Teaching Effective Search
- Learn about predictive search or the practice of imagining sources before you search
- Learn to focus on three basic questions before you start your search process
- Learn some tips for teaching predictive search to your students
Real world research skills flex as technologies change. By teaching them to students, they become capable, lifelong learners and it helps our library programs remain highly relevant in the realm of research. To understand why imagining sources is so important in the contemporary research environment, it helps to understand something about how our search tools work. When I talk about search tools, I mean the wide variety of electronic resources that we use. Anything from open web search engines to site searches to our online catalogues and fee databases. When you enter a query into a search bar, how does the search tool decide what results to give you? Well, most of these tools work in essentially the same way.
For each new page or article, the tool will break the source down word by word, and each word is entered into a search tool's index. Essentially, the index in the search tool looks just like the index you know in books, but instead of page numbers after each word, there are URLs or some other marker for the source. For example, if I were to search for "Constitution and voting," my search tool, whatever it is, would probably look through its index to find the word "constitution" and find all the sources that contain that word. Then it would look for all the sources that contain the word "voting" and compare the two lists. Whatever appeared on both lists is what will appear in my Results page.
How flexible or precise the tool is when interpreting your search terms, accounts for many of the big differences you experience across a variety of search tools. In addition, how your tools choose to rank your results and the order in which you see them is another big factor in the differences you experience.
What this means in practice is that the words I use to express an information need to myself are essentially irrelevant to a successful search. When I write a query, the closer I can get to the words that my ideal author or creator would use to convey the information I desire, the more likely I am to find what I want. In other words, I have to search for my answer and not my question. This is how experts talk about how they search. So what are the basics of this predictive search process? Mostly, they're covered by three questions. 1. What do I expect to see when I run this search? 2. What do I expect to see when I click on this link? and 3. When I find my perfect answer, what will it look like?
The predictive approach to search deals with a variety of issues that we face every day in our library research programs. First of all, learning sets of features can be fairly boring and let's face it, it's not that sticky. Students tend to get excited in the moment, but when they go out the door, the search features go out of their head. Search tools can work in a variety of ways as well. Not only does some search tool have a feature, and another search tool doesn't, but they change over time. It's easy for students to become frustrated if they have been trained in a feature by feature approach. They can feel helpless when they don't see interfaces that look the way they expect, either because something has changed, or because they are using a different tool.
Also, we need to be aware that the more algorithms control what we see, the more we need a generalized way to problem-solve. No matter what computers can do for us, the critical thinking that we put into structuring our searches and choosing how and where to search is still at the foundation of finding good sources. Finally, the stronger search gets, actually, the more tools we have to work with, and we can adapt our search strategies to be able to take advantage of more and more of what our sources offer us in terms of findability. But what does predictive search look like in practice? We're going to go through each of those questions one at a time. But let's a start with an admittedly expert example that arose in my classroom a few years ago. This one was using open web search.
My 10th graders in their US Government class, second semester, have a final assignment in which they take a problem they see in US society and compare how the structure of the government in the US gave rise to a different outcome than the structure of the government in another country. One student was looking at Australian government funding for college tuition. She wanted a demographic breakdown of which students were getting funding.
Now when she came to me with this problem because she couldn't find the answer herself, the first thing that I experienced, and the first thing I usually experience when I'm thinking about a search problem, is I actually see the shape that the information is going to take. I see a format in my mind's eye. In this case, I realized that this information will most likely be contained in a table. Okay, so I imagine a table. The next thing I need to do is figure out what's going to be on that table? What will the headers be on the rows and the columns?
Well, demographics is hard because one of the first things I know when I look at this table in my mind's eye is the word demographics doesn't appear on it anywhere. Also, I'm concerned that the Australian government may use terms that I'm not familiar with. So I try to think, what words are going to be consistent? I'll be familiar with them and the Australian government is also likely to use them. I think about gender. Now I'm not sure whether they're going to use the word gender or a different term, but I am pretty sure that the concept of gender will be on the spreadsheet and it will include the words male and female. So male and female might be very good search terms for me in this instance.
What else may be there? Well, it's interesting because as I look at the page in my mind's eye, I realize that also the name 'Australia' may appear nowhere on the document whatsoever. Now Australia is an interesting case because it has regions, it has states that have the name 'Australia' in it like South Australia. But if South Australia isn't on the list, I mean, this is a source made for an internal audience, and so they may not refer to themselves by their country name at all. What I come to realize, as I look at the page in my mind's eye, is that probably the web address is somehow going to indicate that it's from Australia, right? We have in the United States .gov, and that's how I know something is a government web source. I also know that there are top level domain names for different countries. So .au is Australia, and there might even be something like a .gov.au and that may be the only indication that my source is from Australia.
We're going to come back to this particular search problem later, but I hope this gives you a taste of how as I start to think about, "What is this source going to look like?" I can actually imagine factors that I can fold into my search and I can eliminate things that might actually get in my way of finding what I need. A quick note before we go on. It can actually be challenging to talk about search in writing with students. For example, if you have LibGuides, your handout worksheets or you do email reference. Sometimes it's hard to tell them what to type into the search bar. I use a convention of square brackets around any terms that I want put in the search bar. For example, when I talk about searching for 'constitution and voting,' you're going to see [constitution and voting], and you are going to imagine seeing those words in a search box.
As we move into thinking more specifically about predictive search, there is a very basic rule you can keep in mind. Once I gave a parent education talk and afterwards a parent came up to me and said that I was mentioning things about search that she had never thought of before. It had never occurred to her to stop and think before she types something in a search box. So as we run through these questions, what do I expect to see when I run this search? What do I expect to see when I click on this link? And when I find my perfect answer, what would it look like?
First and foremost, I want you to remember to stop, and think, and I think we can create a whole new level of search for you and your students.
Students are using digital resources more and more for research projects. Often they will type in their search terms and click on the first URL that appears. By teaching the predictive search process, you are asking them to think critically about the search results in front of them and choose the best choice. Since we know that algorithms can change what appears in our search results, having students use their critical thinking skills when using digital resources will make them stronger researchers and learners. After reviewing the resources below, complete the Reflect & Practice activity.
REFLECT & PRACTICE:
Teaching your students to think critically about the search results they are looking at can take some time and convincing. As search tools change and algorithms steer us off in different directions, students need to take control of their search to find their perfect answers. Review the article and lesson plan above and, using page 2 of the Course Packet (in Resources above), create a quick lesson plan for students to start to think critically about their search results and choose the right sources.
Turning your students into smart searchers requires reflection on the skills they already have. Knowing the search skills your students already possess will help to guide your lessons towards a whole new level of search!
REFLECT & PRACTICE:
After reading Kristin Fontichiaro's SLC article, which is full of good tips from librarians, use page 3 of the Course Packet (included in Resources above) and choose 3-5 of the "How do I help students…" questions at the beginning of the article. If there are skills your students are confident in, dig deeper into the questions! Use the chart to write down some thoughts about where your students already are with this skill and then build some lesson ideas to implement in your search lessons.