that young people who develop real online research strategies also have better grades at university.

But these skills are not acquired automatically by spending more time surfing the web. On the contrary, students need explicit advice and instructions to be able to do more effective research.

Young people tend to think that they have already mastered these tools. Their teachers and parents assume this too. This assumption is often coupled with the mistaken belief that all research is bound to be fruitful. And while digital tools are often integrated into classroom research, we rarely focus on learning the research methods themselves.

Many teachers do not explicitly guide their students in their online research. On the contrary, children often form by themselves and are reluctant to ask for help. This does not allow them to acquire the necessary skills.

For six years, I studied how young people use search engines. Among the groups I have followed, whether they are studying in a traditional establishment or studying at home, there are a number of bad habits.

For example, everyone spends far more time on sites that are not relevant than on quality sites that would be really useful to them. And, quite often, they give up searching until they find the information they need.

Here are three things to keep in mind to really benefit from online research.

Expand your queries

Young people should explore, synthesize and question information found on the Internet, rather than just spot it, and move on. Search engines offer endless learning possibilities, but students tend to focus on a few specific points. This does not allow them to achieve better results than they would have had forty years ago in a printed encyclopedia.

It is important to use different keywords and cross search queries, sites and search tabs, especially news or images.

Part of my thesis work (being written) consisted of observing young people and their parents using a search engine for 20 minutes. In one of these sessions (the situation is quite typical), a family practicing school at home typed in the Google search bar: “How many endangered tigers are there in Sumatra” . They then click on a single site, on which they locate an explanatory sentence.

The parent copies this response and goes on to the next subject: growing seeds. The research would have been much richer if they had also asked themselves:

  • where is Sumatra
  • why tigers are in danger
  • how we can contribute to their protection

I did my own research with the keywords “Sumatran tigers” in quotes. The results obtained allowed me to see images of tigers in National Geographic and to chat live with an expert from the World Wide Fund (WWF).

By clicking on the “news” tab from the same query, you get a review of recent articles, from the arrival of two tigers in a nature reserve in Australia to the effects of palm oil on the species . It may be enough to modify your queries a little to improve the educational benefits of a search.

Take your time

Too often, it is assumed that research is a rapid process. Families in my study spent an average of 90 seconds or less visiting each website and engaging in new topics every 4 minutes.

With such speed, it can be assumed that students are not making effective requests or getting the information they really need. They may also not have enough time to review the search results and assess the suitability of the sites offered.

My research confirms that budding investigators tend to click on the most prominent links, often the first sites listed, most likely to save time. This is problematic in a commercial environment where the referencing of a site can be bought, and in a context where children tend to take for granted everything they find online.

A quick search is not in itself problematic. By quickly locating the necessary information, students can devote more time to other more complex tasks, such as analyzing and analyzing the facts they find. But this is only true if they have indeed obtained the elements they need.

Do not rely too much on Google

Children often rely on tools offered by Google such as the “Did you mean” function (editor’s note: which corrects queries supposed to contain typos).

When students say they are confident in their ability to search online, my thesis work shows that they trust Google even more. “I’m used to Google making the necessary corrections,” said one of them.

Such attitudes can lead them to reject relevant keywords, by automatically accepting self-correction (sometimes erroneous) or by leaving on irrelevant tracks.

Teaching students to select the sites consulted based on domain name extensions can help them feel responsible for their research instead of downloading to the tool. For example, the extension “.com”, easy to buy, refers more frequently to a commercial site while the extensions “.gouv” or “.edu”, corresponding to official sites, ensure a certain reliability.

Search engines have great educational potential , but we must be careful and avoid shortcuts , and not believe that this potential is a guarantee.

Author Bio: Renee Morrison is a Lecturer in Curriculum Studies at the University of Tasmania