Worse than fixing staplers: Teaching database search is the most thankless task I undertake

Hi, all! I was working on a different blog post entirely, but had two conversations with other school librarians yesterday about teaching database searching, so thought I would continue my thinking here. More than anything, I like checking my thinking – so, hoping we can converse (in comments or with me directly by email). Push back, please. We are definitely stronger together!

While my students respond very positively to my lesson on database business models as systemic injustice (which also explains why we value databases and how they can allow us to access voices that search engine algorithms don’t surface), lessons on the actual using of databases is much less of a love-fest. I’ve experimented with different formats over the years.

In essence, I have found that teaching a “click here, now click there” lesson is boring for both me and for them. While I love seeing students go to their happy place, I don’t love it so much during instruction. For a while, I experimented with not teaching how to use databases, at all. Just telling students to go for it… Either way, I got the exact same comment: “We never learned how to do this.”

So, I’ve finally arrived at the basic concepts that students need to use most databases. My biggest interest is teaching them to feel empowered to open any database and give it a try.

I really think that 95% of database searching is search term selection and has nothing to do with the database itself. I spend a lot more time on that skill, which is broadly applicable.

My database lessons cover four points, period.

1. Use Advanced Search in databases. They all work basically the same way, but require us to type stuff in slightly differently from each other if you are just suing the single search box. Memorize them all OR just click on that advanced search link. It looks basically the same in almost every database. Learn to manage this interface with basic skill and you can search almost any database competently.

2. The bottom half of most advanced search pages tend to focus on the strengths/purpose of that database. Access World News has a map search, to limit by geography; ARTSTOR has limiters for time and medium; JSTOR offers narrowing by discipline of journals to be searched. So, limit your search terms in the top half as much as you can, and make use of the filters in the bottom half that relate to your topic (ex: don’t use [art history] as a search term in JSTOR, just look for [japan AND gender] and then click on the Art History box to search discipline-specific writings).

3. Similarly, keep the advanced search portion as light as possible, click “search” and use the filters on the left side of the results page (usually, though sometimes on the right) to narrow further. Easier to experiment, play around, see what happens.

4. Databases are not flexible, they look for exactly what you type in. Use * to help. (Note here: I used to think that stemming — e.g., using [immigra*] to look for immigrant, immigrants, immigration, etc. — was too hard and I chose not to teach it to my students. Turns out they love it and find it extremely useful.)

Ultimately, I think that the flexibility of moving from database to database is the most important element to learn. I *strongly* prefer to give students those four basic guidelines and then do a jigsaw. Give groups each one database to play with. They apply the four principles I teach, see what a specific database offers for themselves. They jigsaw and teach each other. Maybe build a communal class guide to use when searching.

This approach has definitely been the most productive for me, given that I usually have one class period (on good days) and no specific time to follow up. Though, given my druthers, “how to database” is never my go-to lesson. I do force myself to teach the lesson once in early 9th grade. The rest gets followed up in one-on-one student conversations.

I’d love to hear how you teach database lessons.

4 thoughts on “Worse than fixing staplers: Teaching database search is the most thankless task I undertake

  1. Hi, Tasha! We have a similar approach–advanced search, limiters, the right database for the job, etc.. I model search for the students and then let them loose while they’re with me, so I can catch any stray problems. I’m also very transparent with them about the structure of the library curriculum, so they understand that we’re learning about a set of skills and tools that work together…and that JSTOR won’t go away after senior year, but will be waiting for them in college. Students still go to their happy place, but they generally get the idea. Getting teacher buy in on the idea that there’s a library curriculum is vital, so instead of an instructor coming in the day before and asking, “what do you have on biomes?” we work together on unit and lesson development to make projects where searching a database makes sense.

  2. Thanks for sharing your struggles and strengths with teaching this. I just spent two weeks working with each section of 10th grade history students on these skills. I have found that they don’t always know how to generate keywords for searching so that is where we start. In addition to brainstorming alternate keywords we talk about the use of AND & OR in an advanced search. I do kind of love when we try a search with keywords from their research question and get just a few results and then deploy the skills we’ve just learned and get dozens of appropriate results. I’m totally going to add in stemming next time – what a great idea!

  3. Your post gave me wonderful reinforcement for the model I’ve evolved which, as you say, spends less time on Boolean operators — although the wildcard * and “phrase search” are the two I still teach — and more time on keywords. During Covid I used LibWizard to create a on online keyword brainstorming activity (you can try it yourself here: https://harpethhall.libwizard.com/f/keywords) but I didn’t like the fact that students couldn’t go back to this and continue to add more keywords as they did their research. So I went back to OG skills and created a mindmap in Canva so they can not only brainstorm at the beginning of a research project, but continue to revise. For my freshmen who are still such concrete thinkers, I actually print it and hand it out – https://www.canva.com/design/DAE99fTcOuw/lOInxjz5bBeqSGRyWJ4DQw/edit?utm_content=DAE99fTcOuw&utm_campaign=designshare&utm_medium=link2&utm_source=sharebutton.

  4. Oh, thank you all for the validation!
    Brian, yes, very transparent about being skills-based! You are right that it is huge to overcome the “you **can** look at a list of databases and figure out which ones work” roadblock. I actually realize from your comment that I start that process even before I get around to teaching the lesson (they use MS history databases a lot in 6th and 7th, but can basically enter their topic into Basic Search — not a focus of our education, we don’t see them really in 8th grade, except a 15-minute 1-on-1, when they start needing more diverse database searching skills). But I send a long list of potential DBs targeted to a broad inquiry project into the class and the teacher has them look over the list and highlight ones they might want to look at before they go online. That is a favorite ask of mine in various grades … I guess I spend a bunch of time in my curriculum on “read what is in front of you — how can we use that”?!?!
    Becca — Two weeks? You are living the dream! I tend to have 15-60 minutes (in part because database search is not the core of our curriculum), but like you, I spend a lot of time on keyword selection — really 7th grade (where we go deep) – 12th grade. Growing with the kids. Yes, that is absolutely the heaviest lift of them all, with the greatest payout when concepts stick! Like you, I do love that moment….I actually took out a page of those examples from the above post ;). Always excited to discuss that piece with folks. Always.
    Susan, yeah… Boolean always feels like the fastest way to kill the joy. Though, TBH, I introduce Google’s OR and – in 7th grade and reinforce it in 9th and during any 1-on-1 research meetings I have. TBH, I find students are more receptive to it there. I use OR a lot more than any kind of NOT, and emphasize it accordingly. I usually give them a search guide and just ask them to send me an exit ticket of a search in which they used one of the Google operators. I write back to each kid with feedback, and ask for permission to put the dozen or so best examples up on our digital sign. I think that OR, “”, number range, and site: are the game-changers, and students will use them with me again and again over time. In 7th and 9th we work with this Google Search quick guide: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vFuA6BZFjo1CNuIc04GNv739nygpbBSr7MGxuNX1JFo/edit?usp=sharing

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