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Five Steps to Teaching Students How to Research Online and Filter Information

Kathleen A Morris

This five-step research model might be a useful starting point for students to consider every time they embark on some research.

Let’s break down each step.

1) Clarify

Students first need to take a moment to consider what information they’re actually looking for in their searches. It can be a worthwhile exercise to add this extra step in between giving a student a task and sending them off to research.

You could have a class discussion or small group conferences on brainstorming keywords, considering synonyms or alternative phrases, generating questions etc. Mindmapping might help too. Time spent defining the task can lead to a more effective and streamlined research process.

Set task, clarify, then start research

2) Search

It sounds simple but students need to know that the quality of the search terms they put in the Google search box will determine the quality of their results.

There are a LOT of tips and tricks for Googling but I think it’s best to have students first master the basics of doing a proper Google search.

I recommend consolidating these basics:

Type in some simple search terms using only the important keywords

If the initial results aren’t what you want, change the search terms and get more specific (get clues from the initial search results or get ideas from the “People Also Ask” section). Use quotation marks if you want your keywords in an exact order, e.g. “raining cats and dogs”

Remember:

-use your best guess with spelling (Google will often understand)

-don’t worry about punctuation

-understand that everyone’s results will be different, even if they use the same search terms (depending on browser history, location etc.)

The Google Search Education website is an amazing resource with lessons for beginner/intermediate/advanced plus slideshows and videos. It’s also home to the A Google A Day classroom challenges. The questions help older students learn about choosing keywords, deconstructing questions, and altering keywords.

3) Delve

Entering quality search terms is one thing but knowing what to click on is another.

You might like to encourage students to look beyond the first few results. Let students know that Google’s PageRank algorithm is complex and many websites use Search Engine Optimisation to improve the visibility of their pages in search results. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the most useful or relevant sites for you.

Point out the anatomy of a Google search result and ensure students know what all the components mean. This could be as part of a whole class discussion, or students could create their own annotations.

Anatomy of a google search result:

An important habit to get into is looking at the green URL and specifically the domain. Use some intuition to decide whether it seems reliable. Does the URL look like a well-known site? Is it a forum or opinion site? Is it an educational or government institution? Domains that include .gov or .edu might be more reliable sources.

When looking through possible sources, you may want to teach students to open sites in new tabs, leaving their search results in a tab for easy access later (e.g. right-click on the title and click “Open link in new tab” or press Control/Command and click the link).

4) Evaluate

Once you click on a link and land on a site, how do you know if it offers the information you need?

Students need to know how to search for the specific information they’re after on a website. Teach students how to look for the search box on a webpage or use Control F (Command F on Mac) to bring up a search box that can scan the page.

Ensure students understand that you cannot believe everything you read. This might involve checking multiple sources. You might set up class guidelines that ask students to cross check their information on two or three different sites before assuming it’s accurate.

5) Cite

So your students navigated the obstacles of searching and finding information on quality websites. They’ve found what they need! Hooray.

Now what?

Many students will instinctively want to copy and paste the information they find for their own work. Obviously, we need to inform students about plagiarism and copyright infringement while giving them the skills they need to avoid this.

Students need to know that plagiarism is taking someone’s work and presenting it as your own. Students also need to be assured that they can use information from other sources and they should. They just need to say who, where it was from etc.

Give students lots of practice writing information in their own words. Younger students can benefit from simply learning how to put information in their own words. Older students could investigate the difference between paraphrasing and summarising.

Students also need a lot of practice using quotation marks and citing sources. There are many ways you can teach citation.

CitationGenerator is a really handy free online tool without ads that helps with citation.

Staying organised!

You might also like to set up a system for students to organise their information while they’re searching. There are many apps and online tools to curate, annotate, and bookmark information, however, you could just set up a simple system like a Google Doc or Spreadsheet.

Conclusion

Being able to research effectively is an essential skill for everyone. It’s only becoming more important as our world becomes increasingly information-saturated. Therefore, it’s definitely worth investing some classroom time in this topic.