How Teens Do Research in the Digital World

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These complex and at times contradictory judgments emerge from 1) an online survey of more than 2,000 middle and high school teachers drawn from the Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) communities; and 2) a series of online and offline focus groups with middle and high school teachers and some of their students. The study was designed to explore teachers’ views of the ways today’s digital environment is shaping the research and writing habits of middle and high school students.

Among the more positive impacts they see: the best students access a greater depth and breadth of information on topics that interest them; students can take advantage of the availability of educational material in engaging multimedia formats; and many become more self-reliant researchers.

At the same time, these teachers juxtapose these benefits against some emerging concerns. Specifically, some teachers worry about students’ overdependence on search engines; the difficulty many students have judging the quality of online information; the general level of literacy of today’s students; increasing distractions pulling at students and poor time management skills; students’ potentially diminished critical thinking capacity; and the ease with which today’s students can borrow from the work of others.

These teachers report that students rely mainly on search engines to conduct research, in lieu of other resources such as online databases, the news sites of respected news organizations, printed books, or reference librarians.

the vast majority of these teachers say a top priority in today’s classrooms should be teaching students how to “judge the quality of online information.” As a result, a significant portion of the teachers surveyed here report spending class time discussing with students how search engines work, how to assess the reliability of the information they find online, and how to improve their search skills.

The internet and digital technologies are significantly impacting how students conduct research: 77% of these teachers say the overall impact is “mostly positive,” but they sound many cautionary notes 

At the same time, 76% of teachers surveyed “strongly agree” with the assertion that internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily. Large majorities also agree with the assertion that the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students (83%) and that today’s digital technologies discourage students from using a wide range of sources when conducting research (71%). Fewer teachers, but still a majority of this sample (60%), agree with the assertion that today’s technologies make it harder for students to find credible sources of information.

  • The internet has changed the very meaning of “research”

Perhaps the greatest impact this group of teachers sees today’s digital environment having on student research habits is the degree to which it has changed the very nature of “research” and what it means to “do research.”

Teachers and students alike report that for today’s students, “research” means “Googling.” As a result, some teachers report that for their students “doing research” has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment.

94% of the teachers surveyed say their students are “very likely” to use Google or other online search engines in a typical research assignment, placing it well ahead of all other sources that we asked about. Second and third on the list of frequently used sources are online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, and social media sites such as YouTube. In descending order, the sources teachers in our survey say students are “very likely” to use in a typical research assignment:

   Google or other online search engine (94%)
   Wikipedia or other online encyclopedia (75%)
   YouTube or other social media sites (52%)
   Their peers (42%)
   Spark Notes, Cliff Notes, or other study guides (41%)
   News sites of major news organizations (25%)
   Print or electronic textbooks (18%)
   Online databases such as EBSCO, JSTOR, or Grolier (17%)
   A research librarian at their school or public library (16%)
   Printed books other than textbooks (12%)
   Student-oriented search engines such as Sweet Search (10%)
students’ overdependence on search engines and online encyclopedias.  

Cell phones are becoming particularly popular learning tools, and are now as common to these teachers’ classrooms as computer carts.  According to respondents, the most popular school task students use cell phones for is “to look up information in class,” cited by 42% of the teachers participating in the survey.  

  • Teachers give students’ research skills modest ratings

Despite viewing the overall impact of today’s digital environment on students’ research habits as “mostly positive,” teachers rate the actual research skills of their students as “good” or “fair” in most cases. Very few teachers rate their students “excellent” on any of the research skills included in the survey. This is notable, given that the majority of the sample teaches Advanced Placement courses to the most academically advanced students.

despite being raised in the “digital age,” today’s students are surprisingly lacking in their online search skills.

Students receive the highest marks from these teachers for their ability to use appropriate and effective search queries and their understanding of how online search results are generated. Yet even for these skills, only about one-quarter of teachers surveyed here rate their students “excellent” or “very good.” Indeed, in our focus groups, many teachers suggest that despite being raised in the “digital age,” today’s students are surprisingly lacking in their online search skills. Students receive the lowest marks for “patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find,” with 43% of teachers rating their students “poor” in this regard, and another 35% rating their students “fair.”

Time management is also becoming a serious issue among students, according to some teachers; in their experience, today’s digital technologies not only encourage students to assume all tasks can be finished quickly and at the last minute, but students also use various digital tools at their disposal to “waste time” and procrastinate.

About the teachers who participated in the survey

There are several important ways the teachers who participated in the survey are unique, which should be considered when interpreting the results reported here. First, 95% of the teachers who participated in the survey teach in public schools, thus the findings reported here reflect that environment almost exclusively. In addition, almost one-third of the sample (NWP Summer Institute teachers) has received extensive training in how to effectively teach writing in today’s digital environment. The National Writing Project’s mission is to provide professional development, resources and support to teachers to improve the teaching of writing in today’s schools.

Moreover, the majority of teachers participating in the survey (56%) currently teach AP, honors, and/or accelerated courses, thus the population of middle and high school students they work with skews heavily toward the highest achievers. These teachers and their students may have resources and support available to them—particularly in terms of specialized training and access to digital tools—that are not available in all educational settings.