Digital Search Strategies of Teens

Although many high school students claim to be proficient web navigators, it has been found that they are generally unable to construct sophisticated searches desirable for higher-level searching (Scott and O’Sullivan 2005). With few exceptions, high school students don’t understand the benefits of using multiple search engines, and often assume that a single company or search engine is responsible for the information on the World Wide Web (Julien and Barker 2009; Fidel et al. 1999; Lorenzen 2001).

In preparing to undertake a search, students will often have some idea of where they would like to begin, but will generally put no effort into preparing a search plan that they can then put into action (Chung and Neuman 2007). Some students have even indicated that this ability to conduct a search without any advanced planning is a feature of the Internet that they enjoy (Fidel et al. 1999). They run into initial problems, however, in their inability to clearly define their information need (Shenton 2008; Scott and O’Sullivan 2005).

Students also have trouble constructing effective and efficient searches, as they struggle with finding appropriate search terms and knowing how to use them properly (Fidel et al. 1999; Barranoik 2001). Regardless of these difficulties, the general preference seems to be that students prefer to use keyword searches (Scott and O’Sullivan 2005). While there is some indication that older teens and teens with more analytical minds are aware of the difference between keyword searching and subject searching (Jacobson and Ignacio 1997; Scott and O’Sullivan 2005), the general trend found throughout the literature is that students tend to avoid the use of subject headings for searching online (Fidel et al. 1999; Chung and Neuman 2007). This is seemingly contradictory as, when using print resources, students will often physically browse the section of the library where they know the subject they are looking for can be found (Chung and Neuman 2007), thereby demonstrating an understanding of the usefulness of a subject-oriented search.

In their study “CD-ROM in a high school library media center: A research project” (1987), Barlow, Karnes and Marchionini found that high school students lacked a general understanding of the uses and implications of the Boolean operators “AND” and “OR”. More recently, Scott and O’Sullivan (2005) and Badke (2009) indicated that the inability to limit or broaden a search is still a problem for students undertaking information-seeking activities. It seems that both the lack of awareness of how to use Boolean operators and the inability to conceive of appropriate search terms have been consistent problems ever since the introduction of computers into the school environment.