Fed up with seeing work based on ‘one-click’ research? Nicholas Harris has some suggestions for developing your secondary students’ online investigation skills…
1. Precision matters
Thinking carefully about your terms is key to successful online research. The more keywords entered, the greater the likelihood of finding exactly the right source.
Encourage pupils to be as specific as possible – e.g. “Australian desert snakes” or “Australian desert landforms”. Using quotation marks around search terms will ensure results with that exact wording in them, and double check that students know the difference between sponsored and regular results.
Refining searches is another important skill. On Google, for example, students can attach a ‘-’ character to a word to eliminate it from the search. Linking words with a ‘+’ character will return results that contain both or all of of those terms, depending on how many you enter. A ‘*’ will meanwhile behave as a wildcard, prompting Google itself to fill in the blank.
Pupils can also scan results for words that pop up a lot and add them to their search to improve the quality of the results. Show your students the daily challenges set at A Google a Day to get them testing out their new skills – it’s a website that poses difficult questions and encourages users to stretch their searching expertise to find the answers.
2. Take time
Young people who’ve grown up in the digital age expect to have information at their fingertips, and can be easily put off when answers are hard to find. Their attempts at ‘research’ may then become a rapid process aimed at finding out just enough to complete a project. We need to re-ignite a love of research among the younger generations. It should be a thorough, considered and intellectual pursuit, where you carefully comb through and assess information.
Creating the right culture is half the battle – so reward thorough searching, source checking and cross referencing. Get students to keep a log of their searches with web addresses for the sites they’ve visited and ask them to include citations and bibliographies in their work.
3. Question everything
As the old adage goes, don’t believe everything you read. You’d think by secondary school children would know this – but do they?
Evaluating the quality and validity of websites is a vital skill in the digital world. How can you be sure a site is trustworthy? How do you know whether the information it contains is accurate, or has been written by someone with zero expertise? Not only is the web truly vast, it is a minefield when it comes to finding reliable information. Never has it been more important to teach young people to distinguish between fact and fiction.
The basic rule is always question a site’s credibility. Pupils should think about whether it’s the property of a recognised organisation, such as a university, museum, specialist journal, the BBC, or National Geographic. Publications from these institutions are considered authoritative in the ‘real’ world, so students can likely rely on them online as well.
Checking the name of the author of the piece, or if a journalist, the sources they are quoting from, is another good test. A reliable source will be one that draws on the expertise or knowledge of someone who is linked with a named university or institution.
If still in doubt, searching the name of that person or their institution should help. A good site will mention facts that can be corroborated by other authoritative websites. Other things to look out for include whether the site has links to respected websites, how up to date is the site or article is and whether there any dead links?
Taking the attitude that no single source has it all is probably wise — after all, it takes only seconds to browse again through search results via the web browser’s back button.
4. Check the motive
Developing an awareness of bias is critical when establishing the credibility of a site. Much of what we read on the web is based on personal opinion, not fact. Some websites may appear official and authoritative, but are actually far from impartial.
As well as investigating who the author is, students should consider what the purpose of a site is and identify its intended audience. Is the content sponsored? And if so, by whom? There’s no need to completely avoid such sites when researching – but if the language is overly persuasive, it should be treated with a healthy dose of suspicion. It’s all about thinking critically.
5. Go further
Last, but by no means least, remind students to look beyond the web. The internet might be the top research tool in their armoury, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Other sources such as books, reference librarians, knowledge passed on from family, newspapers and magazines are all still an important part of the mix.
Nicholas Harris is the Managing Editor of Q-files, the specially designed digital encyclopedia for children aged 8 to 13, and the founder of Orpheus Books. Request a free trial to Q-files here and learn more about the resource here.