Johnny Can’t Search

I recently read a short article in Wired magazine by Clive Thompson on Why Kids Can’t Search

'Apples & Oranges - They Don't Compare' photo (c) 2008, TheBusyBrain - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Thompson discusses a recent experiment where college students were asked to perform basic searches in Google and evaluate the results selecting the best ones. The trick is that half of the results had been falsified so that the top results were not good results. Students didn’t notice. They still chose the first results.

Lesson? Students trust the machine too much. Or students have been trained to have a certain expectation of the machine, which is that it works wonderfully well and the best results are always the first results!

I would not be impressed by this study if indeed the first results were always the best results. If the first results were always spot on I’d say that they experiment was flawed. But while Google’s algorithm does retrieve highly relevant results most of the time, the truth is that it does not always give you the best results.

And beyond that the first results are indeed better when you start with a better search strategy. This is where I too often see college students failing. Most students have difficulty determining what their key search terms are and other possible search terms they could try.

I have helped many a student perform a successful Google search, on the first try, when their many attempts had failed. What makes my searches more successful? Background knowledge on the topic combined with thoughtful analysis of the students information need. That is given my experience with different types of information sources I can visualize what type of source they would find most useful and with my broad based general knowledge can determine what key terms would be best to search for.

This kind of skills can only be learned over time with practice and exposure. But I’d like to offer up a few helpful skills that students could develop:

1. Read carefully. Careful reading of a source will often help you contextualize your key terms and find more key terms as well.

2. Slow down. Don’t rush into your search. Break down your thoughts and spend some time thinking of alternative words.

3. Mock up your ideal information source. One would be the title of the best possible source for your research? What would it include? What would it not be? Thinking about this will help you identify a good source when you see it and help you identify more good search terms.

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