Searching For Better Research Habits

Teaching students how to do Google-style research might not be as harmful to research habits as the alternative.
September 29, 2010

NEW YORK CITY -- Should colleges teach students how to be better Googlers?

Educators who see the popular search engine as antithetical to good research might cringe at the thought of endorsing it to students. But they might not cringe nearly as hard as did attendees of the 2010 Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship Conference when Andrew Asher showed them what happens when students do not learn how to use Google properly.

“Students do not have adequate information literacy skills when they come to college, and this goes for even high-achieving students,” said Asher, the lead research anthropologist at the Enthographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project, which recently studied the search habits of more than 600 Illinois students spanning a range of institutions and demographic groups.

“And they’re not getting adequate training as they’re going through the curriculum,” he said.

Asher moved swiftly through a few slides featuring excerpts from interviews with students, each eliciting both chuckles and gasps from the audience of librarians and technologists. “I’m just trusting Google to know what are the good resources,” responded one sophomore biology student.

“Of all the students that I interviewed, not a single one of them could give an adequate conceptual definition of how Google returns results,” said Asher. Not even those “who should know better,” like computer science students. The word “magic” came up a lot, he noted.

Asher pulled quotes from other students evidencing how the expectations and ignorances bred by habitual, unthinking use of Google had affected how students use other search engines, such as those built into the scholarly archive JSTOR. The students in the ERIAL sample seemed oblivious to the logic of search or how to generate or parse search results with much patience or intelligence. “I just throw up whatever I want into the search box and hope it comes up,” a junior nursing major told the researchers. “…It’s just like Google, so I use it like Google.”

This Google effect does not bode well for students who manage to make it as far as a scholarly database, said Asher. “Student overuse of simple search leads to problems of having too much information or not enough information … both stemming from a lack of sufficient conceptual understanding of how information is organized,” he said. Those libraries that have tried to teach good search principles have failed, he continued, because they have spent “too much time trying to teach tools and not enough time trying to teach concepts.” It would be more useful for librarians to focus training sessions on how to "critically think through how to construct a strategy for finding information about a topic that is unknown to you," Asher said in a follow-up e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

Asher’s presentation came near the end of a long day that had kicked off with a talk by Daniel M. Russell, a senior research scientist for search quality and user happiness at Google, who also hinted at the need for better user education. Russell spent much of his time talking about all the cool scholarly things Google has available in its vast databases -- a facsimile of Stravinsky’s score from Sacre de Printemps, a 3-D model of the Notre Dame Cathedral, unemployment data for Santa Clara County over the last 20 years -- before lamenting the fact that most students would have no clue how to find them.

“One of the things we have to do is not teach the little twiddlybits about search,” said Russell. Technical knowledge of Google’s search interface -- and JSTOR’s, for that matter -- becomes obsolete, because the interfaces are constantly changing. “So I don’t want to teach them algorithms, I don’t want to teach them ranking, I don’t want to teach them what’s in the index and all that stuff,” he said. “I do want to teach them what’s possible.” In other words: If students do not know what is out there to find, they cannot search for it effectively.

That is where librarians come in, said Russell. Scholarly searching is not an intuitive skill, like foraging, he said; students cannot learn well by imitating peers. “We need to do a better job,” he said. “You’ve worked with these undergraduates. This is, in theory, the Google generation. But a lot of searchers in libraries and universities do the dumbest things you can possibly imagine. And so have you. It’s not part of the curriculum.”

But as the conference wound down and the participants reflected on the question of search education, some challenged the idea that search education was possible -- or worth the investment.

Peggy Seiden, the college librarian at Swarthmore College, recalled a comment an economics professor there had made during a recent focus group: “Our students graduate from Swarthmore, and they go on to be incredibly successful,” Seiden quoted her colleague as saying. “They may not have had very much in terms of good research instruction. They might not be the best researchers in the world. But they are successful. So the question is, what is the end we’re trying to get to?”

Lisa Rose-Wiles, a science librarian at Seton Hall University, said it is naïve to think that by teaching students how to use search more responsibly, librarians and professors can prevent students from cutting corners. Of course librarians think cobbling together a good-enough paper with the first three full-text papers that turn up in a simple search is bad, but for students — particularly those aspiring to nonacademic careers — it might make perfect sense. “There’s no real way to convince students that that behavior doesn’t pay, especially when they’re trying to juggle six courses and a job and a whole life and all the rest,” Rose-Wiles said. "So unless we can demonstrate some measurable payoff to searching, students aren’t going to do it.”

Luke Swindler, coordinator of general collections for the university library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the notion of making “better searchers” of Google-generation students reminded him of what a German pol had once said of communism: “The problem with the theory and practice of communism,” Swindler paraphrased, “is that it just needs better citizens.”

“We’re not going to change the citizens,” he said.

If academics are going to improve student research in the age of simple search, said Casper Grathwohl, vice president at Oxford University Press, they will probably have to do so the same way Google changes the behavior of its users: by using better interfaces and more sophisticated indexing methods to nudge them, incrementally, toward competence.

As Grathwohl put it, “Making ‘good enough’ better.”

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