Information-Seeking Skills in a Google World: Do Our Students Really Get It?

Well, here we are. Almost one-fifth of the way through the 21stcentury. As I write those words, I can hardly believe it myself. In my career, our profession has progressed mightily, alongside great advances in technology. I wonder how many of us remember typing card catalog cards, and if you made a mistake, using OCLC “Special Match” white-out (or as we called it, buff-out…). Remember when a tweet was a sound a bird made? “Twilight” was just a time of day? We watched television ON television, and at the time it was broadcast? “Green” was just a color? Newspapers, books, and magazines were read on paper? Music was bought in stores? It was science fiction to imagine a hand-held computer that combined a phone, music, access to a vast database of information, a personal assistant, a GPS locator, digital video and still photography. OK—enough of the trip down memory lane; suffice it to say, we now have tools at our disposal few of us could have imagined back in the day.  But to what end? May I suggest the vital question is: how do we teach capital R research in a Google world?

While I have no (as yet) hard data to back up my thesis, empirical data suggests that today’s students, children of the digital age, assume a much broader grasp of research methodology than they actually possess. I have regular conversations with Upper School faculty to whom I am trying to market library services—more often than not, their response is along the lines of, “They don’t need a session on finding information—they know how to do that.” What an interesting study it would be to measure these students’ level of information literacy vs. what they actually know. My guess is that they know much less than they think they do, and that their teachers believe them when they espouse their expertise. On our campus, teaching research skills begins in Lower School and continues through Middle School—I know that our dedicated librarians do an amazing job with these younger students, yet in spite of our best efforts, they seem to forget what they have learned by 9thgrade—a topic for a future research project, perhaps?  I have set my goal for this year with St. Mark’s Upper School faculty to impress upon them the importance of teaching problem solving, evaluating, analyzing, and reasoning in regard to research—critical thinking skills. I am marketing this using the scenario of university freshmen getting their first research assignment and walking into a 4-million volume library with 200+ databases—don’t we want our students to know what to do and not be intimidated?

So far, so good. I have talked with several high school freshman and sophomore classes, and have more scheduled. Regardless of grade level, I am assuming my students know little about actual research, and I further assume that faculty have something to learn as well; I insist that faculty attend my research methodology lecture. If they seem reluctant, I tell them I need them in the room to help with discipline…whatever it takes to get them in a seat. I am convinced that information literacy is our raison d’etre as school librarians.

Information literacy has progressed from using reference resources to finding information in a complex environment. Visual literacy, digital literacy, textual literacy, and technical literacy are all crucial skills. The pervasiveness of the Internet and the massive amount of information available—accurate or not—requires students to become discerners as well as seekers. Every student (and instructor) needs the ability to select, evaluate, and use information effectively.

I begin by talking about what research is not:

  • Research is not compiling data and reporting on it.
  • Research is not about asking why or how.

Then what is research?

  • Research calls for us to think beneath the surface of an issue.
  • Research calls for analysis to solve a problem.
  • Research calls for the answer to a pressing question.
  • Research uses data to answer a problem-solving question.
  • Research leads to a solution that advances knowledge.

As I am sure we all do, I continue by showing examples of good research questions, and encouraging class participation in dissecting good and marginal research questions. Then I ask students where to go first to begin finding information on a particular topic (I always look at their teacher to make sure they are paying attention at this point), and someone in the room will always suggest Google. I show the following Google search and graphic to illustrate my point:

Your topic is a paper on Lincoln (I don’t say which Lincoln), and someone suggests a Google search. How many hits do you think we will get? Rarely does anyone suggest a half billion results. Once they overcome their shock, I ask what sorts of things are we getting? They are delighted to learn that a top hit is Lincoln Logs. They chuckle when I ask one student to review the first 20 million hits, etc. They get why that is funny.

After a bit more discussion, I show the following search in EBSCOhost, and ask them to comment:

The light begins to dawn. Everyone agrees that it will be much easier to review 157 hits for information pertinent to our research than 510,000,000. Now, I can actually begin to teach. I have the students’ and their teacher’s attention. I am convinced that once we have the support of the classroom teacher, with the realization that their students (and their own) information literacy skills could use a reality check, our work will get the attention of department chairs, administrators, and other stakeholders. On our campus, word on the street is that the library is offering “really good” sessions on how to do research, evidenced by the fact that instructors who have brought classes to the library in the past, but “didn’t need any help from us,” are scheduling multiple sessions to upper school classes which I teach as outlined above. Repeat sessions focus on diving deep into specific topics, and include tutorials on the information timeline, Boolean logic, primary source materials, and citing sources.

No matter how you approach your research methodology in any grade, be mindful that our students (and faculty) most likely have an inflated opinion of their research skills. Finding ways to engage them at a basic level, and opening up the world of possibilities for thoughtful, in-depth research with requisite skills will serve your students into their university years and reinforce with your faculty the necessity of partnering with their librarian.

Welcome to the 21st century!


One thought on “Information-Seeking Skills in a Google World: Do Our Students Really Get It?

  1. This is certainly a reality that I have experienced in my career as well, Tinsley. Thanks for encapsulating it so succinctly! Now I’m sharing your post with several of my school’s administrators to see what they think 😉


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