Category Archives: Students

Let’s talk about search

So my last post, “Yet another study shows that ‘digital natives’ suck at searching,” seems to have struck a nerve– it’s received over 5000 hits (thanks to links from BoingBoing and Fark, as well as Twitter and Facebook), and I’ve been reading  the wide range of comments that have sprung up in various places (including my blog, BoingBoing, and the original article at Inside Higher Ed).

I think what many people (especially students) don’t understand is that search is both a tool and a process, requiring different skills, knowledge, and experience. You can learn just enough to get by or really master it with a little curiosity, persistence, time, and practice. There are many ways to do this, and you don’t need a formal class– you can teach yourself (as I did).  There are lots of online resources to help you, including tutorials and how-to guides on university and library websites and specific search engine help pages. (And don’t forget about librarians, a seriously underused resource.) There are links to some resources in my posts and my blogroll and I’ll add more soon.

I do believe it’s important for students to be taught (and regularly practice)– at school, in libraries, and at home– the essentials of digital and information literacy and critical thinking, starting at a young age  and continuing throughout their education. These are important life skills which are being sadly neglected.

Yes, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that most students are lazy and want to get quick and “good enough” results. But the problem is that they don’t know what they don’t know. (As the ERIAL researchers noted, “students were just as unaware of the extent of their own information illiteracy as everyone else.”) They have no idea that there’s a world of information out there that you can’t find through a Google search. Most of it has never been digitized and probably never will be (for lack of funding and copyright concerns, among other reasons). Some has been digitized but is locked in proprietary databases and the “invisible web.” Most books and articles published in the US after 1922 are still under copyright, so even if they’ve been digitized chances are they aren’t free (unless you borrow them from a library). Even if information has been indexed in Google, you may never find it if you don’t know how to properly search for it.

Google could certainly improve the situation, but it is a company of engineers trying to make search as easy and simple as possible for the vast majority of users, giving them a single “magic box” into which they can type anything and get results, even if they’ve spelled the keywords wrong or don’t really know what they are looking for. Some of the “improvements” they’ve made over time have made it frustrating for advanced users like me, such as ignoring the terms I’ve actually typed and substituting what they assume I’m looking for, or filtering my results based on my past search history. And if you want more advanced search options, Google doesn’t make it easy to find or learn about them, and their help articles often aren’t helpful at all. Search is not just an engineering problem to be solved– it is both an art and a science, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But no matter how good or flawed a tool like Google search is, anyone can learn how to use it well and get far better results.

A number of people have asked for some advice and tips on search, so here you go.

General advice:

  • When using any search engine, database, or website with search functions, take a few moments to read the instructions or help pages to figure out how to use the site to its full advantage.
  • Search engines are constantly evolving, so you should periodically review the instructions to see if you need to make changes in the way you search.
  • Every search engine is different, so what works for one won’t necessarily work for all, and each may produce different results using the same search terms.
  • If there is an “advanced search” option, you should always use it, as it will give you much more control over your searching and the results.
  • Refine your search. Experiment with different keywords and combinations of keywords. Look for clues to other possible keywords, such as related terms, alternate names, and subject-specific terminology. If you don’t get the results you are looking for, keep trying different things.
  • Remember to look beyond just the first few search results.

Some Google-specific tips:

  • Google’s search tips and help articles can be hard to find, but they do have useful information. Here are direct links:
  • Use Google’s advanced search function, which allows you to limit your search  in many different ways and combinations (all these words, this exact wording or phrase, one or more of these words, don’t show pages that have any of these unwanted words, language, file type, search within a site or domain, etc.). There is no longer a link to it on the main search page– it’s now hidden behind the gear icon (search settings) in the upper right corner. Here’s the direct link:  http://www.google.com/advanced_search?hl=en
  • If you’d rather use Google’s main search box instead of the advanced search, the help articles I linked to above have command shortcuts you can use, such as placing quotation marks around exact phrases. Note that Google no longer uses all Boolean operators. (You don’t need AND as it is the default in all searches. You can still use OR. Don’t use NOT, instead place a minus sign (-) directly before any words or terms you want to exclude.)
  • Google has many specialized search functions for images, news, blogs, scholarly papers, books, patents, etc.  Look in the upper left-hand corner, click “more,” then click “even more” for a full list. Here’s the direct link to the list:  http://www.google.com/intl/en/about/products/index.html
  • All the words you put in the query will be used and the order you put them in matters.
  • Search is case insensitive, punctuation is usually ignored, and common words (the, a) are usually ignored.
  • Google automatically searches for common variations of a keyword.

A final note: Improving your search skills is important, but it’s even more important that you think critically and evaluate your search results and sources.  (See some of my previous posts for more about this.)

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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?

More from Project Information Literacy: “the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency”

Back in April, I wrote a long post titled “I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling in this casino…” about Project Information Literacy’s February 2009 report, “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say About Conducting Research in the Digital Age.” In my post I was somewhat snarky about the report, as you can see from this excerpt:

Surely it isn’t a surprise that:

* Students always procrastinate and are looking for quick and easy answers.

* Students spend an unlimited amount of time and effort on things that interest them, but do the minimum necessary on academic assignments.

* Students universally use the two tools that are the most convenient, familiar, and useful to them– Wikipedia and Google– and they will continue to do so regardless of what their professors say.

* Students don’t know or haven’t been taught how to do research, think critically, find and evaluate sources (online and in the library), and efficiently sift through the overwhelming amount of available information to find what they need.

This month Project Information Literacy released a new and more in-depth report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age”, and it offers some valuable insights and recommendations. Among the report’s conclusions:

When it came to everyday life research, nearly all of the respondents used Google, Wikipedia, and friends for finding context. Almost all of the students used course readings, [online] library resources, and public Internet sites such as Google and Wikipedia, when conducting course-related research—no matter… what resources they had at their disposal.

The relatively consistent pattern of information usage suggests that most students in our study favored a risk-averse and predictable information-seeking strategy. The student approach appears to be learned by rote and reliant on using a small set of resources nearly each and every time.

At the same time, the student approach may sometimes backfire. Using public sites on the Internet, such as Google search, early on, may be one reason why students reportedly find research frustrating in the digital age.

We have found studentsʼ frustrations and challenges involve narrowing down topics, finding relevant resources, sorting through too many results from online searches, and evaluating the credibility of what students choose to use. Still, almost all students used public Internet sites early on, despite their known limitations….

A significant majority of students in our sample–8 in 10–did not ever consult librarians for course-related research assignments. Instead, instructors played an important role in coaching students through the research process…

When it comes to finding information and conducting research, today’s students clearly favor brevity, consensus, and currency in the information sources they seek… [They] have defined their preferences for information sources in a world where credibility, veracity, and intellectual authority are less of a given–or even an expectation from students–with each passing day.

All in all, we are reminded of a comment from one student… about using books from the campus library: “Books, do I use them? Not really, they are antiquated interfaces. You have to look in an index, way in the back, and it’s not even hypertexted linked.”

Today’s students are not lazy or unthinking. This student, representing many, looks at information sources, systems, and services as to how well they meet his or her needs in terms of content, accessibility, and usefulness….

So students prefer to use web sources like Google and Wikipedia because they are fast, convenient, familiar, and produce results, meeting their needs for “content, accessibility, and usefulness.” Of all of the library resources provided to students, online scholarly research databases are used the most, as not only do instructors require their use to find credible content, but they are easy to search. Students aren’t using resources like books, even when they are better and more authoritative for academic research, because they take more time, thought, and effort to find and use, and they can’t be quickly and easily searched. This makes sense– today’s college students are digital natives.

I didn’t understand why so few students use librarians as a resource until I read about the “critical difference between the students’ approach and the librarians’ approach” to research:

“The library guide recommends beginning course-related research by using library resources to identify and narrow down a topic. These resources, the library catalog and periodical indices, are all vetted, credible, and authoritative. Only much later in the research process, and only after a topic has been safely nailed down, does the guide recommends turning to Internet resources, such as Google… The student approach is different… [They] reported using public Internet sources (i.e. Google and Wikipedia) in their initial stages of research for a variety of reasons, which included a belief that the Internet is an all-inclusive information resource… All in all, the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency. To that end, librarians suggest using scholarly resources, while many students in our study used a wide range of resources that deliver an abundance of results early on, whether they are scholarly or not. As a whole, the findings suggest that students in our sample favored sources for their brevity, consensus, and currency over other qualities and less so, for their scholarly authority.

At the end of the report, the authors make a series of recommendations, of which I thought these were particularly important:

Course-related research assignments should not indirectly encourage students to half-heartedly engage in a narrow exploration of the digital landscape (e.g., assignments that state requirements such as, “must use five sources cited in your paper”). Administrators, faculty, and librarians should examine whether research-based assignments result in opening studentsʼ minds to expand their information-gathering competencies. Instead, we recommend that students be given course-related research assignments that encourage the collection, analysis, and synthesis of multiple viewpoints from a variety of sources, so the transfer of information literacy and critical thinking competencies may be more actively called up, practiced, and learned by students…

Our work leads us to draw an important distinction between library services and library resources… For the most part, in our study, librarians were left out of the student research workflow, despite librariansʼ vast training and expertise in finding information. Librarians should systematically (not just anecdotally) examine the services they provide to students… Questions should be addressed about how and why services and resources are used—not only how often (e.g., circulation or reference desk statistics). Librarians may want to initiate their analysis by asking what percentage of their campus are using the library, for what particular resources or services, and why or why not?

So what do you think? How can we expand the minds and research methods of digital natives? We can’t convert all information to digital form, so are there ways to pry them away from their computers and into the stacks? Should we even try? Rather than trying to change the ways they do research, should we instead focus on teaching them to improve their web search skills and find and evaluate digital sources? Can we provide better or more authoritative alternatives to Wikipedia and Google, or make it easier to find academic sources with one search? How can we make academic research more interesting and creative for students?

I welcome your comments and ideas.

Wikipedia kid: “a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically”

Thanks to John McIntyre’s language and editing blog, You Don’t Say, I discovered the new term “Wikipedia kid.”

According to the website Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to New Words, a Wikipedia kid is “a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically.”

Word Spy lists the earliest citation as an April 6, 2009 report from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations:

Students less prepared for university education than in 2005, according to Ontario university faculty

Wikipedia kids less mature and lacking required skills

..First-year students are less prepared for university education than students from just three years earlier, according to over 55 percent of Ontario university faculty and librarians who responded to a recent questionnaire. Respondents reported declines in writing and numeric skills combined with lower maturity among students who believe that good grades are an entitlement…

Respondents most often reported the following challenges among first-year students:

Lower level of maturity

Poor research skills as evidenced by an overreliance on Internet tools like Wikipedia as external research sources

Expectation of success without the requisite effort

Inability to learn independently…

“Dear Plagiarist”

More plagiarism in the news this week– actions do (sometimes) have consequences.

Regret the Error reported that Hailey Mac Arthur, a college student working as a summer intern at the Colorado Springs Gazette, was fired after it was discovered that four of her stories were plagiarized from the New York Times.  Here’s the July 7th Editor’s Note from the Gazette revealing the plagiarism and student’s name. Her school, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, issued a statement on their website that they are “looking into” the plagiarism allegations, they are “withholding judgment” until they investigate, and they emphasized their “unwavering policy against plagiarism of any kind.”

“It’s simple: We don’t tolerate plagiarism,” said the college’s dean, John Wright. “There’s no way you can be a student in our college and not know that we consider plagiarism a grave transgression.”

…Professors and instructors in the college discuss plagiarism in their classes and let students know that even minor offenses can result in a failing grade and possible expulsion from the program and UF.

“From the first semester of the freshman year, journalism students have the evils of plagiarism pounded into their skulls,” said the chair of the journalism department, William McKeen. “That message is part of every course we teach.”

Master Lecturer Mike Foley, former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, tells his students on the first day of class that he would advocate kicking out anyone who “steals the words of others.”…

“This case is a stunning aberration,” Foley said. “Our students know better.”

On the Inside Higher Ed website, G. Thomas Couser, a professor of English at Hofstra University, has written an open letter to one of his students, titled “Dear Plagiarist.” Here’s an excerpt:

When you got your paper back with a grade of F for plagiarism, you reacted in predictable fashion — with indignant denial of any wrongdoing. You claimed “you cited everything” and denied that you had committed intentional plagiarism, or ever would….

I suspect that, because too many professors (many of them adjuncts fearful of student backlash) overlook or are unwilling to pursue plagiarism — the process can be labor intensive, and it is always unpleasant — cheating has become a way of life for many students, and they are genuinely surprised at being held responsible for it. So I don’t doubt that your shock is real.

When I declined to believe your initial denial, you reiterated it less strongly (“OK, I used SparkNotes, but I reworded everything”) and appealed to me for leniency on various grounds: first, that you didn’t know that paraphrase required documentation; second, that you had in fact read the book you were supposed to be analyzing (Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted); and, third, that the low term grade resulting from your F on the paper would cost you your scholarship.

With regard to your first claim, I have to admit that your paraphrase was very thorough, so much so that Turnitin.com, to which you were required to submit your paper for screening, did not lead me to SparkNotes. There were other clues, however: the potted nature of your off-topic observations and, more obviously, your paper’s entire lack of specific page references to your primary source. Also, earlier, less skillful plagiarists had alerted me to the SparkNotes on Girl, Interrupted, so I knew where to look.

Your second claim is also familiar; student plagiarists often claim that they thought documentation is only necessary for quotation. For all I know, this excuse may have worked for them before. But any adequate discussion of plagiarism will correct that misimpression, as I do in course documents you should have read. As a college student, you should know that the key to responsible use of secondary sources is to cite them openly from the get-go and to indicate clearly the boundary between your words, insights, and ideas, and those of your source. But you relied almost entirely on SparkNotes for your observations…

Your use of the online “study guide” SparkNotes is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such guides very rarely enable students to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a student has actually read (as a student I occasionally used them that way myself), but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for — or stimulus to — the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of true college writing….

The reason that plagiarism like yours makes professors so sad – and, yes, sometimes mad — is that it entirely defeats our attempts to educate you. We work hard to put you in a position to reach understandings that you would not otherwise be able to attain… Cannibalizing a source like SparkNotes is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do… The problem is not so much rule breaking as point missing….

If you take the text I’ve marked above in bold type and make a few simple substitutions (“Wikipedia” for “SparkNotes,” “writer” for “student,” etc.), you get one of the important lessons that Chris Anderson still hasn’t learned from the plagiarism kerfuffle over his new book, Free:

Your use of Wikipedia is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such websites very rarely enable writers to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a  writer has actually read, but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for — or stimulus to — the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of writing books. Cannibalizing a source like Wikipedia is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do.

I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling in this casino…

I recently read the February 2009 Project Information Literacy Progress Report from the Information School at the University of Washington, titled “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age.”

The goal of the project is to “understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and ‘everyday use’ and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency in the digital age.”

While I admire these goals and am obviously interested in the subject, I wasn’t surprised by the findings, and I found some of the quotes from students unintentionally funny.

The report begins by asking:

What is it like to be a college student in the digital age? In a world teeming with information technology and overflowing with access to data, how do students find the information they need? How do students conduct research for course-related assignments? How do they conduct research for use in their everyday lives? What frustrations and obstacles do they encounter? What strategies have students developed to meet their information needs?

Their conclusion?

So far, we have found that no matter where students are enrolled, no matter what information resources they may have at their disposal, and no matter how much time they have, the abundance of information technology and the proliferation of digital information resources make conducting research uniquely paradoxical: Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times… In general, students reported being challenged, confused, and frustrated by the research process, despite the convenience, relative ease, or ubiquity of the Internet. In our sessions, frustrations included the effects of information overload and being inundated with resources, but more. Participants also reported having particular difficulty traversing a vast and every-changing information landscape. Specifically, participants greatest challenges were related to finding the materials they desired, knew existed, and needed on a “just in time” basis.

Some specific findings:

  • Students treat everyday life research and course-related research differently, and they put a lot more time and effort into the former. “Students reported that searches for everyday life information could last for days, and were driven by curiosity, as students clicked on Google results or Wikipedia citations and unfolded layers of information.”
  • Students “reported almost twice as many frustrations, overall, with conducting course-related research than with everday life research, though the nature or type of participants’ frustrations had underlying similarities.” Everyday life frustrations included: too many results from a Google search and the need to sort through them; knowing the “answer” is online but not being able to find it; figuring out whether a source is credible; knowing that everything is not online; and never can find enough information on the obscure topic being searched. Course-related frustrations included: information overload; too much irrelevant information, can’t locate what is needed from online results; trying to find the “perfect” source; not knowing what to look for, yet still sifting through articles that might fit; trouble finding books needed on library shelves; and conducting research to meet another’s expectations.
  • Students begin their course-related research with Wikipedia. They begin their everyday life research with Google, followed by blogs and Wikipedia.
  • “The majority of the students we interviewed did not start on an assignment–thinking about it, researching, or writing–until two or three days before it was due.”

The study authors note that for students, conducting research “may feel a lot like being an inexperienced sailor heading directly into an oncoming wind, sails wildly flapping, and not being able to maneuver and get to a desired destination.” They believe this is because students are struggling to “find context,” and they go on to describe four types of context students seek: big picture; language, situational, information gathering.

But what do students do to find context? They use Wikipedia, despite its flaws and warnings from their professors. “We found the majority of students ignored the negatives and went to the site anyway. Most students depended on and used Wikipedia for information cited in papers, but just never included Wikipedia entries on their Works Cited page. In our sessions, students also discussed concerns over Wikipedia and accuracy. However, most participants believed that they, themselves, had the ability to discern the credibility of a Wikipedia source, based on their ‘gut level’ interpretation of Wikipedia’s rating system.”

Surely it isn’t a surprise that:

  • Students always procrastinate and are looking for quick and easy answers.
  • Students spend an unlimited amount of time and effort on things that interest them, but do the minimum necessary on academic assignments.
  • Students universally use the two tools that are the most convenient, familiar, and useful to them– Wikipedia and Google– and they will continue to do so regardless of what their professors say.
  • Students don’t know or haven’t been taught how to do research, think critically, find and evaluate sources (online and in the library), and efficiently sift through the overwhelming amount of available information to find what they need.

I wrote in my very first blog post, “Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.” Research also requires time and patience, but it is a skill that can be learned with a little knowledge and practice. However, research is much easier to do when motivated by a love of learning, intellectual curiosity, and passion for your subject, rather than obligation.  Even I don’t like researching subjects I find boring. So while we clearly need to teach students how to do research, we should also be giving them assignments that not only educate them, but also interest and inspire them.

A fascinating post last month in the blog In the Library with the Lead Pipe gave a librarian’s perspective on this, discussing some of the “questionable assignments” given to students by well-meaning faculty members:

Every semester there is at least one assignment that comes across my reference desk that makes me throw my hands up in exasperation (such as: a scavenger hunt that was written before we moved much of our content online or the requirement that the student must have at least one print source, library databases and ebooks do not count)…

We kept getting students who had the same (admirable) weekly assignment: find and read a newspaper article covering the event they were studying that week. The article (or possibly other primary source document) had to have been written during the time of the event and from the perspective of the people involved. We had been doing fine helping them find historical and foreign papers as needed, until they came to the Ottoman Empire. And it didn’t stop there. The class was a survey of world history. They continued to have topics that simply might not have ever been documented by the people involved, unlikely in newspaper article form, certainly not in English, and may not have ever been translated into English if it did manage to get written down and preserved. African events were also particularly difficult…

Scavenger hunt assignments are frustrating for everyone. Looking up trivia is not the same as conducting research and without a meaningful application of the process of using the library anything they learn through the scavenger hunt is less likely to stick…

Often the student, the faculty, or both don’t differentiate between the free web and resources that the library has purchased, but are available electronically…

Librarians are on the front lines of this battle, and both students and faculty would benefit from using them more as a resource.

It looks like I now have lots of subjects for future blog posts…