There’s So Much on the Web! Helping Students Become Internet-Research Savvy

No matter how much we emphasize the importance of books and databases, the reality is our students are using the Internet for research and will continue to do so. The plethora of high-quality resources available online cannot be ignored. But teaching our students how to navigate the intricate web of invisible wires cannot be ignored, either.

Seventy-four percent of college freshmen report that they struggle with keywords and searches, and once they complete searches, nearly half of freshmen are overwhelmed by the amount of irrelevant information. In fact, “I can’t find anything,” is a frequent comment I hear when students embark on their research, whether they are using the Internet, a database, or an online book. I always ask, “What are you using for a search term?” and have discovered that our students type in the words that come first to their mind with no follow-up, and only use the first few articles presented to them. When there is not helpful information on the first try, they get frustrated and stop in their tracks.

Some librarians overcome this issue by providing all of the resources for their students, but there is great danger to this–finding and assessing resources is part of research, and this has  become a critical life skill in today’s media landscape. We need our students to wade through, filter, and critique the material that is out there and build the skills required to be fully fluent in the language of research.

Searching requires a certain savviness in language, and students who lack high-level vocabulary struggle the most. But even those with limited vocabularies can be successful in research if we give them the right tools.

  • In conversation, provide students with search terms using your own prior knowledge. “Oh, when you’re researching women’s rights, you should look up Lucretia Mott.” or “If you are studying disasters in the NASA program, start with the terms, ‘Challenger’ and ‘Apollo 11.’” or “If you’re interested in looking at juvenile diabetes, be sure to go to the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation.” The goal is not to tell students what to do, but to use our knowledge to guide them into building their own.
  • Encourage the use of an online thesaurus.
  • Model, using your own search terms, how different results come up when you change the search.
  • Show students how reading Wikipedia can help them come up with search terms.
  • Talk about search terms regularly, so that students hear it as a normal part of the process that all learners have to grapple with. Ask them to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work. Make it a metacognitve process.

The Internet is a labyrinth of resources that our students can get lost in, and there is a plethora of poor quality choices out there that they seem to gravitate towards. I once taught an entire lesson on credible sources during a philosophy project, and then when I sat with a student who was studying Voltaire, he told me his best resource was The challenge is always finding the balance between letting students seek out their own resources while not letting them get lost in a maze of poor choices.

Here are some strategies we can offer our students when they venture into Internetland on their own:

  • Read the url. Does it end with .gov? .com? .edu? .org? Note that this is just the beginning. There are some wonderful websites that end with .com and there are some terrible student papers shared on .edu websites. But being savvy enough to at least identify what kind of website they are looking at is important.
  • Alternative search engines–Google isn’t the only search engine! There are a variety of other search engines that make academic researching easier for students by culling out the important, reliable, credible sources.
  • News sites–Most major newspapers have entire sections focused on specific topics. So, students can search New York Times Middle East and find all of the New York Times articles on the Middle East. Housing, wars, climate change, women’s issues, etc. are all common pages dedicated in the news.
  • Instead of requiring students to use specific sites, provide an overall list that covers different subject matters like the one below.
Arts Health
Arts Edge
Google Art Project
Grammy Museum
Hielbrunn Timeline of Art History
Metropolitan Museum of Art
National Gallery of Art
Rolling Stone Magazine
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Mayo Clinic
National Institute on Drug Abuse
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Institute of Mental Health
National Organizations like: Juvenile Diabetes Research Organization
National Institutes of Health
Psychology Today
World Health Organization
History Math
American Panorama
CIA World Factbook
History Channel
Library of Congress
National Archives
Smithsonian Museums
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Zinn Education Project
CIA World Factbook
Get the Math
Math Apprentice
Mathematical Association of America
New York Stock Exchange
Pew Research Center
Vi Hart
Science Tech & Computers
American Chemical Society
Discovery Channel
National Geographic
Science Friday
Academic Earth
MIT World
PC Magazine
Popular Science
World Languages/cultures The news & current events
BBC’s Country Profiles
CIA World Factbook
International Monetary Fund
Library of Congress’ Portals to the World
TIME for Kids
University of Richmond’s Constitution Finder
US Department of State
New York Times
The Guardian
The Intercept
Time Magazine
Wall Street Journal
Washington Post

The Internet can be a curse and a blessing; it can be a rabbit hole of lost time or a gift of information. But if we remove assumptions about digital nativism and guide our students through the literal web of information, we can help them succeed at conquering their worlds of knowledge.

This blog post is an abridged excerpt from Miller’s new book, It’s a Matter of Fact: Teaching Students Research Skills in Today’s Information-Packed World, available from Routledge Publishing.

Photo by Nicolas Picard on Unsplash


Author: Angie Miller

Angie Miller is a 7-12 school librarian in Meredith, NH. The 2011 NH Teacher of the Year and the recipient of the 2017 NH Outstanding Library Program of the Year, Angie is a TED speaker, National Geographic teacher fellow, and freelance writer who writes for her blog, The Contrarian Librarian, and is a regular contributor to sites like EdWeek and the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet. As a co-founder of the initiative, Let the Librarians Lead, Angie leads professional development, speaks to audiences, and advocates for school leadership through librarianship. Her book, It’s A Matter of Fact: Teaching Students Research Skills in Today’s Information-Packed World, published by Routledge, will be on shelves in April 2018.

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models, Technology

2 replies

  1. This is such a relevant resource. Thank you for sharing! I especially love “The goal is not to tell students what to do, but to use our knowledge to guide them into building their own.” Isn’t that always our goal as teacher/librarian?

  2. Thank you! Your timing is perfect. I’m soon talking with teachers about database searching, and my first question to them is how they feel about wikipedia. As a researcher, I also think it’s a great place to start for search term inspiration. Thank you for all your tips and ideas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.