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Teach Effective Research Skills Early

by on April 19, 2016

Although I am a “younger” librarian, I do remember learning the tools for researching and writing a paper in high school. In fact, we had to write and research a topic in order to graduate high school. As students we had to compile sources by searching through the card catalog, and then we had to locate the physical books in the stacks. It was by doing this that we learned how to use indexes,  how to create a ‘Works Cited’ page, how to sift through information on an assigned topic, and how to use the card catalogs. We did not have to worry about the quality of the research on our desired topics.

What about today’s students, though? While thirty-something students had the Internet when it came time to do a research paper, we did not have all of the virtual assistance students have today. As a reference librarian, it is alarming to see how many students are clueless when it comes to researching a topic. From my experience, many of them think typing a phrase in to Google is their “research.” Although Google is a very helpful search engine, these students do not know that they must look at the authenticity of the source rather than taking it as informational doctrine.

In the study “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” Kristen Purcell et al express that although the finest students will access research on a wide range, they are equally concerned about students not evaluating the quality of online information.[1] Which is why Purcell et al go on to state that they spend time teaching this in the classroom.

According to a survey taken by teachers, 94 percent of students are most likely “to perform research by using Google, while only 18 percent use a print or electronic book, 17 percent search an online database, and 16 percent consult a public or school librarian.[2] While in college, JSTOR was my go-to database; I used it for many literature analysis articles. In addition to this, I lived in the library’s stacks in my search for literature analysis on a particular author. Now, though, if you were to look up a psychoanalytical analysis of Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips,” you could access any angst-ridden teenaged girl’s take on it.

It is so important to teach students how to use search engines correctly. I believe this starts with informing students that “Googling” is inequitable to “research.” A librarian at University Laboratory High encourages students to use Google Scholar and subscribed databases.[3] Google Scholar is a great tool as it includes scholarly articles, which is just the type of information students should be utilizing. This is an especially fantastic tool if libraries are lacking the funding to purchase subscriptions to online databases.

The “Strategies” page on Carnegie Mellon’s interesting Solve a Teaching Problem website by the Eberly Center has a lot of great pointers. A problem is identified, such as “students do not know how to research,” and suggestions are given to alleviate the issue. The university goes on to further explore how to solve the problems by prescreening the students’ research skills, teaching research abilities, collaborating with the library, etc.[4]

What would assuage all of these research problems by the time a student gets to the university level would be to start making online research methods part of the middle school students’ curriculum. Some schools are lucky enough to have a media specialist teach this, while others do not. Many schools have eliminated professional librarians who used to teach research skills, and because of this, teachers must pick up the ball. I realize that teachers are already have their lesson plans stretched to maximum levels, but it is in the students’ best academic interest to teach them effective research skills from an early age.


[1]  Kristen Purcell et al, “How Teens Do Research In The Digital World,” report by Pew Research Center, November 1, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Leslie Harris O’Hanlon, “Teaching Students Better Online Skills,” Education Week, May 20, 2013, reprinted in Education Week: Digital Curricula Evolving as “Teaching Students The Skills to Be Savvy Researchers,” May 22, 2013.

[4] Eberly Center, “Explore Strategies: Students don’t know how to do research,” Solve a Teaching Problem, n.d.

Further Reading:

Paul Jackson, “Search vs. Research

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