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Turning Questions into Queries

Part One of a Five-part series

Carl Heine, Ph.D.

Five Things Hand

Students attending school today were born in the age of computers and digital information. Most of their teachers were not. When I started working at College of DuPage in 1990, my office technology consisted of a telephone and a typewriter. So I am definitely a newcomer, a digital immigrant, and pretty much self-taught. A challenge I share with others of my generation in the digital expressway is getting up to speed and avoiding being run over by those who have been digital from birth, the digital natives.

If you Google "digital natives", the top return is an article by Marc Prensky entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. For students growing up with computers, Prensky claims the world is already a radically different place. A fundamental problem he sees is that today's students and teachers may be losing their ability to communicate:

"Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language." (Prensky, page 2)

If digital natives speak a new language, it is not understood by search engines.

Not doubting that there is some truth in this, we simply asked students and educators to demonstrate some of their digital skills. We provided them with several search challenges requiring them to find information on the Internet using any means possible.

Despite having to learn a new language, educators consistently out-performed students using technology to search the Internet. Growing up with computers provides no advantage. If digital natives speak a new language, it is not understood by search engines.

It should not be assumed that today's students know how best to use technology. Left to their own, their native abilities are neither effective nor efficient when applied to digital searching. Digital immigrants may do better because they are equipped with research skills they learned in school that addresses the problem.

Search challenges reveal at least five significant shortcomings in students' abilities to use technology.

What students don't do well

What they do instead

Turn a question into a query

Rush ahead toward an answer, grabbing some of the criteria or the whole statement

Choose the right database

Enter words or phrases into Google

Recognize information when they find it

Rush past important information and clues, continue to browse

Find better keywords

Stick with their original words and browse

Verify the credibility of information

Accept what they find at face value, hoping somewhere in the information there is an answer


In order to succeed at these tasks, students need (1) to acknowledge their need and (2) use a sophisticated process for navigating a complex technological environment. The 21st Century Information Fluency team calls this the Digital Information Fluency Model.

DIF model

At the highest level, the model represents a series of decisions. Today's digital students tend to make poor choices at five critical junctures, but with help they can do better.

What Information am I looking for?

The process starts with a question or a problem to solve. The first critical decision occurs when translating a natural language question or statement into language that is understood by a search engine. Search engines differ in how they process queries, but for the most part, what works on one big commercial search engine tends to work on the others. While machines can accept natural language and extract important keywords and ignore others, they are no substitute for a thoughtful keyword, which at this time still requires human input.

Research Findings (gifted, second-semester high school sophomores)

• 36% recognized the optimal query from a list of three queries (about the same as guessing). By contrast,

• 14% of incoming freshmen at a local high school were able to select the optimal query.

• 31% grasped that search engines perform literal matching.

• 17% regularly use natural language queries.

• 12% misinterpreted the research question by substituting different search concepts.

Students tend to make quick decisions at this point in the model, taking the whole question "as is", choosing just a part of the question or replacing important ideas with their own. We believe they can do better by thinking longer about the search question before choosing words for a query.

What you can do to help  

Using a checklist to identify key concepts is one approach that slows down the decision making process long enough to avoid missing critical information. Although the checklist contains nine questions, all are essential search habits that require very little time to execute with practice. The checklist is particularly effective as a discussion-starter in class. For a practical application of the checklist in this issue, refer to this Lesson Adaptation.
  1. How many key concepts (important ideas) are found in the question? This question promotes critical thinking, isolates important ideas and lessens the likelihood that extraneous concepts are added. This question also highlights necessary keywords (#3, #4) and exposes unnecessary words (# 7).
  2. How many key concepts will I search for? We recommend that if a question contains 4 important concepts, the query should focus on at least 3 of them. For fewer important concepts, search for all of them; for more, search for the 4 that are most important.
  3. What keywords are probably effective “as is?” Proper nouns and numbers belong in the category to use "as is".
  4. For which concepts are more effective keywords probably needed? More specific terms likely exist and should be tried (same as #5)
  5. Are there hyponyms (more specific terms) or professional language for any of the intermediate words? Whenever possible, search with words that subject matter experts would use.
  6. Are there words that have multiple meanings? Search engines don't differentiate word meanings, just spellings.
  7. Did I use any stop words or clutter words? Contrary to students' beliefs, more words in a query does not produce more specific results.
  8. Did I spell the words correctly? Since search engines match queries literally, misspellings will result in pages with the search word misspelled--not likely the page of a subject matter expert.
  9. Did I put the most important words first?  Word order does not always make a difference, but it's worth a try.

Another approach to helping students turn questions into queries that starts with points 3, 4 and 7 in the checklist above is incorporated in the Question to Query Keyword Challenge Games. By playing these games, in which students separate words into four categories of keywords, search questions are distilled into the most important concepts, some of which are represented by "as is" keywords and others by "intermediate" keywords for which there is probably a better word.

i Prensky, Marc. "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5 (October 2001): NCB University Press 30 March 2006 < http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf >.

In the next issue:

Do you (only) Google? Helping the digital generation discover new databases.

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