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Letting Go of Boolean Operators: Rethinking How Research Is Taught in Schools

Submitted by Sarah Ludwig on July 2, 2012 - 5:35pm

I am constantly struggling with the sense that I’m doing a lot of talking for nothing. I painstakingly teach kids how to use a database and they go straight back to Wikipedia as soon as I turn them loose. I show them how to use keywords and operators and they always fall back on their “ask Google a question” method.

I get frustrated. I’ve considered asking their teachers to require the use of databases. But lately I’ve been admitting to myself the deep, dark truth: I’ve got it backwards. I’m forcing students to use tools and search methods that are more cumbersome, more frustrating, and less successful simply because I, the librarian, think it’s the best thing to do. If students are going to spend the rest of their lives searching for information in the easiest, most natural way, I must embrace that.

In order for students to see the benefit of using a tool that’s more complicated, they need to actually get better results. And that doesn’t always happen. Using databases is hard, and the results aren’t always great. Students don’t understand why some results are only citations, and they don’t understand why they need to spend 15 minutes crafting the perfect search string, complete with limiters, in order to pinpoint the most useful resources. Imagine doing all that work and then not finding anything; it usually ensures that a student will never ever use that tool again.

We’re librarians and, in theory, we excel at finding information. We also (or perhaps I should just speak for myself) do things the hard way. Sometimes because we believe it’s better in the long run. Or maybe because we even like spending those 15 minutes crafting the perfect search. But our students get their information instantly. It may not be the best, most reliable information, but it’s the answer they want. How can we ever compete with that? And should we? Why are we sending them to slog through web subject guides when they can go to Ask.com and get the answer in 10 seconds?

Obviously, it’s our job to teach students how to find the best information they can. But I think there is a better way.

We have to stop being afraid of Wikipedia. Some will see this as a no-brainer, but in my experience, many teachers and librarians still ban Wikipedia outright as a source. Wikipedia is a generally reliable source that needs to be evaluated by the reader just like any other. Wikipedia gives the reader clues by highlighting potential problems with the article, such as bias or a lack of citations. Most students’ eyes skip right over these flags, so librarians have to show them how to see them.

Use Wikipedia as the tool that it is: the citations are right there. Students already are using the site. So let them; and teach them what those citations are and how to use them. (Though students are often shocked to see that many of the citations listed are for books). Teach them how to see the revision history of an article, the discussion page, and the subject guides down at the bottom. All of these features are excellent research tools, and learning to use them will give students skills they will actually care about (which means they’ll reinforce them naturally).

If you must ban Wikipedia, then you should also ban Ask.com, Answers.com, About.com, thefamouspeople.com, and any other website that’s easy to find, full of facts, and short on citations. Wikipedia is better than any of those sources.

Let the kids and the project guide the process. I do interact with older students who are comfortable with, and even like, using databases. They get assignments that require primary sources or information about more esoteric topics. These students are often thrilled to discover that databases can provide the information they need, because they’re frustrated by Google searches that don’t work. There is a time and place to introduce databases, especially if your students are going to college. If you know your students, you will know when they are ready. And if you collaborate in planning with faculty or simply get advance notice on assignments, you should be able to identify when work calls for more sophisticated searching methods and tools.

Build presearch into the curriculum. Presearch, or pre-research, helps students identify subjects and terms that they will be able to easily research. Use a worksheet to have them identify keywords and then narrow and broaden these terms. Before students commit to a topic, ask them to peruse several websites, using these terms, to see how much information they’ll be able to find. This isn’t to say that research should be easy above all else, or that students should abandon interesting topics if they’re “too hard,” but that students should investigate and prepare search strategies before the real work of their research begins. Identifying keywords, especially, will make the search process much smoother later on. You can go even further by helping students articulate the types of sources they need, the acceptable currency of their resources, and more. Doing all this beforehand, rather than in the middle of the process, means that even if kids are using Google or Wikipedia, they’ll be doing it in a smart way.

We also need to be OK with searching in real language. This may run counter to my previous point about keywords, but let’s be honest: students are never going to stop using natural language to search. I do it! “How do I get magic marker out of microfiber” may have come up once or twice. Here’s the thing: if students can use real language to find the answer they’re looking for, then their research topic is too simple or a simple answer is what’s needed. For example, if need three bullet points on the causes of the Holocaust for a worksheet, I don’t think using the tools at hand is a problem. Teachers and librarians can’t expect students to do things the hard way on principle, can we? Again, this is where a librarian can help at the beginning of the process, by working with teachers on developing projects that require more than just quick facts. For example, research using primary source material can help students draw their own conclusions without paraphrasing the ideas of others.

Integrate the tools that actually do make things easier. I’ve come across tools that both make research more efficient for students and encourage quality work. I see them used daily during the school year.

  • Diigo Since using Diigo is as simple as clicking a button, it’s an easy sell to students. Plus, it’s an elegant solution to a universal problem, which is that students travel from school to home and need their collection of websites to be available in both places. Diigo not only allows students to access their favorite sites anywhere, but also enables resource sharing among students who are working in a group. Also, they can annotate and highlight web resources right on the screen. As a teacher, you can have access to your students’ link libraries, which allows you to see how they’re doing with their research before they turn in their works-cited page.
  • EasyBib EasyBib inspired this blog post. When I first became a school librarian, I scoffed at EasyBib. Why should I promote a website that makes it so simple to create citations that students don’t even have to learn when to use a colon and when to use a period? Now, thanks to some great school librarians modeling its use, I’ve totally come around. It’s not as important, necessarily, to memorize exactly where the commas and the periods go. EasyBib helps minimize the time spent teaching typographic conventions allowing more time to reinforce why we cite. More worthwhile for students is the opportunity to learn about the principles of copyright, fair use, and attribution.
  • LibGuides While I’m not convinced that using general subject guide websites, like the Internet Public Library, works well for students, I love LibGuides because it allows me, with the collaboration of the classroom teacher, to curate a collection of sources specifically tailored to a class or project. I also love that I can gather not only research sources but also links to EasyBib or help with the specific tools that students are using, like Glogster or VoiceThread. If you make these very easy to access and populate them with useful, age-appropriate resources, students will use them.

No matter how we choose to teach research, the key is remaining agile. We’ve got to be able to respond to our students’ needs instead of doggedly staying the course even when things aren’t working. Recognizing how students are seeking information and acknowledging what’s working for them is more important than the specific databases or websites we’re touting. It’s OK to let students search the way they want, because it’s more important to help them do a better job than it is to do the “proper” job. If we can incorporate students’ methods and habits into our teaching, we’ll become more relevant, and we’ll become even more trusted resources to them.


Comments (20)

Great post! Couldn't agree

Great post! Couldn't agree more! We have to at least attempt to meet our students where they're at with regards their IL levels, info behaviours and habits, and work from there. Otherwise we're just preaching about complex and confusing library stuff that has little context for the user.

Its like you read my mind!

Its like you read my mind! You appear to understand a lot
about this, such as you wrote the ebook in it or something.
I think that you could do with some % to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent blog. A fantastic read. I'll definitely be back.

@Peg - thank you very much

@Peg - thank you very much for your excellent points about using these tools in other ways. And I totally agree with this: "I find teaching advanced search techniques to be far less useful than teaching smart use of the best the web has to offer." So perfectly put. Thanks.

@Anonymous, I don't know

@Anonymous, I don't know anything about that database, and I'm talking about databases for students, not faculty. Additionally, I *do* pay for some databases for my students, ones that I find both affordable, useful, and accessible. I'm not sure if you're asking a rhetorical question or not, but if your usage statistics justify keeping the database, why not?

You need to be a part of a

You need to be a part of a contest for one of the most useful sites on the web.
I most certainly will recommend this blog!

You are on target I am a

You are on target

I am a middle school librarian, a National Board Certified Teacher, and an adjunct at a nearby University. Credentials first. I have been in school libraries 21+ years. I eagerly embrace technology and have long recognized that for our profession to be validated in the 21st century we must really understand how and why people seek information and what they plan/need to do with once it has been found.

My middle school students need info for school projects and that is the primary ground where we connect. They also need to know the ephemeral facts such as what time the movie starts - facts that used to be located in the newspaper. Other facts they may care about: music, sports, gaming, manga, fashion (although they seem really happy with the print magazines for that), youtube, connections such as FB, and purchases. Divide the info needs this way and it is clear that what teachers and librarians consider most important is not right up there with personal interests.

So what, as Sarah asks, do they need to know about finding info?
Wikipedia - and teach it so they can become critical thinkers as they read.
Resources such as Diigo, Delicious, Easybib, and Livebinders (oh how I love LB and Easybib).
Teach them shortcuts to finding the best answer for the question.

For instance, did you know that Easybib and Livebinders and Delicious can also be used as search engines? Students love that reverse feature. Did you know that Livebinders can be used as a note taking vehicle? With the feature of text edit on LB a student can add notes and can be assured they have used their own words, and can refer back to their sources easily.

I find teaching advanced search techniques to be far less useful than teaching smart use of the best the web has to offer. Also, I teach that there is more than one way to find and use information. Much depends on what you need the info to do for you. I try to remember to fit my knowledge of what is a best practice into their methods. No one method is perfect or best.

Some other good reads on this

We spend a small fortune on

We spend a small fortune on MathSciNet for our math faculty. Is that, too, a useless piece of junk only ignorant librarians use? Because I could use that $10,000 for other things if you think it's pointless.

@Mairead Duffy: In regular

@Mairead Duffy: In regular colleges and universities, many students see assignments as some kind of annoyance. Yet, if they don't hand in some kind of work, they'll have trouble with the professor (F grade etc.). Thus, they put up the minimum amount of work needed for passing grade.

Jeri, you're so right!

Jeri, you're so right! Teachers don't get that they're books, either! We don't have a lot of print restrictions at my school, but when we do, the kids will often seek out a dated book over a current database article, for the very reason you state. Gotta keep getting the word out.... :) Thank you for making this point!

Holly, thank you! :) Yes, I

Holly, thank you! :) Yes, I think part of our job as school librarians is to educate teachers on these issues, but it's hard. Anytime I can team teach with a classroom teacher, I feel like I have the chance to educate them as well as their students. I also see research projects dropping off, often in the more advanced classes. It's a long slog sometimes, but ultimately, a few connections can make a world of difference. Best of luck, and thank you so much for reading and commenting!

Mairead, these are amazing

Mairead, these are amazing points and could be a post/column unto themselves. I *absolutely* agree that students are not sure why they're doing research. They do see them as fact-finding missions! I can't tell you how many times I say "you have to READ it." Again, I think this gets back to faulty assignment design, but I also do think that more and more, librarians are going to have to address this critical thinking issue. You've inspired me to think more about this in depth. There are some tools that help students read information online--Diigo being one of them--but I think we need to do more to guide our students, especially in high school. I'd love to talk to you more about this sometime! Thanks so much for your thoughts.

Sarah, You make some

Sarah,
You make some wonderful points in this post. As a college instructional librarian, I agree with you that we can't ask students to use more cumbersome search engines every time they do research.
I spend a lot of time teaching students how to evaluate websites to use for their research. One of the points of the lesson is that sometimes the time spent verifying the source equals the time spent building a good search string in a database. I also encourage students to use Wikipedia. Not as a source for the paper but as a starting point and a great place to find usable/effective search terms.

I am finding that our biggest problem is that college freshman don't really know why they are doing research. It seems that they are just looking for facts instead of looking for literature on a topic. I am not sure that they understand that a college level paper asks them to entire into the academic conversation. I fear that students hear research and think that they need to gather "facts" and if the fact is true it doesn't matter where it came from. I am beginning to see that library instruction is an opportunity to teach critical thinking whether it is how to determine if something is a good source to determining how research is the starting point to seriously engaging with academic issues. When we are selling the database, we are not just selling the platform but we are selling the idea that research goes beyond mere facts. I would love to know more about how school librarians are handling these topics and how college instructional librarian can build upon the skills you are teaching.
thank you for your post!

I am a professor at a major

I am a professor at a major university, in mathematics/computer science. Let me tell you that I've never found any librarian that could do more than typing keywords in a library search engine or library databases — which I can do myself, thank you very much. The trouble is, these databases index data using vague categories (sometimes inaccurate — they are defined by librarians who have no knowledge in the sciences they are indexing) and the title of the works, which often do not carry the keywords one needs.

It may be easy, using a university library database or engine, to find scholarly works on the Holocaust or other mainstream topic that a librarian has heard about, but it's certainly not to find, say, a reference on lift-and-project methods in combinatorial optimization or on the strong normalization properties of second-order lambda calculus (if only because many works call this second-order lambda-calculus "system F", as Wikipedia rightly says).

The best method is probably Google Scholar, Google Books and Google/Wikipedia.

Great post! I agree that it's

Great post! I agree that it's better to teach students how to use Wikipedia effectively than to ban the use of Wikipedia. Many people rely heavily on Wikipedia so it's good to know how to evaluate a Wikipedia article and determine its strengths and weaknesses.

Sarah Ludwig, you are my

Sarah Ludwig, you are my hero. If only we can get teachers caught up with our thinking (because I agree with everything you stated) our students would leave high school much better educated. Additionally, we need time built back into the curriculum for research. With the emphasis on timed writing tests and "I've got to get through the curriculum" mentality, I've seen research assignments dropping off over the past few years. I hope the Common Core movement that is supposed to emphasize depth over breadth will help. That, and if folks will listen to librarians like you and me!

Some of the kids' "I can't

Some of the kids' "I can't use databases" confusion comes in because they think everything online is a website. I have had many an argument with students, trying to hook them up with an ebook through one of the databases, that "The teacher says I have to have a book!" I tell them, "This IS a book!" But they insist, and I have to hunt down the teacher and get him/her to tell the student it's OK.

Interesting point on

Interesting point on Wikipedia. Too many teachers have a strong aversion to the site, not realizing that most entries do have sound references. It's a matter of educating students as to which references they should look into.

That's the thing about

That's the thing about databases--you have to sell them, and they can be a really tough sell.

I also understand the frustration of the school/public library relationship, having been in both positions. Chances are, the school library can't provide enough print resources, either. All you want to do is support the kids, and you can't.

It drives me nuts at the

It drives me nuts at the public library when kids come in with assignments that completely ban using the Internet and the kids say they can't use databases. ARGH! We can't possibly supply enough print material on all assignments for all students so we must use databases to help students complete their assignments. I really wish there was more emphasis placed on the role of different tools like Wikipedia in both casual and formal research.

And you've also got a great point about databases. At my library I have only a few minutes (if that!) to impress researchers and prove that databases are worth using. I often try to sell a database on the fact that it's easy to use "like Google." Pretty telling.