The Lookout

College students stumped by search engines, research finds

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

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The members of the generation that is sometimes dubbed the "millennials" are alternately reviled or lauded by the news media for their tech-savvy, gadget-loving ways. But a new ethnographic research project on students in five Illinois universities may put a dent in that reputation. It found that many college kids don't even know how to perform a simple internet search.

Researchers with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project watched 30 students at Illinois Wesleyan University try to search for different topics online and found that only seven of them were able to conduct "what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search."

The students "appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school," Lynda Duke and Andrew Asher write in a book on the project coming out this fall.

At all five Illinois universities, students reported feeling "anxious" and confused when trying to research. Many felt overwhelmed by the volume of results their searches would turn up, not realizing that there are ways to narrow those searches and get more tailored results. Others would abandon their research topics when they couldn't find enough sources, unaware that they were using the wrong search terms or database for their topics.

The researchers found that students did not know "how to build a search to narrow or expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results." That means that some students didn't understand how to search only for news articles, or only for scholarly articles. Most only know how to punch in keywords and hope for the best.

Asher told The Lookout that "extremely few students could describe how Google works in conceptual terms with any degree of accuracy." One sophomore in Biology told him: "I have no idea [how Google determines search results].  I'm just trusting Google to know what are the good resources."

This can be a problem because Google organizes results in part on how many other sites link to a page. That means scholarly articles are rarely at the top of basic search results for any topic. Asher points out that searching for "How Google Works" turns up an April Fool's prank by Google engineers in its top results.

A survey last year of 1,000 college students backed up the somewhat counterintuitive finding that the millennials (sometimes defined as those born between 1980 and 1995) are actually not that good at the Internet. Most students said they trusted whatever website was the first result for their search on Google. Other students said they trusted most the "sponsored" links that appear at the top of the page, which are actually paid advertisements.

In other sad news, Google "search anthropologist" Dan Russell told The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal that 90 percent of American Google users do not know how to use CTRL or Command+F to find a word on a page. Russell says he's watched people patiently scan documents for a word or phrase, when they could use that simple trick and save time. "Just like we learn to skim tables of content or look through an index or just skim chapter titles to find what we're looking for, we need to teach people about this CTRL+F thing," Madrigal writes.

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