Why can’t Johnny Search?

A recent article from Wired editor Clive Thompson asks why students who have grown up as “digital natives” are so bad at searching. Interestingly enough, while Thompson describes the problems as being with searching, the article actually focuses mostly on the inability of students to evaluate information. He cites several studies showing that students tend to use the top results of the search without bothering to check who wrote it, where it is from or what its purpose may be.

Magnifying Glass, by dsb Nola on flickr.

The points Thompson raises have certainly resonated with several educators. They all agree that the k-12 schools are missing an invaluable opportunity to improve students’ critical thinking skills by teaching them to evaluate sources properly. With such an emphasis on basic skills such as writing and math, many people feel that critical thinking skills are falling behind. With more and more resources available online each day, it seems that the ability distinguish good websites from bad ones becomes more and more important.

A recent study sponsored by several academic libraries in Illinois, highlights the problems students have with search, while also noting several impediments to fixing the problem. The study notes that student often do not realize that there are ways to search better and to evaluate sources, so they never think to ask. And even though librarians are available to provide assistance with searching, many students (and even some professors) never ask for help. Sometimes this is because they don’t realize that librarians can help with searching, so they never think to ask. Other times the greatest barrier is the perception that today’s digital natives should already know how to search. One consequences of this perception could be that some students to feel embarrassed about asking for help with something perceived as a simple task. Another consequence is that librarians and professors may not always provide the students who ask for help with the assistance they need. If educators assume that students already know the basics of searching, they may start providing assistance at a higher level than the student is ready to understand. There is some indication that students are very intimidated by the thought of asking librarians for help, and getting a response that they do not fully understand merely exacerbates the problem.

So we are faced with a problem where almost everyone agrees that searching for and evaluating websites is a crucial skill, yet the teaching and learning of this skill often seems to slip through the cracks. At UB, many freshmen take an Introduction to information Literacy class, which is certainly a step toward addressing this issue. Unfortunately, many other universities do not offer a class with the explicit goal of teaching students these skills, under the assumption that most students come to college having already learned them. Judging from the studies referenced here, it seems like many colleges and high schools would do well to think about was to more effectively teach these important skills.

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