Monday, June 14, 2010

The subtleties of choose your Control-F string

This week I helped teach a group of 20 kids our usual "Basic Web Search Skills" class.  An important part of that class is learning how to use Control-F to find text on a web page.

 I was helping several kids with their Control-F skills, I found this important result: 

     Knowing what to search for with Control-F is a tricky skill to teach. 

I say that because one of the problems is to "Find Dan Russell's time in the Juana Run results from 2009." We'd navigate to that page, then search for my name.  

 That sounds obvious, but lots of students were unable to find my name because they'd search for the string "Dan Russell" -- but in fact, my entry in the race results is "Daniel Russell."   An important, but subtle distinction.  They'd start the search, and then fail... and not know what to do next.

I'm sure you understand this trick in the marrow of your bones--but here's a summary of what I now teach to students:  

     When doing a text search, look for the shortest substring, 
     least common, most probably spelled-correctly substring 
     of the text you're searching for. 

Why do I say it this way?  Because I frequently see people in my classes who can't find something (via Control-F) in the text, even when it's clearly there. 

Here's why I say each of these things:

     1.  short  - so YOU don't misttype the search string 
     2.  least common - by which I mean "unusual" or rare in the text.  Why?  
               so you don't have to keep searching through the large body of text to find the 
               thing you're really looking for.      
     3.  most probably spelled correctly substring  - so you know the author has
               most probably spelled it correctly

And of course, be sure that the "Match Case" option is off as well. 

So, for this example, I told people to search for "Russ" -- you'll get a few extra hits, but you'll avoid the confusion with possible alternative spellings of my first name, and you'll avoid the misspelling of "Russel."  

In another example, I have students search for the word "maquette" in a long document.  But rather than search for the entire word, I have them look for just "maq" -- that'll get you to the desired term (it's short, low frequency, and avoids the problem of the author not knowing if the word has 1 or 2 T's in it).  

This is an important skill for skilled searchers to know... yet the number of students in my class who don't know this is just astonishing.   When YOU teach your children, teach your children well.  (And 10 points to the person who can identify the quotation reference in the previous sentence.)   

Search on!  

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