Teaching Effective Search

  • Learn to use webbing diagrams to help students use what they already know and build on them
  • Learn how webs help break down topics into categories
  • Learn how stepping stone sources and webs work together to fine tune search results
I frequently have students build webs. They can build them as a method for exposing what they know and they can build them as a method for drawing on stepping stone resources. In early years, I would really concentrate on search terms and using webbing to help students flesh out what they know and expose more specific search terms to which they have access.

Here's an example made by a fourth-grade history buff about Vikings. This student clearly had a lot of specific terms to work with, and once he laid them out in a web, he was able to combine them and find more specific information than he could find before. One reason this is helpful is that young students who are prepared to work with more complex information can be really frustrated by the level of information available to them. Maybe their reading isn't strong enough to work with scholarly works, but they want more than two or three paragraphs on a particular topic. So, databases like those offered by ABC-CLIO can be really helpful in allowing students to get a greater depth of information.

But sometimes, they also really need to be able to move beyond the search terms that occur to them initially. This particular fourth-grader was able to take all these very specific terms that he could lay out that were related to the concept of Vikings and find specific individual articles on a lot of different topics that helped him achieve that level of information that he really desired.

With middle school students, you might take a slightly different approach. Here's an example of a web that I built collaboratively with a class where students had been given prompts that were pretty precise and meant to be not answerable with a single search in any tool. Each student was given a city and a century, and they had a series of topics like art, and architecture, and religion, and politics. And they were supposed to figure out what was going on in their city, in their century, in that particular series of topic areas.

Here, we use the web to think about not just what were specific terms that would be more helpful than art to search for, but also to lay out the different aspects of the search. We thought about what all the place words were that would be useful, in this case, Kyoto was pretty much what was available that we wanted to work with. Time gave us a lot of different options. First of all, there are different imperial eras, then there are questions of, is something going to be labeled by a century with a number? Is it going to be a particular year? And so we thought about different ways, different search terms that might be helpful in working that out.

And then there was the question of art, which we started out by breaking into categories of art such as performance in visual art and literary arts. Later, we stumbled on the notion of influences. But as we searched and use Stepping Stone Resources, we were able to come up with an increasing number of highly specific search terms that students could choose among to build their knowledge of what was specifically going on in Kyoto during the Edo period.

We moved from just looking at search terms in general to thinking about some different areas where we would need topic-specific search terms and how they might vary. As we move into high school, I like to draw more on the idea that I got through the Pegasus Librarian.

When I first started at this school, we introduced the idea of stepping stone sources and working with them. But in order to turn stepping stone sources into an actual strategy, we built a web. The first thing we do is I give them a series of articles. In this case, because of the assignment they're going to be doing, we are asking the question, "Do the men in the early episodes of Downton Abbey have historically accurate amounts of facial hair?" And that gives rise to some pretty fine web searching. But the truth is that none of the sources that I'm going to want to find down the road to use as evidence are going to be related to the words in my initial search.

So I do a sort of fishing search—throw out a broad net, yank, and see what I get back. In this case, I got a list of discussion. Now, none of those really, because of their content, turned out to be sufficient resources to use in a high school history paper. However, from reading through them we were able to brainstorm a pretty lengthy list of potential search terms that we predicted might be helpful.

We also brainstormed and predicted what types of sources we thought might offer the kind of evidence we would need to answer the question. As we went through the process of imagining sources, we realized that all the terms around facial hair, and beards, and mustaches, and shaving would be potentially helpful in scholarly articles, for example, but actually, wouldn't apply at all to our image searches. For our image searches, we decided to focus much more on looking for databases of images of military people from World War I in Britain. We used the web to actually differentiate which search terms would fit well with which types of sources, and to predict which would be helpful for finding each. Once we've developed our web, we're then able to move into searching in a way that's much more targeted and much more effective.

Over time, I've managed to gain a sense of what a newer searcher or more formative searcher does as opposed to a more expert searcher. Formative searchers will often find search terms that are very general in meaning, or whose meaning they don't understand; they gravitate towards words that they know but aren't specific enough to meet our needs.

For many years, students were researching based on the prompt, "Turkey may join the European Union." Students who were in more formative stages would use really general terms. They would use Turkey, they would use European Union, they would use terms like economic, economy, and policy.

Furthermore, students who are in formative stages, don't have a very broad or deep sense of the types of sources that are available. They'll tend to be things that students come across a lot, like one student who listed articles and speeches as the types of sources that she predicted would be available. They may involve Q&A sites or wikis, things that, really, we don't use an academic context. Furthermore, formative students may not actually connect the sources and the search terms to each other.

My students fell more towards the middle in terms of skills. A lot of them wanted to find the conversations that government officials were having around whether Turkey should join the EU or not. We struggled a lot with the term "transcripts" until a student brought it up; the term minutes.

Now, a student who's at a very high level would recognize an excellent stepping stone resource when she saw it. In this case, the student might actually come across the page on the EU Web site called Steps towards joining the EU where, in point of fact, many excellent search terms were bolded, and therefore, really easy to see. So that student might pull terms like a session, a session criteria, draft, screening, and benchmark, and might be able to identify, that if you were looking for minutes, the proper terms would be things like negotiation, benchmark, candidate, screening.

So this is ultimately how I ask my students to work with and convey to me their thinking around taking what they have imagined and pulled from stepping stones sources in terms of search terms and source types. And moving it from just a list of things I've asked them to do to create an actual strategy that will help them move forward with their search.

I really find it helpful to ask students to manipulate ideas and information in a more tangible way before they go back to their computer where they can't really see what's happening and they're interacting with essentially a black box, by making the thinking they're doing visible and asking their visible thinking to interact with what's happening in a computer, they're better able to manage the search and research process.

This process I often tell them is like touch typing. When you're in third grade, you watch someone typing really fast and you think, "How can I ever get there? And how can I do this?" But over time and through practice, something that is such a conscious effort becomes unconscious. In the same way, by consistently practicing imagining sources, and by consistently asking the three 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 will it look like? You will develop a capacity to imagine sources that increases and increases as they practice.
Build a Web to See What You Already Know

In this lesson, we learn about creating webs, or mind maps, to expose what we already know about a topic of research and help guide us to stepping stone sources and beyond. This skill can be used at all ages, from having an elementary student write down all the words they know about their topic to a high school student who can turn stepping stone sources into a strategy by building a web. Review the resources below and then complete the Reflect & Practice activity.


MindMapping for Research. Pegasus Librarian, September 17, 2012. https://pegasuslibrarian.com/?s=mind+map.


Giving your student researchers the confidence to become successful researchers takes time! A great place to start is to have them figure out what they already know about their research topic. Asking your students to create a web about their topic will give them a tool to use so they can build an effective search. Using page 13 in the Course Packet (found in the Resources above), choose a sample topic that you would research with your students and create a web. Review the example webs provided in this lesson to vary by age group, if needed.

Additional Resources


About the Presenter

Tasha Bergson-Michelson is the Instructional and Programming Librarian for Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. Since 1995, she has been exploring what makes for successful information literacy instruction in corporate, non-profit, subscription, and school libraries, and through after school programs and summer camps. Previously, Bergson-Michelson was the Search Educator at Google, where she wrote an extensive series of Search Education lesson plans, the Power Searching MOOCs, and—most importantly—collaborated with other librarians around the world to explore the most effective ways of teaching research skills. Bergson-Michelson was designated a 2014 Mover & Shaker—Tech Leader by Library Journal.

MLA Citation

Bergson-Michelson, Tasha. "Webbing: Bringing It All Together [9:27]." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Course/2131948?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2279773&childId=2131957. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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