College students don’t know how to use Google

I recently heard about this study at a faculty development day: college students have difficulty understanding and using search results.

Researchers with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project watched 30 students at Illinois Wesleyan University try to search for different topics online and found that only seven of them were able to conduct “what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search.”

The students “appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school,” Lynda Duke and Andrew Asher write in a book on the project coming out this fall.

At all five Illinois universities, students reported feeling “anxious” and confused when trying to research. Many felt overwhelmed by the volume of results their searches would turn up, not realizing that there are ways to narrow those searches and get more tailored results. Others would abandon their research topics when they couldn’t find enough sources, unaware that they were using the wrong search terms or database for their topics.

The researchers found that students did not know “how to build a search to narrow or expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results.” That means that some students didn’t understand how to search only for news articles, or only for scholarly articles. Most only know how to punch in keywords and hope for the best.

Such trust in technology. Wonder where this came from?

I like how anthropologists were involved in this study. Including an observation component could make this data quite unique. I don’t think many people would think that ethnographic methods could be used to examine such up-to-date technology.

Several other thoughts:

1. How many adults could explain how Google displays pages?

1a. If people knew how Google organized things, would they go elsewhere for information?

2. Finding and sorting through information is a key problem of our age. The problem is not a lack of information or possible sources; rather, there is too much.

3. Who exactly in schools should be responsible for teaching this? Librarians, perhaps, but students have limited contact. Preferably, all teachers/professors should know something about this and talk about it. Parents could also impart this information at home.

4. I’m now tempted to ask students to include all of their search terms in final projects so that I can check and see whether they actually sorted through articles or they simply picked the top few results.

The quest to tweak search results to lead readers to news stories

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post provides a behind-the-scenes look at how newspapers attempt to position themselves in search engines in order to draw more readers. While these are news organizations with often serious intentions, they have to compete with other popular web topics. Here is what Kurtz suggests this looks like:

If you appease the Google gods with the right keywords, you are blessed with more readers. So carried to a hypothetical extreme, an ideal headline would be, “Sarah Palin rips non-Muslim Obama over mosque while Lady Gaga remains silent.”…

On a recent Wednesday morning, some Post editors were frustrated that the primary election results weren’t garnering many hits — despite the fact that John McCain had just won his party’s nomination and Lisa Murkowski was on the verge of losing hers. What was hot, the traffic directors said, was Elin Nordegren telling People that her life had been “hell” since her husband’s sex scandal, a photo of an alligator in the Chicago River, and a video posted on Gawker of a British woman throwing a feral cat into a dumpster…

Zaleski says such trend research is used mainly to tweak headlines and search terms. But, she adds, “what we’re realizing is that we can’t live in a vacuum, where we decide what people want to read.”

The quest for online eyeballs is one that all online sites are competing in and those who are interested in providing or discussing more serious topics do not seem to be winning the day.

h/t Instapundit