Yet another study shows that “digital natives” suck at searching

I’ve blogged before about studies showing that so-called “digital natives” lack basic information literacy skills and have great difficulty doing academic research and finding and evaluating sources.  (My two posts on Project Information Literacy studies are here and here.)

This Inside Higher Ed article reported today on the results of new studies by the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) Project. Here’s an excerpt, but you should read the whole thing:

“The majority of students — of all levels — exhibited significant difficulties that ranged across nearly every aspect of the search process,” according to researchers there. They tended to overuse Google and misuse scholarly databases. They preferred simple database searches to other methods of discovery, but generally exhibited “a lack of understanding of search logic” that often foiled their attempts to find good sources….

The most alarming finding in the ERIAL studies was perhaps the most predictable: when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy….

The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)

Duke and Asher said they were surprised by “the extent to which students appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school.” Even students who were high achievers in high school suffered from these deficiencies…

In other words: Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.

“I think it really exploded this myth of the ‘digital native,’ ” Asher said. “Just because you’ve grown up searching things in Google doesn’t mean you know how to use Google as a good research tool.”

Even when students turned to more scholarly resources, that did not necessarily solve the problem. Many seemed confused about where in the constellation of library databases they should turn to locate sources for their particular research topic: Half wound up using databases a librarian “would most likely never recommend for their topic.”…

Years of conditioning on Google had not endowed the Illinois Wesleyan students with any searching savvy to speak of, but rather had instilled them with a stunted understanding of how to finely tune a search in order to home in on usable sources, concluded the ERIAL researchers.

Regardless of the advanced-search capabilities of the database they were querying, “Students generally treated all search boxes as the equivalent of a Google search box, and searched ‘Google-style,’ using the ‘any word anywhere’ keyword as a default,” they wrote. Out of the 30 students Duke and Asher observed doing research, 27 failed to narrow their search criteria at all when doing so would have turned up more helpful returns.

Unsurprisingly, students using this method got either too many search results or too few. Frequently, students would be so discouraged they would change their research topic to something more amenable to a simple search….

Duke and Asher noted: “Students showed an almost complete lack of interest in seeking assistance from librarians during the search process.” Of all the students they observed — many of whom struggled to find good sources, to the point of despair — not one asked a librarian for help.

In a separate study of students…, other ERIAL researchers deduced several possible reasons for this. The most basic was that students were just as unaware of the extent of their own information illiteracy as everyone else.

How are students supposed to acquire these important digital and information literacy skills if they aren’t being taught in schools, many parents and teachers lack these skills themselves, and the librarians who have the skills are ignored or fired as libraries close in record numbers?

18 responses to “Yet another study shows that “digital natives” suck at searching

  1. I’m just as clueless. Why not post a link in your article to a quick how-to guide? Sounds like a few pointers is all the students and I need.

  2. Or maybe, interfacing with an old and dying paradigm is confusing.

  3. Here are your pointers:

    1) know the difference between AND and OR
    2) figure out how and when to use NOT
    3) learn what happens when you put words in groups with quote symbols
    4) Realize that there are many databases are not fully exposed via a web page, and thus are completely unindexed by Google or any other web search. Find where the ones relative to your topic are and query them.

    If you could do those four things, you would know more about search than 99.9% of internet users.

  4. Sorry Andrew, we are going to need a source for that figure. Please type one up in APA format and submit for credibility.

  5. Maybe google is just easier?

    You say students don’t know how to navigate virtual research indexes, but maybe those indexes should have an intuitive design? They always seemed like they were designed by people who just took a card catalog and put I online.

    I’ve never seen a card catalog, I have no idea how one works and only understand that it was some way to find books. It is a completely alien concept to me.

    Students have to write a lot of papers, sometimes having 3-5 10 page papers due on the same day on topics they really don’t give a shit about nor will retain any knowledge of. Why put in the work of finding good information the hard way, rather than alright information the easy way.

    Seriously, if you’re going to market your services to someone, you have to cater to them. And the current student is lazy and needs easy answers. We’ve grown up having the entire knowledge of humanity a click away, our greatest fear is losing our cell phone, and we’re generally given an over bearing amount of school work.

    It’s not that students are the offenders here, it’s that these companies can’t program good search features and intuitive designs that the students have come to expect.

    • An essential part of your education is teaching you how to teach yourself. Education is not a product you consume. You are not being catered to. Your brain is being exercised.

      • Emperor of Monkeys

        Except that writing papers isn’t a very good way to track student knowledge. If you hand someone a bullshit assignment, they’re going to do bullshit work.

        Papers get assigned because they’re easy to hand out and easy to grade. Testing and application is where you separate the interested from the time-servers.

    • Better Student

      “Maybe google is just easier?”

      Of course it is, it was made for the people like you. I hope you don’t aspire for work in any field that may actually require having to put forth the effort to look something up. A great many things are not designed intuitively, yet somehow, enough people still know how to use them effectively that they continue to be used in their intended manner.

      If ten 3-5 page papers are too much for you, perhaps dropping some courses (or just dropping out altogether) may be more your speed… Having the “entire knowledge of humanity a click away” neither entitles you to it, nor indicates your ability to lecture on how it should be accessed.

    • Student,

      The companies are not the problem here, the problem is ultimately the lack of understanding today’s student has. As you said yourself “the current student is lazy”. This, in my opinion, is the crux of the matter. Today’s students have everything handed to them on a silver platter that they no longer understand how to learn. If students got over their laziness, stopped taking things for granted, and actually decided to learn how to learn, this would become a non-issue. Today’s students are becoming illiterate by the droves.

      The search engines that the major companies produce cannot read your mind as to what exactly you want. Therefore you need to learn how to use them. I have learned how to use them, and can usually find what I’m looking for (or what someone else is looking for) in less than a minute. People who haven’t taken the time to learn how a search engine works are often amazed and ask “Well, how come I couldn’t find it?” and seem to think I have some sort of magical search skills. The lazier people become, the more illiterate they become. If you are happy being lazy, then don’t be upset that you can’t use a search engine. Blaming others for your own shortcomings, whether it be lack of search skills, or anything else in life, might make you feel better in the short run, but it will only become a detriment to you in the long run.


    • Google ‘card catalog’.

  6. Computer Scientist weighing in here(Search and the Semantic Web were a core part of my graduate degree).

    I have to stand in to defend “Student.” He is absolutely correct that Google is just simpler and more intuitive to learn than the old, antiquated search engines. They really were not designed with any Human-Systems Interaction in mind. While they have a lot of good content in them, their interfaces are mostly dinosaurs.

    So yes, I agree with the author that today’s students don’t know how to search these old databases. But I also say that they really shouldn’t have to.

  7. What a bunch of luddite drivel. I can only assume that the average age of commenters on here complaining about today’s lazy youth is somewhere north of 50–members of an entitled generation that literally WERE handed everything on a silver platter.

    You are obsolete, and your outdated, inefficient tools for performing research are obsolete. When all the information that you had access to could be fit into a school library, it made sense to tolerate those depth-first searches. When a decent chunk of human knowledge is available at your fingertips, it’s a waste of time to require scores of independent databases. To call the expectation of ergonomics and good design “laziness” is the cry of a crotchety old coot who’s letting nostalgia fill in for logic. I’m sure there were people decrying the decline of oral traditions when the printed word came into vogue as well.

    Librarians are relics. So too are libraries. You may not like it, but fortunately your generation will die off soon enough that we won’t have to hear about it anymore.

  8. Harry Coverston

    “Librarians are relics. So too are libraries. You may not like it, but fortunately your generation will die off soon enough that we won’t have to hear about it anymore.”

    Indeed. A good look at what that generation will look like is available. It’s a film entitled Idiocracy. Perhaps it’s good that human beings don’t live much past 80.

  9. I don’t see how learning to more effectively use tools is “luddite drivel.” It requires finely tuned hand-eye coordination to play a sport well or make a work of art. Doing anything clumsily will lead to inferior results. Using research tools is no different. And you’re all right — the student is lazy, and the tools are sub-par. Time for the creators of the databases, the the librarians and the students to – crazy idea here – TALK TO EACH OTHER about what is needed and how to go about making it happen.

    Also, the idea that libraries are relics is completely absurd. What is I agree that the “library” as it is romanticized is a relic, but collections of information are not going away, nor are they irrelevant. The notion of curated collections of information is perhaps more important now than ever.

  10. I too am on both sides of this argument. I agree that students are lazy and I agree that library databases & search interfaces are hard to master. Indeed, why shouldn’t students prefer Google? Databases are harder to search and as long as there are competing vendors keeping their licensed content to their own products, nothing will ever change … unless libraryland figures it out and starts embracing things like Knowledge for All: … but I digress…
    I think that the answer is simple – school and education shouldn’t be about doing things the easy way. Students have long been allowed to do just enough to get by. They seem to have learned to ask what is needed to pass and that is exactly what they do. Natural curiosity and a desire to contribute to a body of knowledge or advance their chosen discipline are rare things in most students I encounter. We’ve created a false need for credentials in order to get decent paying jobs and there are way too many students in post secondary education who want their diplomas only for very practical reasons. That is why they want to do things the easy way.
    Has anyone seen the fun corollary to this year’s Beloit College Mindset list in the Chronicle of Higher Education? Here is the list: And here is the “antidote” – See particularly #16 – the fact that students have become customers says an awful lot about the current predicament in education.

  11. interesting that none of you are mentioning that the best databases are proprietary and are gouging libraries’ budgets –and, by tax-payer-dollars’ extension– America/the World. Idiots. You don’t even realize what you are up against –how could you possibly understand the value of sharper investigative skills –yeah, go eat those burgers and drive that SUV and watch your MTV (by the way, that was a metaphor).