Your Students Don’t Stink at Research: Your Software Does

Back in November–yes, I’ve been procrastinating–the Pew Research Center released a report called How Teens Do Research in the Digital World. The study is fantastic, but not for the reasons that the media jumped on it. Here’s why.

The Findings

Some of the results were to be expected. More or less everyone agrees that the internet has made research better; the web exposes students to a world of resources that prior generations could only dream about. And to no one’s surprise, “for today’s students, ‘research’ means ‘Googling.’”

However, things aren’t as rosy as they should be. Pew also found that:

  1. Students are easily overwhelmed by information.
  2. They don’t use nearly enough sources.
  3. They’re unable to judge the credibility of those sources.

Near the end of the report the authors share this chart:

Pew Internet chart

Ignore the caption: is it really fair to pin the blame on students?

Solving the Student Research Problem

This is what’s being tried today:

  • Institute digital literacy training. Virtually all the teachers surveyed agree that it should be part of the curriculum.
  • Direct students toward resources that aren’t search engines. According to Pew, 90% of educators expend valuable time and energy doing this.

These are worthwhile initiatives, and they’ve definitely borne fruit. However, implicit in this discussion is the idea that students are the problem, and we need to fix them.

We All Stink at Research

Let me take a step back and share which educators were surveyed: they either teach Advanced Placement courses or are part of the National Writing Project. If they’re seeing these issues, then all teachers are.

And I’ll be blunt: I stink at research, too. I’m just as guilty of the three issues Pew found as any student out there. When I do an internet search and it returns 200,000 pages, I click on the first link and mutter, “Good enough.” I bet you do, too. Lifelong learners are just as undisciplined as those in the classroom.

Students are not the weak link.

We Need Better Research Tools

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
- Abraham Maslow

Search engines are fantastic for many tasks. Pew has pretty conclusively shown that student research is not one of them. Here’s how instaGrok addresses the problems that the report identified:

1. Students are easily overwhelmed by information.
Instead of returning thousands of links (like Google) or a humongous page of text (like Wikipedia), instaGrok displays information as a visual concept map. By clicking on nodes and adjusting the expertise slider, students focus on what’s important to them.
2. They don’t use nearly enough sources.
When students use instaGrok, they’re automatically reading information from multiple sources; there’s no need to open up a dozen tabs and plow through duplicated information.
3. They’re unable to judge the credibility of those sources.
Oftentimes students don’t choose the most trustworthy source because they’re unaware an issue is controversial. Since they only use one or two resources, they aren’t exposed to the full range of opinions. instaGrok makes it simple: we present multiple points of view (from numerous websites) in the concept map and key facts. From that point, it’s a matter of clicking through and judging a source’s credibility for oneself.

instaGrok is a better way to research. If you haven’t tried it out, give it a shot.