Friday, February 5, 2016

Teaching beginners how to search--lessons for teachers

Next time I won’t react with such a blank stare. 

I was surprised when a student in my Internet Search Skills class at the public library asked a question 30 seconds into my class:

 “Umm… when you say that the presentation is linked off your home page… I need to know… What’s a home page?”

Now my home page isn’t exactly hard to find. It’s the first Google result for  [ Dan Russell ].  A click takes you right there.  

But in the context of a “how to use Google better” class, it was surprising to find a student that didn’t have any idea what a personal home page was. How was it possible to live in the heart of Silicon Valley and NEVER hear about a “home page”? 

Things were about to get more complicated. 

I found 4 students who didn’t know you needed to have spaces between the query terms (e.g., [ DanRussellGoogle ] vs. [ Dan Russell Google] ). I found students who couldn’t accurately click on a query box and enter the search.. and I simultaneously found students who have been using advanced operators in their searches.  

Hmmm.  This was going to be a challenge.  

I was teaching a class of twenty students how to do basic internet search.  My class is offered regularly at the Santa Clara public library, and attracts students with a wide range of search skills.  I’ve taught this class about 25 times, each time with a broad cross-section of students.  I’ve had classes of kids (ages 7 to 17), classes of older adults (ages 55 to infinity), and mixed classes with both kids, parents and older learners.  In other settings, I’ve also taught advanced search skills classes to school teachers, librarians and even rocket scientists at NASA Ames. 

But this class of real beginners crystallized my thoughts about teaching search skills.  Here are some things to keep in mind as you think about teaching search and basic information skills for the average student / user.

Screen layout and behavior is really complicated to someone just learning.  To searchers without a lot of practice looking at web screen layouts, even something as simple as the default Google home page STILL has too many places to look.  When you’re teaching beginners, you really have to show them where everything is and what those things are called.  They won’t remember the names, but for the duration of the class, you can direct attention to specific places on the screen. 

As one example of complexity, a student was wondering why there are three places to enter a query (toolbar, chrome search and address bar).  I pointed out that they’re really different.  “But they’re not,” he protested, “when I type my search into any of them, they all do a search!”  And he’s right.  Except when it doesn’t work.  An entry like [ sofa ] in the address bar does a perfectly fine search.  But an entry like [ whitehouse ] might not—it can take you to landing page if it autocompletes. 

My favorite example is when a student entered “blackberry” into the Address bar (in IE) and was taken to, the makers of a particular brand of smartphone.  “Why did it do that?” she cried, “I just wanted more information about pies!”

Her previous query had been [ blueberry pie ] (also in the address bar, which works just fine in IE).  When she entered “blackberry” into the Address field, the behavior was utterly different, and she didn’t know why. 

Yes, she didn’t understand the difference between the Address bar and the chrome search box.  Question is, should she have to? 

As you teach, take the time to give orientation.  

Even managing the typing is hard for some.  We don’t think about this much, but older folks and people who haven’t used computers much find entering text to be incredibly tricky.  They don’t know about the subtleties of where to click, when to press-and-hold the mouse, or even how to select a whole word.  And once an input zone is selected, they’ll accidentally click the mouse one more time, or move the input focus without even knowing they did something wrong. 

For my true beginner classes, just teaching the mechanics of how to enter search terms is a major challenge.  As a teacher, it takes a huge amount of patience to slow down enough to guide the hand, coordinating the arm, wrist and finger motions—but it’s absolutely necessary.  If the student can’t select and enter their search, they can’t do anything.  

For students having these problems, you need to slow down and manually show them how to move, how to click. 

Basic find (control-F) isn’t widely known.  I ask every class I teach if they know how to locate (or find) a specific word on the page.  I illustrate with an example.  I’ll go to a random page (say, and then spot a word that appears on the page (but not in caps).  Suppose it’s the word “energy.”  Then I’ll ask  “can anyone find if the word ‘energy’ appears on this page?”  I go through this elaborate process to avoid cuing them with words like “find.”  It usually take a minute or so before someone finds the word.  I then ask that person how they did it—usually they say “I used control-F.”  That’s when I ask how many people know this trick?  (Or using the edit menu to do a find.) 

Consistently, I’ve been finding that right around 25% of the class knows this basic skill.   More generally, when I ask this question in larger groups, it drops to 10%.  Somewhat to my surprise, I also find that even when I teach technically advanced audiences, not everyone knows this.  Almost all librarians (skilled searchers) know this—but surprisingly, it seems to be around 85% know this, which continually baffles me. 

For the love of Pete, teach EVERY class about Control-F / CMD-F!  

Scoping a search to focus on the topic of interest isn’t a common skill.  I always ask my class to do some searches of their own—things that they really want to look up.  As the class works away on this, I go from person-to-person and talk with them about what they’re trying to do.  I want to understand their intent (in their own words) and see what they’re doing. 

Some times a student will say “I want to learn about the Civil War.”  And then do a query like [ Gettysburg ].  That’s a great search to find out about that particular battle or the famous oration, but not a good search for general Civil War information.  For beginners, this isn’t a crazy approach—it’s a way to get a start on a topic when they don't know what else to ask. The problem is that they’ll get stuck in the corner of the topic they already know, and not learn about the rest of the topic.  

Contrariwise, a student might start that same search with [ Civil War ], which is a good beginning, but then they need to figure out how to reduce the scope of the search.  That’s a problem with such a huge topic—how to focus in on the part (or parts) you really want.

When you think about it, a good part of expertise in learning about a topic is coming to understand what the scale and scope really is.  And doing a search on a topic, especially for a beginner, a wildly divergent thing to do. 

Talk about scoping a search explicitly.  Not everyone knows... 

Choosing query terms is not an obvious skill.   It’s striking to talk with a student about what they’re trying to discover and hear the mismatch between what they’re thinking about, and what they actually type in for search.  For those of us who have used search engines for years, it’s so obvious as to be transparent.  But for someone who’s new to using a search engine the question is often “how do I start my search?” 

“I just want to find a cheap hotel for my vacation.”  He’d entered [ cheap hotel ] as the search query, and was puzzled to not see any mentions of hotels in Chicago, where he was planning on travelling.  I suggested he add the name of his destination, and all was well. Although he was still surprised why Google didn’t understand that  he was interested in Chicago.  “I’ve been looking for all kinds of things to do in Chicago—didn’t it see me doing all of that?” 

This kind of dropping of terms implies that some beginning users see the search process as a kind of conversation rather than as a stateless transaction. 

Have a unit just on "query term selection."  

 “Google” as a concept is often confused with “the internet” or with “the browser.”  We see this kind of misconception all the time in the complaints Google gets in the mail.   (“Why can’t you fix my phone bill?” a dissatisfied user will ask, not realizing that we’re not AT&T, we’re just the search engine that got you there.) 

But people often confuse the tool with the embedding ideas.  When I worked at IBM we’d constantly get complaints from people about why they kept getting viruses on their laptops.  Of course, that’s not IBM’s issue—but to the end-user it doesn’t matter—IBM is the logo they see on the laptop and hence who they know to contact (of course, it’s not Lenovo, but that was then).  When you think about it, who SHOULD own the virus problem? 

In a similar vein, Google is the home page for many people—it’s the first logo they see and recognize on a web page, so the conflation of “the internet” or “the browser” with Google is natural. 

Of course this raises Cain with a user’s idea of how things work when they learn that you don’t need a Google email account to use Google services, or when they get an instruction to close their browser, but the browser isn’t on a Google page.  (“How can I close the browser?  It’s not showing me a Google logo because I’m looking at another website.”  It sounds incoherent, I know—but this is the way I hear many people reasoning.) 

It’s difficult to learn a coherent model of how a search engine works.  When you use something, it’s good if you can have a coherent model of what it is and what it does when given certain inputs.  Unfortunately, Google behaves wildly differently when you give it slightly different, sometimes imperceptibly different queries. [ hunt ] vs. [ hunting ] are pretty different; but something like [ Ron ] vs. [ Ronnie ] are sometimes bafflingly different to beginners.  For users with some experience, the difference is clear.  But when a beginning user does a search and then doesn’t  find one of the terms on the page, it’s a mystifying moment. 

I don’t mean to paint a dire picture here.  For the most part, students are incredibly happy with Google—they find things they could only imagine in their dreams. 

At the same time, for a portion of the population (probably the vast non-technical majority), using a search engine isn’t like falling off a log; it’s a highly technical skill that’s full of mysteries and not a small amount of worry. 

What’s perhaps most worrisome is that there’s no good way for beginners to climb up the learning curve.  Of course, they could look for online materials and tutorials, but these people are beginners at search, it’s not the first (or last) thing they’d consider. 

Of course, they could take my class.  And while I always have a full class (and always with a waiting list), just my teaching doesn’t scale.  (Which is why I offer the scalable version of my classes at -- that's always open and available for free.) 

We really need to figure a way to get people over the hump of first time use to become reasonably good, reasonably proactive searchers.  Once they can search for their own help materials, we’ll have a self-sustaining population of new users.  We just need to figure out a good way to get them over the initial hurdle of not-knowing. 


  1. … your patience & awareness are admirable… some observations & searchables prompted by your post:
    ⌘-F _ sRs Philosoraptor
    … even after almost 9 earth years? It might be a larger issue than just UI… or user age.
    … and THEDOH!

    "The Sisyphean Task
    French philosopher and social critic, Albert Camus, relates the story of Sisyphus to modern life in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Sisyphus embodies the absurdity of life in all its “futility and hopeless labor.” Camus calls Sisyphus a proletarian, a man trapped within the workings of the modern machine, unable to escape. In Camus' view, Sisyphus becomes a metaphor for modern life and the workplace whose absurd, routine nature becomes a kind of punishment when it is experienced as being endless."

    who's Pete?
    ⌘F - ""
    For Pete’s sake
    what if, what if, what if… and it's not a question
    hill eliminated, still Sisyphean, even here on earth
    complicating through simplicity…

    discovery of the day
    Ramón and Rosemary… something to experiment with…

    fwiw, perhaps a different word? - still have "scoping" nightmares

    blackberry π
    blueberry pie
    π - searchin'-it-out

    search bugs

    “Cloud Forest” by artist Roger Stoller,
    Bruce Beasley
    Arpeggio V
    it seems to have additions - hence the V?

    'life before Google' page 6
    (it's also a Sirens call…)

    past future talk - 7:30 in
    @ National Geographic - advanced search methods

  2. I loved to read this. It reminded me of my own story of teaching "IT" in 1998. (The story of how I got there is in itself peculiar too.)

    I was teaching a module created by me within a postgraduate course in Arts Administration, and I was surprised to find that some of the students (who were picked up among many applications) didn't know how to use ctrl+F or ctrl+Z, most didn't know Altavista nor ctrl-alt-delete, very few knew basic tricks in editing a document, like centering a paragraph without the use of trial and error with spaces…

    I taught them how to use italics and bold on MS-Word, how and where to search on the Netscape browser (different websites for different tasks; for general stuff I showed them that Altavista was ages ahead of the directory-based search sites), how to use Eudora to send or receive emails, how to use mIRC and ICQ (and why chat could be a useful professional tool, not only a social entertaining one), how to do the basics on Excel (I remember my brother calling me less than 20 years ago, when he was already a senior researcher, telling me that he didn't understand how to perform any computation on Excel; turns out he hadn't figured out the very non-intuitive "=" sign, nor the cell designations). It was challenging, demanding and fun. And I was really proud that in the end of those 6 days (24 hours) everyone knew the basics.

    I am not entirely sure if I already knew Google. I guess I found about it later that year, if not in 1999.

    Also, very relevant:

  3. Greeting from UK. Teaching beginners has been my passion for several years. My audience these days have been elderly and mature learners who have been gifted iPad and Android devices from their children as gifts to bring them into the modern communications world. I could fill this blogger with similar stories stated by Dan.

    My approach has been to encourage learners to down load the Google family apps (Search, Maps, Translate, etc). Then introduce them to 'OK Google'. This is the first big hurdle talking to a device! Wow! they are hooked!

    Next introduce single word searches and abbreviating questions into key words. (e.g Time Hong Hong) etc. After a minimum of two hours they are experts searching the Internet. The results are amazing.

    I pride myself turning seniors into Google experts within their comfort zone. Thank you Dan!

  4. Dan, did a little searching and found a couple larger versions of the image you used in this post… think you should have used them, but they are harder to find…
    The blank stare homepage
    wha, what? where's my homepage? omg, the expression is priceless
    (even though the 'class' only exists in the virtual space. there are numerous kernels of truth and several actual searches involved…
    it could probably be largely reverse engineered image-wise.) hybrid reality…
    the class is open to all
    …explaining ⌘-E and the nuances of Valley elitism to one of the class participants… staying hydrated is a key part…
    "I have a question, Dr. Russell and I have it right now…"
    and driving home the key points before the lunch break…
    I thought that guy looked familiar…
    (SNL can Dan's appearance be far off?
    the full 'monty'
    the CNN take)

    seriously, I commend you for going out and experiencing how technology, the internet, THEGOOGLE, etc., are actually used and misused in the wild…
    you must be bemused, bewildered, inspired and aghast at what you find before returning to the cocoon of the 'Plex…

    as Psion739 suggests, the use of voice UIs and 'assistants' in the mobile realm and devices like Amazon's Echo
    will simplify "almanac" type searches for many, but REsearch may suffer‽‽ e.g., image/video search and deeper search & connections, along with the evaporation of whimsy
    and serendipity - no chance/happenstance finds when the hive has already determined what you want/need to know.

    still a ways off from this:
    will have to work on my voice… & the whole eye/hand coordination thing is still an issue…
    the password bane
    …but brains are being rewired (from the distant/recent past)
    this impacted my view… it's a time capsule
    more recent - Michael Wesch, KSU
    example - student interaction
    [enter/return] = curiosity
    [delete] = time

    for grins… another evangelist… no self driving vehicles present.
    in San Mateo

    Post & search on Dan!

    1. Thanks Remmij -- those images of me teaching ARE hard to find.

      Kudos for pointing out Michael Wesch's anthro video syllabus. It's nicely done (as is all of his work).

  5. I'm a retired school librarian who started teaching students and teachers about the Internet back in the early 1990s. I tried to draw analogies between what was happening online and real life experiences. For example, I would distinguish between the search box and the address bar by making an analogy with finding the hotel a friend was staying in and giving the address to a cab driver. The search for the information about the hotel goes into the search box and the resulting address, meaning the URL, goes into the address bar so the taxi driver knows where to go. Similarly, I talk about a wide search and a targeted search as the difference between fishing by throwing out a net and using a rod to get one fish. Framing a search question is by far THE most difficult activity for everyone, whether they're looking online or offline. For online searches, I try two approaches. First, I tell people to envision the perfect webpage that would have exactly what they're looking for. Then, I ask them to think of the words that would appear on that page. In the second approach, I have them write down what they're looking for in a sentence. Then I ask them to write down synonyms under any of the words that they think might have alternative terms. Finally, we construct the search using quotation marks for adjacency and OR operators to include synonyms.