In the age of the split-second Google search, it’s more critical than ever to train students to distinguish between primary and secondary sources

google-proAs in decades past, proper research methods are an essential skill for today’s students. At a time when most students (and adults, for that matter) are accustomed to heading straight to Google to answer all of their questions, being able to sagely sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly of search results is key to creating independent 21st century thinkers.

However, even when used properly, Google is not always the right resource. On its website, the Kentucky Virtual Library provides a detailed, student-friendly interactive map of the research process, called “How To Do Research,” which spells out the steps for making the most of the research process, from planning to searching to taking notes and ultimately using gathered information effectively. Many educators like the map because it doesn’t focus exclusively on web research, but instead provides a broader list of tools—think library catalogs and reputable magazines—that can be just as helpful for students.

Learn how to search

Print resources undoubtedly still have a place at the table, but it would be futile to deny that the ability to locate and evaluate online sources is an equally valuable skill. Do your students know how to find and refine effective search terms? Do they know how to filter results using advanced search options? To that end, Google’s Search Education site offers a plethora of beginner, intermediate, and advanced search lesson plans related to picking the right terms, understanding results, narrowing a search, searching for evidence for research tasks, and evaluating the credibility of sources.

(Next page: How students can improve their Google skills)

In addition to the Search Education Lessons, Google also offers a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) titled: “Power Searching with Google.” (The course is taught by Dan Russell, a senior research scientist at Google, who is also the man behind SearchResearch, a blog about all things search and research). If you have limited time, you may find the Power Searching Quick Reference useful, and the explainer video emporium Common Craft also offers a short video on web search strategies, which students might find easy to digest.

Afterward, test your student’s search skills, (or your own), with a Google a Day, a web puzzle that poses a question answerable via some targeted Googling. The terms and keywords are up to you, but, as the site notes, there’s only right answer. If you don’t find these challenges difficult enough, try Google’s Advanced Power Searching Course, where you will find complex search challenges and solve them along with others from around the globe. (“You are in the city that is home to the House of Light and a museum in a converted school featuring paintings from the far-away Forest of Honey,” challenges one riddle in the course. “What traditional festival might you be visiting?”)

Who told you that?

Once students have found what they are looking for, the next step is to evaluate the source. Is the information accurate and reliable? Is it current? Are there biases? For a short primer to the topic, watch Common Craft’s explainer video, “Website Evaluation.” You can also show students classic hoax web sites like the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and Dihydrogen Monoxide, which illustrate beautifully that not everything on the internet is true. Another favorite for driving this point home is State Farm’s humorous French Model commercial.

(Next page: Put students’ Google skills to the test)

Alan November and Brian Mull take an interesting approach to assessing the reliability of online sources in their article “Web Literacy Where the Common Core Meets Common Sense.” To get students thinking beyond the surface of what they read, the authors suggest teachers have their students use Google to search for images of “ear mouse,” and then read two articles about this rodent.

The first article, “Artificial liver ‘could be grown’,” comes from the BBC, a trusted news source. The second account, “Vacanti mouse,” appeared on Wikipedia. The inconsistencies within the articles are readily identifiable. November and Mull challenge students and teachers to determine which information is more accurate by finding a third reliable source. But where? Astute readers of the first two sources, they say, will notice that the original research was done in labs at the University of Massachusetts and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Then, using advanced search commands on Google, they can narrow their search and gain insights direct from the researchers themselves.

Spoiler alert, with further research students will find that the ear was not actually a human ear that was grown on the back of the mouse, as the BBC originally reported, but was instead ear shaped cartilage (derived from a cow) that was implanted on the mouse’s back. Students will come away from the exercise able to discern the difference between primary sources, in this case the labs where the research was completed, and secondary sources, like news sites. A valuable lesson, no doubt, and believe it or not all it takes is a little Googling.

Kelly Maher is a mathematics and technology teacher and Technology Coordinator at Patrick F. Taylor Science and Technology Academy, near New Orleans. Previously, she’s written about creating engaging infographics for eSchool News.