A Librarian Asks, "What Good Are Search Terms When Searching Is Finished?"
A high school librarian is pleased with how she teaches search. First, she shows freshmen a five-minute video introduction to search engines.1 As they begin doing research for their projects, she requires them to document their search terms on a pinned notecard or in a Google Doc. As students struggle with constructing relevant and targeted searches, she demonstrates search operators and using the minus sign to clean up irrelevant results. As part of the school's scope and sequence, whether she is collaborating with teachers or not, sophomores and juniors are required to submit their working bibliographies and search terms to her for feedback and grading.
Repurpose Search Terms
When asked to teach notetaking, she has noticed that students have trouble identifying similar claims when sources are written by authors in different countries or in publications across the political spectrum. A recent study suggests that "interleaving" sources can thwart reading comprehension; students develop a better understanding of a single claim or idea if they read similar points of view together. Switching among sources may "hinder rather than help younger students [because they become] confused by the constant shifting of perspectives across texts."2 Part of the problem has to do with vocabulary. Novice researchers are less likely to notice or compare conflicts across multiple texts when writers use different terms (e.g., prejudiced, racist, bigoted, biased) for the same concept.3 The librarian wonders whether she could address these blind spots in reading comprehension using search terms students have already gathered.
Search Terms as Concepts
As I began to noodle about this question, it struck me that some students might not recognize that search terms represent key concepts related to their topic. As such, search terms are obvious candidates for subtopics in an outline or notecard tags. Conversely, a notecard that doesn't include or imply a search term might be a candidate for deletion.
Search terms that are key concepts can suggest ways to prioritize sources for reading. For the research question "Are honeybees smart?" a student highlights her search terms in the sources, then groups sources by specialized vocabulary: "numeracy," "aerial navigation," "social learning," and "collaborative decision making." It comes as no surprise that these are the major subtopics she has planned to cover. The scholarly terms like "numeracy" or "aerial navigation" (vs. "number sense" or "flying"), appear in journal articles, so prioritizing all articles that refer to numeracy reinforces the structural similarity and argumentation style used in academic writing, thus enhancing comprehension.
Search Terms as Signals to Viewpoints
Alternative terms for geographical areas are often signals of disputed territory. Most of the geographic features associated with the Spratly Islands, for example, have at least six different names representing the countries that are contesting their ownership. Understandably, sources published within one of those countries will conform to its preferred terminology, signifying support of their government's claim.
Likewise, changes in naming often mark shifts in political views. Myanmar and Burma may be treated as synonyms in search, but Google's Ngram Viewer shows that "Burma" predominated in published sources during most of the 20th century, followed by a gradual shift over the next 40 years to "Myanmar," a name given by the ruling junta. Writers using one or the other name are making an implicit political claim about the current regime.
Search Terms as Rhetorical Moves
Students don't always recognize that an author's vocabulary choices often cloak subtle messages. Word choice can advance or strengthen an argument and persuade or encourage action. Phrases like "vaccine deniers," "vaccine hesitancy," "vaccine skeptics," "vaccine refusers," and "anti-vaxxers" might be grouped as synonyms for the purpose of search but have nuanced implications once you dig into a particular source. Anti-vaxxer tends to be a politically charged, pejorative term whereas vaccine hesitancy is used in a more nonjudgmental way to express empathy and build a communication bridge to readers who may be apprehensive about the side effects of vaccines.
We often curate highly structured resources, like textbooks and "issue" databases, to promote frictionless learning. These resources tout "learning aids" like glossaries, standardized vocabulary, and categorized sources that present binary "sides" of an argument.
Consider, for example, Britannica's ProCon.org database which extracts snippets of claims about an issue from their original context and groups them into coherent points of argument. Although the snippets are footnoted, ProCon advises omitting attribution of the originating sources when citing the ProCon webpages.
When sources are decontextualized and organized for students, there remains little motivation for students to wrestle with where a claim belongs in relation to others or how it fits within the logic of an author's argument, let alone devote time to evaluate the author's expertise.
If a database's design deprives students of opportunities to make their own connections and formulate their own critical judgments, then the designation of certain features as "learning aids" is a misnomer. Reexamine your own curation practices to be sure that you gather and organize sources in a way that will advance inquiry, rather than reinforce frictionless research.
Draw students' attention to search terminology. Ask vocabulary questions like "What is this author's definition of the term or phrase?" and "How is it used in context or in combination?" Remind students to use the Find command (control F/command F) to locate and highlight search terms or, when implied, tag them in notecards.
The librarian's challenge to repurpose and extend the life of search terms is a provocative one. I see how they heighten awareness of vocabulary distinctions in ways that lead toward stronger critical annotations. Surely, there are other benefits—what ones do you see?
Endnotes (Chicago Format)
1 "How Google Search Works (in 5 Minutes)," video, 05:15, YouTube, posted by Google, October 24, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eKVizvYSUQ.
2 Braasch, Killion, and Bråten, "Contextual Factors," 428.
3 Jason L. G. Braasch, Samantha C. Killion, and Ivar Bråten, "Contextual Factors That Affect Adolescents' Detection of and Memory for Conflicts across Multiple Texts," Journal of Research in Reading 44, no. 2 (January 14, 2021): 419, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9817.12348.