Review of Relevant Literature by R. Scott Auble and David L. Delongchamp

Teaching Internet Search Strategies Using Critical Thinking Skills

Introduction: Necessary Skills For Information Literacy

     With the current interest in creating a society of life long learners, it is evident that students must be able to find, evaluate, and use information that is constantly changing. The arrival of the Information Age has created an important new literacy necessary for students to be successful in this ever-changing world, information literacy (Roth, 1999). For students to successfully become literate, educators need to take a close look at the importance of information seeking and how it can be incorporated into curricular areas.

     David Thornburg (2000), director of the Thornburg Center for professional development, has made several important observations on the changes in the way information is accessed since the advent of the Internet in his impact paper "Renaissance 2000". He has stressed that in the past information was pushed to us through newspapers, textbooks, and news reports. Others most often determined the relevancy of this information. Since the development of the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW or simply “the Web”) educators increasingly see valid and accurate information mixed in with commercial, biased, opinionated, and other less accurate or meaningful information, and all this information is a mouse click away. Due to the information explosion made possible by Internet technologies, the incredible volume of accessible data can be mind- boggling. Because of this, information research skills are becoming very important to workers in information-based fields such as education, medicine, science, law, government, media, sales, and dozens of others. Increasingly, being able to locate quality information on the Web in an effective, efficient manner has become an essential ability in order to learn more rapidly and to make informed decisions. Thornburg has asserted that to be successful in this new age of information people will need training in the skills of finding information and evaluating it for accuracy and relevancy (¶ #13). These statements by Thornburg are also similar to those of John Seely Brown (1999). Brown, the Chief Scientist of Xerox and the Director of the Palo Alto Research Center has stated that the most valuable skill for the 21st century will be information navigation. Navigating through the plethora of information stored on the Internet to find accurate and reliable information will be a new form of literacy (¶ #20). Because of all these changes brought about by the Information Age, the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy (1989) offered this definition in their final report: "To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information (¶ #3)."  As a result in 1998 the American Association of School Librarians developed the National Information Literacy Standards for student learning (American Library Association, 1998). These nine standards are the current framework for teaching information literacy in our Nations schools.

 Research On Information Searching Using the World Wide Web

     One key aspect of effective World Wide Web searching seems to be good problem-solving skills, as defined by Barry Beyer in the book “Strategies for the Teaching of Thinking Skills” (Beyer, 1987). Students succeed more quickly, find a greater variety and higher quality of information when they approach the search as a problem: carefully defining the problem, looking for potential solutions to the problem, prioritizing solutions, trying them out, and then analyzing the results to see if they have provided the solution. Iteration through various refinements of the original solutions is often part of the successful problem-solving process as well as the more effective Internet searches (Rankin, 1999; Stripling, 1988).

     At the same time, good searchers exhibit the ability to evaluate critically the information they are finding and apply their judgment to the search process (Rankin, 1999). This is seen in filtering hit lists by skimming for relevancy, refining searches to reduce hit counts, and/or choosing sites of better authority due to prior knowledge of methods for determining information validity or factualness (Eisenberg, 2000). Good problem solving skills and critical evaluation both are needed and exhibited by those most successful in searching the Web (Eisenberg, 2000; Rankin, 1999).

     By contrast, when observing the behaviors and skills possessed by those least successful in finding information with these searches, educators see random surfing through links and distraction by irrelevant visual cues, as observed in the study by Janette Hill (Hill, 1997). Untrained searchers exhibit the following ineffective search behaviors: difficulty forming effective queries; inability to identify or predict what will be contained in documents that meet search criteria; failure to recognize or eliminate irrelevant results from search hits; and lack of ability to discern flaws in the documents found such as questionable source credibility, relevancy, timeliness, etc. (Hill, 1997, p. #38).

Challenges To Internet Researchers

     The problem with the Internet is finding the desired information being sought among its near-limitless and often poorly-organized resources (Rubenking, 2000). In addition, the quality of information available on the Web varies widely. Eva Shaw, author and historian, stated it well when she said "I think of researching material on the Internet like crossing a swamp: I don't know ahead of time if I'll find something that makes me scream or something solid--a fact (Shaw, 200l, p. #16)."  Considering, that more than 7.3 million pages a day of information are added to the Internet in conjunction with it's unregulated sprawl, it is no wonder that searching for information can be a difficult task (p. #16).

     Most information scientists would agree that the Internet and particularly the World Wide Web (WWW) fit the description of an Open Ended Information System (OEIS) (Hill, 1997). These systems are best described as collections of loosely related data, with no standard retrieval mechanism that will necessarily access all of the data.  Indeed, the same search query run on multiple search engines will often produce different results, with some overlap, as far as potential documents that match. Furthermore, although in recent years standardization has improved, the features and user interfaces of search engines are not yet homogeneous.

     Effective searching on the Internet involves using one of the many available search engines designed for finding information. One difficulty associated with search engines is that they rely on proprietary indexes that are updated and maintained by special programs called “spiders”. Spiders search the Internet by traversing the links on a page to subsequent pages, repeating this process iteratively until all documents that can be accessed from a site have been located. In the process, the documents are scanned for word occurrences that are stored along with the links in the index database. Each spider uses a different algorithm to create these indexes, and thus the reports may differ considerably in their content. With estimates of over 1.5 billion pages of information on the Internet, even the best search engines can only search a fraction of what's out there (Rubenking, 2000). Steve Lawrence, a Research Scientist at the NEC Research Institute, summed it up when he said, "Search engines are currently lacking in comprehensiveness and timeliness. The current state of search engines can be compared to a phone book which is updated irregularly, and has most of the pages torn out (Lawrence, 1998, ¶ # 2)." The reality is that users are not searching the Internet.  Rather, they are searching indexes, and the search is only as good as the index.

     Another feature of the Web is the linkages between documents established through hyper linking. Document “hits” found by search engines have a high likelihood of containing a good deal of irrelevant information as well as the information being sought, or they may contain many links to irrelevant information. The issue of quality or validity of information stored on the Web is increasingly problematic for Internet researchers. In the early days of the Internet, when the primary users were engineers, scientists, and educational or government organizations, the quality of information was more uniform, usually coming from sources without a commercial interest and with a lower level of bias or a higher degree of expertise. With the explosion of commercial access to the Internet of the last several years and the access to free Web page hosting to consumers provided by many commercial sites, basically anyone with a computer is free to post material based on opinion, bias, and unsubstantiated theory. This “Web junk” is a major impediment to locating quality factual information on the Internet, especially to those who have not been trained in techniques for recognizing it and filtering it out of search results (Lawrence, 1998; Rubenking, 2000).

     It follows that searching on the Internet is not an easy task. The features of the Web discussed above are often highly disorienting to novices and can be quite a challenge even to more experienced users (Rubenking, 2000). Overcoming this disorientation is a primary goal of teaching strategies for applying problem solving and critical thinking to the search process. With a systematic approach, searchers exhibit less distraction by irrelevant or inappropriate material and needless wandering online.  Experienced searchers have the ability to find accurate and valid information that make the effort of researching online efficient and beneficial. The problem is not entirely the Internet, but the approach we have been taking to using the Internet. What educators must realize is that Internet searching requires information problem-solving skills that involve critical thinking (Bertram, 2000). The focus in teaching searching strategies has therefore been to develop and refine methods to stimulate and encourage the use of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills when applied to the task of locating relevant, useful information from the Internet.

The Problem Solving Approach To Internet Searching

In the book "Brainstorms and Blueprints", Stripling and Pitts (1988) mention the old Japanese proverb: "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime (p. #1)." They go on to say that, "Today's corollary is that if you teach a man to think about his fishing, he might invent a technique that would feed his entire village beyond his lifetime (p. #1)." It is this approach to teaching Internet searching that educators want to explore. When students use a problem-solving approach to searching, they have less difficulty dealing with unfamiliar search tools, and computer systems (Rankin, 1999). Searching at this point becomes a problem solving process. Students who are overly confident of their computer skills, and think of search engines as magic, need problem solving skills to force them to reflect on the search as a process when things don't turn out the way they hope (Rankin, 1999). The key to this process is the metacognition of what worked and what didn't. If they can be trained to reflect on strategies that worked, students will be better equipped to deal with difficulties the next time they occur. Educators want students to develop the abilities to set a search goal, come up with strategies to achieve that goal, monitor how the search is going, recognize inadequate results, and select different strategies to improve results (Rankin, 1999, p. #43).

     One of the most popular models for information problem solving is the Big6 Information Problem Solving Approach developed by Eisenberg and Berkowitz in1987. Their research shows that all successful information problem solving involves 6 steps: (a) Task Definition, (b) Information Seeking Strategies, (c) Location and Access, (d) Use of Information, (e) Synthesis, and (f) Evaluation.

     In this model task definition involves students defining the information problem and identifying the information needed in order to complete the task.  The information seeking strategies step involves brainstorming the range of possible sources and evaluating those sources to determine priorities.  On the location and access step students locate sources (intellectually and physically), and find information within sources.  On the fourth step, use of information, students engage (read, hear, view, or touch) the information and extract relevant information.  In synthesis, students organize information from multiple sources and present the information.  And finally, on the last step, evaluation, students judge the product and the information-solving process (Eisenberg, 1987, ¶ #1).

     Although listed in order, this model is flexible enough to allow students movement between the steps as needed. The simplicity of the model and its easy use provides a guide for students in all grade levels (Cotrell, 1997).  The steps in this model also work well with Internet searching. Using this model in conjunction with the National Information Literacy Standards for student learning provides a powerful tool for educators interested in promoting Internet research skills (Eisenberg, 2000).

 Cognitive Processes Involved In Internet Searching

The phases of cognition used in Internet searching (described by Hill, 1999) are divided in to six steps and are incorporated into 2 main stages: (a) Navigation and (b) Process. In the first stage, navigation, searchers explore the system to find information using purposeful thinking (working on the goal), acting (browsing or searching) and system responding (feedback from the computer). On the second stage, process, searchers are attempting to make meaning out of the information found by evaluation, transformation, integration and resolution. That is, searchers must assess information for use, extract information from the source document, process information into useful material and evaluate information as to whether more information is needed (Hill, 1999, p. #11).

     Based on the above framework Hill discovered that success in searching was very dependent on user knowledge, specifically metacognitive abilities, familiarity with the computer system being used, and prior subject knowledge (Hill, 1997). The research indicates that individuals with little system knowledge, and understanding of how to conduct a search, have greater difficulty finding success in Internet searches (Hill, 1999).

     Given this information, providing instruction in Internet search strategies so as to develop skills in computer system use may help students improve their knowledge of the system and therefore improve their ability to conduct successful Internet searches.

Necessary Skills And Prior Knowledge

     An important means of reducing disorientation while searching is to ensure the searcher has the necessary prior knowledge about the open-endedness of the system and also the nature of how the data is created, distributed, and related (Bertram, 1999/2000; Hill, 1999).  It is crucial the user realizes that current knowledge about the search topic may potentially be used in finding the additional information needed (Hill, 1997). With this realization comes the ability to form lists of keywords that will probably appear in desired documents or to predict what may be found in the desired solution. This is a key component of problem solving as applied to the search task (Rankin, 1999).

     Next, the ability to form complex queries is a necessary skill, as this is the primary means of reducing the initial number of hits to a level that can reasonably be reviewed. Some training on logic and multiple keyword searches, or use of the search engine’s refine search feature if it has one, is necessary (Rubenking, 2000). This is a specialized skill that only users of online DBMS systems would normally possess, and therefore novices need training and practice in this area so that they can develop effective queries. In applying queries and/or refinements to searches, result analysis using critical thinking becomes a necessary process (Bertram, 1999/2000; Eisenberg, 1996). Searchers must be taught to infer from the results whether they are relevant to the sought after information, and to use hit counters or page counts to determine whether results reflect a good sample of available information (Eisenberg, 2000). When higher-level thinking is not used in this process, random surfing or selecting only the first few hits becomes more prevalent, and users become frustrated at how long it takes to find any information at all, let alone good quality information (Hill, 1997).

     Finally, the ability to plan a search and to recognize which thinking skills need to be applied at different points in the process is a necessary ability for expert searchers. This metacognitive ability, or the ability to “think about thinking” is a crucial component in applying the cognitive skills effectively to a complex task such as searching the Web for information (Beyer, 1987; Hill, 1999; Rankin, 1999).

Teaching Strategies For Internet Searching

     According to Beyer (1987), the teaching of thinking skills in context with a real-world problem has been most successful in conveying the necessary abilities to students. Internet searching is an appropriate context for teaching these abilities, as it is clearly an area where these skills have a direct impact on success. Beyer also stresses that trying to teach too many skills at once is usually unsuccessful, because these skills are complex and involve multiple steps that must be mastered in order. Therefore, it is important to break down the Internet search process into small, discrete steps that can be taught as separate mini-lessons and practiced that way by students. In addition, it is very important that students begin first with guided practice and move gradually into autonomous use as confidence and understanding develop (Beyer, 1987). Therefore, adequate time for this must be provided within the lesson plan and the context of the search tasks.


     Based on the above review of literature, the task of teaching how to search the Web for information can be broken down into problem-solving tasks, critical- or analytical- thinking tasks, and metacognitive (reflective) tasks. The problem-solving tasks are as follows: (a) predicting what keywords will be most effective in locating the desired information, (b) developing a query that will select a good sample of documents containing the information, and (c) determining the authenticity or validity of the found information. The critical thinking tasks are as follows: (a) analyzing the relevancy of the search results and deciding whether refinement is needed, (b) deciding which documents in the search results are likely to contain the desired information, and (c) recognizing bias, opinion, or agendas within found information. The metacognitive tasks are as follows: (a) preparing a search plan, and (b) knowing at what points in the search process to apply the cognitive skills of problem-solving and critical analysis.

     It is clear that consistently effective, successful Internet research will possess the characteristics of being driven by higher-level thinking skills such as planning, critical analysis and evaluation, and problem-solving. These skills must be applied in an environment of adequate prior knowledge about the nature and organization of information on the Internet. The problem of searching for information on the Internet, or any open-ended information system, is appropriate for the teaching of thinking skills within the context of a real-world problem that is relevant to students. However, to be successful the complexities of Internet searching need to be broken down into individual cognitive tasks and taught as separate mini-lessons with adequate time for both guided and autonomous student practice.

     In our teaching experience with Internet search strategies (at the college level and training adult staff in the K-8 environment), we have observed several important search behaviors and skills that seem to correlate with the efficiency, effectiveness and quality of information found on the World Wide Web. The action research that follows observes whether teaching specific thinking skills to students directly results in more effective (measured as reduction of the number of irrelevant hits), efficient (measured through average times to locate a given number of data sources), and higher quality (measured by validity and authority analysis of the found information) Internet information searches. This study will focus on the first three skills of the Big6 Model (Eisenberg, 1987): (a) Task Definition, (b) Information Seeking, and (c) Location and Access.  It will also focus on the Navigation Phase and the first component of the Process Phase of cognition described by Hill (1999). This study will observe students, as they understand, practice, and master these abilities while performing Internet searches. It is expected that increased student autonomy and confidence will be noted when given a search task as a result of this instruction. It is hoped this study will provide a basis for successfully teaching application of these thinking skills to Internet search problems in the middle and high school environment.


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