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 use a minus sign to eliminate something from a search; add the word ‘and’ between search terms to get results that relate to two different subjects; and use an * to get google to fill in the blank. They can also scan results for words that pop up a lot and add them to their search to improve the quality of the results. Try agoogleaday.com with students 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 they’re easily put off when answers are hard to find. Research becomes a rapid process aimed at finding out just enough to complete a project. We need to reignite a love of research among the younger generations; it should be a thorough, considered, intellectual pursuit, where you carefully comb through and assess information. Challenge pupils to go deeply into a topic and persevere when the first few results don’t bear fruit. Remind them to try different search engines too; google isn’t the only option. 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: Does the site have links to respected websites? How up to date is the site/article? Are there any dead links? Taking the attitude that no single source has it all is probably wise – and it takes only seconds to browse again through search results via the 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 in no way 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, and newspapers and magazines are all still an important part of the mix.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Harris is the managing editor of Q-files.com, the recently-launched free online encyclopaedia for children. He is also the founder of Orpheus Books Limited, a long established specialist producer of children’s information and reference books for publishers all over the world.