Mastering Keywords and Queries

Keywords and Queries
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Looking back 20 years, the 21st Century Information Fluency Project was just getting underway. Today's students weren't born yet. The Internet was a lot smaller and things looked different. The names of search engines in use back then are being forgotten: Netscape, Alta Vista, etc. Finding information online took longer than it does today.

One of the first things we noticed when observing how students used the Internet was their difficulty in using keywords and queries. Search engines didn't have spell checkers, so if you mispelled a word, you found only mispelled matches. Using natural language (sentences and questions) didn't work well. Seeing how poorly many students searched for online information prompted a series of MicroModules on Keywords, Queries and Search Strategies that are still found on this site.

20 years

Given all the changes to technology in 20 years it's pretty amazing that not much has changed about students' search behaviors.

There's still a tendency to type in full sentences--which is an accommodation made by search engine designers to move to where the people are rather than force people to adapt to the machines. This works pretty well with popular or easy searches for people, products, events, facts and so on. The population's ability to use keywords and queries remains rudimentary. This becomes apparent when they are challenged to locate hard-to-find information.

Hard-to-Find Information

Easy search: How far is the earth from the moon?
Harder search: what are the ten biggest meteorite impacts on the moon in the last 15 years?

These differences between the two questions make one easier and one harder to answer.

  • Information about earth-moon distance is available many places online. This is not the case with the frequency of meteorite impacts on the moon.
  • Information related to the first question may be considered more general in nature. Information in the second question is more specific.
  • Search engines easily match information using three keywords far (Google will also look for synonyms such as distance), earth and moon. More keywords may be required for the second question: meteorite impacts biggest 10 15 years.
  • There is less 'noise' in the first question about distance--it's the primary/popular topic. By constrast, there is a lot of 'noise' related to the second question, the primary/popular topic is the number of meteorite impacts on earth.
  • The first question has fewer conditions to satisfy. The second has multiple: the number of impacts in a period of years.
  • You make false assumptions. You may wrongly assume the information contains the same words you used. You may wrongly assume the information appears in a list. For example, the information about moon meteorite impacts IS a list, but not a top ten list. You have to figure out the 10 biggest impacts on your own by comparing impacts. Or information may be embedded in an image and not contain text at all. This doesn't necessarily make one question harder than another, but searching with wrong assumptions definitely complicates a search.

These factors, especially when combined, make some information harder to find using a search engine. Research topics in school (and work and life) have their share of easy, look-up-a-fact type questions, but they also have multi-layered, complex questions. Information fluency includes the ability to parse complex questions into forms that are 'understood' by search engines. As search engines continue to improve (partly because people lack the language skills to use them effectively), engines will do a better job of figuring out what people are really asking. But until then--and it's taken more than 20 years so far--locating hard-to-find information requires appropriate language skills and search strategies of users.

Little evident change among users

Observations made 20 years ago about how children and adults search the Internet are not much different than findings today. And the advice given on this site hasn't changed a great deal either. What was effective 20 years ago is still effective today. Effective search strategies aren't needed to locate easy information, but they are when research-grade questions arise. So teaching information fluency definitely has a place in the curriculum. But where?

Powering Searching Course

This question has led to the creation of a myriad of instructional methods that are found on this site. In this issue of Full Circle, we introduce our newest approach: a stand-alone course. Here is an overview of the approach taken:

  • Delivered via Google Classroom. A copy of the course can be made easily and used by any teacher who is familiar with Google Classroom.
  • The course is designed as self-paced instruction with support from a teacher who checks answers that are submitted.
  • There are 6 segments to the course; the whole experience takes 2 to 5 hours to complete.
  • Challenging (yet 'fun') search problems are presented, along with tips and examples how to solve them.
  • A final quiz assesses how well students grasp concepts and skills of information fluency.
  • All segments are supported by teacher's guides that provide background on the challenges, power searching tips, answers and rubrics for scoring students' work.

Six Challenges

Here are the six challenges:

  1. How many buffalo are there in North America today?
  2. Who first claimed that China’s Great Wall can be identified from space?
  3. How do different groups of people in the United States view the causes of poverty today? Create a query to find differing views.
  4. What Winter Olympics story did Yahoo feature on its site on 02.20.2002?
  5. What other companies have trademarked the name LEGO for products that weren’t interlocking plastic bricks?
  6. Use keywords found in this ABC News article about Stink Bombs to locate the title and author of the publication on which this article is based.

You are invited to preview the course here.

Try it out for free

For a limited time, we are inviting up to six instructors to give us feedback on the course. This involves completing the course activities--it can be done in one marathon session or split up into six smaller sessions (recommended). For those who complete the course and give us feedback, we're offering the course for you to try with up to 30 students for free. If you (and your students) find it helpful in improving their search skills with keywords and queries, then continue to use it with a Classroom or School subscription. Or, if you prefer, the per-person fee for the course is $10 for each individual student.

Sign up here to try out the course: Register Today!

More in this Issue

Curriculum: Power Searching Tips

All the Power Searching tips from the course are summarized in one place! | Go

Action Zone: Meteorite Challenge

Test your students' ability to answer the question introduced above: What are the ten biggest meteorite impacts on the moon in the last 15 years? | Go

Assessment: Fluent use of Keywords and Queries

Since the Power Searching course includes assessment tools, we recommend trying the free trial to see how we assess information fluency.

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