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Teaching online research skills to our learners Is crucial for many reasons. It's often easy to assume that students’ access to technology and their technological skills are good enough for them to add depth to their understanding of academic subjects.
In fact, many academics contend that the digital divide that separates successful and unsuccessful students is based on which schools have modern technological equipment and access to the Internet.
Unfortunately, “haves” can possess every technological tool imaginable and still be academically behind “have-nots” with online research skills.
The Edudemic article “Do Your Students Know How To Search?” reports the following:
“The new digital divide will be based around students who know how to effectively find and curate information and those who do not. Learning to effectively search is one of the most important skills most teachers are NOT teaching. They assume students know how to conduct a search, and set them free on the Internet to find information. They assume that students have the skills to critically think their way through the searching and the web. Sadly, this is not the case.”
Teaching online research skills is so crucial that you should consider condensing your subject matter lesson plans so students can improve their search skills. Look at it this way: do you think it is preferable for students to know everything in your lesson plan but be unable to write adequate reports in higher grades and college because they didn't know how to find and analyze online resources?
It’s also important that you have hands-on lessons about online research, going over specific searches to show students the process of finding the right information. Many students (and adults) tend to want to use the first sources of information they find.
They need to learn the importance of patience and determination to keep on trying rather than just advanced search techniques that help them find information as fast as possible.
Learning shortcuts is important, but knowing when those shortcuts have paid off is even more important. With that, check out these 10 tips for helping students search for—and effectively use—online information for classwork.
A 10-Step Guide for Teaching Online Research Skills
The primary focus of teaching online research skills should be on helping students to use critical independent thinking to understand which sources are credible and how to search for information from various sources. Here is an example of a 10-step lesson plan you can use.
Note: An instruction which says you should type a word or words in the Google search box such as "history" means that you should type the word or words written after the instruction, but not the quotation marks.
Step 1: Explain Domains
Type a few words in the Google.com search box, which most of your students have probably done many times. Type “World War II,” for example, and you will get hundreds of millions of search results. Point out that websites end in various domains including .com, .org, and .edu.
Many search results, particularly .com domains, could be someone’s blog or businesses selling World War II memorabilia. Then, explain the different domains. Here is an article that could help you, but you can find others out there that are similar.
Step 2: Search Best Domains
After explaining why some domains and some sources are more credible than others, it’s time to show students an excellent shortcut to narrow their search to more credible sources. Typing the word “site” in the search box followed by a colon and a domain after the topic you’re looking for accomplishes this.
So you would type “World War II site:edu” (typing capital letters isn’t necessary) to narrow your search to educational sources, and ”World War II site:gov” to narrow your search to governmental sources, etc. The "site" command is one of the best advanced search techniques for finding the best and most credible information.
Step 3: Search Best Websites
If your students are searching for information about current events, they might know what some of the best websites are such as nytimes.com. If they’re researching historical information, you might ask them to find out what the best websites are. For example, you might ask them to type “best World War II websites” or “World War II websites for students” in the Google search box. Next, instruct them to use the site command to find information from those websites, which would look like “World War II site:www.pbs.org”.
Step 4: Search Encyclopedias
Your students can find information from the most pertinent encyclopedias via the same process. Here is a list of encyclopedias that includes the best choices for specific topics. This is a good time to note that you should tell your students that scholarly encyclopedias are a better source than Wikipedia since it is written largely by non-scholars. Ultimately, one of the best uses of Wikipedia is for assistance with finding other credible sources.
Step 5: Be More Specific
Students should use several credible sources if they are, for instance, writing a report about World War II. One way to do that is to use different sources for the causes of World War II, the effects of World War II, etc. Thus, searching for “causes of World War II” is preferable to simply searching “World War II”.
Here’s another tip: students can use find easy-to-read information in .pdf and .htm files. They can use the “filetype” command just as they used the “site” command to find those sources. They can, for example, type “causes of world war II filetype:pdf”.
Step 6: Find Specific Facts
The asterisk (*) is another tool that helps students when using advanced search techniques to look for info on the Internet. If they’re looking for a fact such as a date, they will quickly learn that Google will fill in the blank with information that replaces the asterisk. Thus, typing “Hitler invaded Poland on *” will yield them the precise result.
They can also use Google search to find the answers to Math problems. Typing “456+456” will, again, yield them the proper answer. They can also use Google to find the definition of words by typing “define” and then the word they want to know about.
Step 7: Seek Specific Results
Students might want to make sure that their World War II report includes information on U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. They can use the plus sign to accomplish this objective by typing “world war II +fdr” in the search box. Similarly, they can use the minus sign to exclude info from the search result such as “world war II-japan”. In addition, they can put quotes around a multi-word phrase if they want a specific search result. Typing the words "the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor because" will yield only results with those specific words.
Step 8: Seek Time-Specific Info
This tip is particularly important in Science because information is constantly changing. Students who are writing about gene therapy might want to focus on what has been accomplished in the last year. They can do that by hitting “Tools” in the Google advanced search options after they type in “gene therapy” and then clicking on “Any time.” The drop-down list lets them select a recent time period.
Similarly, students can also select “custom range” to find sources from specific time periods. They might, for example, want to know what World-War II scholars wrote about the war from 1970 to 1980.
Step 9: Use Other Search Engines
Google is the most popular search engine, but frequently people who are unsatisfied with Google search results use other search engines. They include search engines that are typically used to seek everyday information such as Bing and Yahoo and search engines that are typically used by scholars looking for academic research. For convenience, here is a list of popular search engines and a list of scholarly search engines.
Step 10: Provide Lists Of Tips
The above tips could be an excellent way for students to begin to improve their use of advanced search techniques on the Internet, but you probably want the students to continue teaching online research skills to themselves as well. Below are several resources that the students can consult to further improve their Internet skills.
- Top 10 Clever Google Search Tricks
- Google Tips and Tricks Every Student Should Know
- Here Are 36 Search Tips You Probably Don't Know About
- 21 Google Search Tips You Need to Learn
- 10 tips for smarter, more efficient Internet searching
- 20 Tips To Use Google Search Efficiently
As you can see, teaching online research skills can be a process everyone in your class, including you, can learn from and have fun with. By the end of the school year, the students will know more about advanced search techniques on the Internet than you do.
What's more, you'll have provided them with valuable information literacy and fluency skills that will serve them well far beyond the classroom experiences they'll share while they are in your care.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Aug 30, 2017, updated Dec 16, 2021