In this article, a college librarian and a university professor describe how they developed a course to help students improve their online research skills. While some of the advanced techniques are most appropriate for undergraduate students who have access to online academic databases, the initial phase of the project is readily applicable to younger students.
While lectures are a part of the training, each lecture is supplemented with an online quiz that requires students to apply what they’ve learned about choosing search engines, choosing search terms, and using proper syntax to accomplish their goals.
The training begins with a look at Yahoo! and AltaVista, two of the most popular search engines. Though students think of them interchangeably, these search engines actually represent different models of organizing the web. Yahoo! is a directory of links to web sites (approximately 1.5 million) chosen by humans and online searches to fit into certain categories. AltaVista merely searches the web for pages that contain the words or phrases that are being searched. The authors recommend using Yahoo! in the first stage of a search and then AltaVista once specific keywords have been identified.
The next part of the training shows students how to improve their searches in these types of search engines by combining several terms they want searched simultaneously. Understanding the basics of Boolean logic, phrases, and limiting domains will significantly increase student success:
• Boolean logic. This entails using terms such as “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT” to define a search more clearly.
• Phrases. With an understanding of Boolean logic, students can learn to link several words by one of the terms. Working through an example in which more and more phrases are added will show how combining terms reduces the number of “hits” an online search generates.
• Limiting domains. Limiting searches to one of the web’s seven current domains (more are being added in the near future) is another valuable technique. The terms are: .com (commercial sites), .net (web hosts), .gov (government sites), .mil (military agencies), .int (international sites), .org (nonprofit groups), and .edu (educational institutions). Thus, asking for all online resources that have a certain phrase but are in only one of seven domains will help students focus their searches.