The Internet is a never-ending maze of web sites, search engines, directories, research, and online experts that can make even the most accomplished Internet surfer overwhelmed at times. Because there is such a huge amount of information, it is often difficult for teachers to know exactly where to begin looking for online resources to use with their students. After completing this module, learners will able to:
  • Identify effective strategies for identifying search terms
  • Turn a topic into a basic search statement
  • Students will be able to plan a search strategy using subject databases including basic broadening and narrowing techniques, such as: quotation marks, identifying keyword terms, using AND and OR, etc.

4.1 How Many Results? (Lesson One)

The ability to search for information online is one of the most basic of the many web literacy skills. How does a user sift through billions of pages of information in order to find the gems? The phrase "search strategy" means different things to different people. When we hear 'Wow, I got 1,000,000 results!' we know our students need us because in this case, a bigger number is not better. When it comes to searching, and as students will soon discover, the true challenge is to get fewer, more targeted results. To introduce this idea, let's make a game out of the challenge. It is fun and becomes a great way to teach search strategies and techniques in an authentic context.

Try this: Type the word World War 2 into your favorite search engine. Did you get something like this?


WOW- 158,000,000 (Not good -- not good at all!)

Watch what happens when we adjust our search just a bit! Try the search using quotation marks around the words. What happened when you used "World War 2" now in quotes?


Still not great, but we knocked off a potential of having to analyze and evaluate an extra ....sites! Down to 3,200,000.

Let's make it even better by:
  • Using better key words. Every word matters and will be used in the search...choose carefully!
  • Selecting the type of information - i.e. images, scholarly research, videos, etc.

Think of this process like going to the grocery store. Imagine if I told you to go buy me some candy! You may be there for a long time! Hundreds of dollars and millions of calories later, you find out that I really wanted a hard candy, more specifically cherry flavored hard candy, even more specifically the cherry flavored hard candy individually wrapped sold in the bags stored in the bulk candy aisle not the the single rolls up front near the cash register. If I only would have told you WHAT to search for, think of how easy AND successful your find would be.

4.2 Think FIND not SEARCH (Lesson Two)

Does this sound familiar? You peck away on the internet for hours, jumping from one topic to another, following leads that end up as dead ends, and ultimately changing your topic time after time because you can't find that right thing. It is important to talk with students about these experiences. I have found that most students (big and small) think this is "normal" and unavoidable. They rely on luck and laziness (picking any old thing as time flies by) because they do not realize there is another way.

It is important to find out:
  • How they "search" for information
  • What strategies, if any, are being employed?
  • How do they measure success?
  • What works? What is frustrating to them?
  • Where do they go for help, when they are unsuccessful?

As the amount of structured data and unstructured content available on the web keeps growing, learners will continue to be faced with a complex and overwhelming information streams. The right information gets harder and harder to find. In fact, recent studies indicate that knowledge workers spend between 8-12 hours a week searching for the right and relevant information. The time spent searching and retrieving information is ultimately measured by the precision of answers provided. Save your students time and frustration by helping them select the right tools and strategies needed for maximum efficiency and success in FINDING what they want on the web.

Shifting from "SEARCH" to "FIND" is dependent on two fundamental components:
  1. The precision of the question asked (better key words, narrow the information type)
  2. The efficiency of getting to the answer (fewer search attempts and clicks)

The need to find definitive, precise answers in effective and efficient ways differentiates the web literate from the general web user. If you are engaging in any research initiative, you need to ensure that students are equipped to do both searching and finding. It is tempting to steer students toward a preselected list of sites, just to avoid the hassle of searching, but optimal precision and efficiency require skills that take time and practice to achieve.

Since no single search engine has indexed every site on the Web, and different search engines yield different results, it is important for teachers and students to realize that they are only searching the sites contained in that particular search engine's database. For this reason,we should get in the habit of performing the same search using two or more search engines. This will enable us to be as thorough and accurate in our research as possible.

A more complete list of search engines can be found at Wikipedia's List of Search Engines page.