Q&A: Pew Researcher Analyzes Students' E-Research Skills

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The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, in collaboration with the College Board and the National Writing Project, surveyed 2,067 middle and high school Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to glean their perceptions of how the Internet is affecting students' research skills. The teachers gave a mixed verdict. Kristen Purcell, a co-author of the report and the director of research at the Pew Internet Project, recently discussed the findings in an email interview with Leslie Harris O'Hanlon, a freelance writer for Education Week.

What does this study say about students' research skills?

They have different research tools at their disposal, and these tools are shaping their approach to doing research in unique ways. On the whole, teachers are divided on the question of whether today's students are fundamentally different from previous generations.

Kristen Purcell
Kristen Purcell

For instance, 47 percent of teachers surveyed agree with the statement that "today's students are really no different than previous generations, they just have different tools through which to express themselves," while 52 percent disagree with that statement.

And while these teachers describe their students as more media-savvy, they have concerns about their ability to conquer long and complicated texts. So while some skills are improving over time in teachers' eyes, other skills may be waning.

The focus is really on understanding the unique tools and skills this generation brings to the table and how best to teach them how to do quality research given the toolkit they're working with.

The findings seem contradictory. Teachers reported that the Internet was good for student research on one hand, but it had a negative impact on students' attention spans and research skills. Can you explain these mixed findings?

The findings seem contradictory at first glance, but looking deeper, they're not. Teachers see today's digital tools having both positive and negative impacts on how students conduct research. Overall, they feel the positives outweigh the negatives, but they do have some particular concerns they'd like today's educational system to address.

On the positive side, virtually all AP and NWP teachers in this study agreed with the notion that the Internet enables students to access a wider range of resources than would otherwise be available, and 65 percent also feel that the Internet makes today's students more self-sufficient researchers. [But] a slight majority of teachers, 60 percent, feel that "today's digital technologies make it harder for students to find and use credible sources of information."

So the bottom line is that the Internet has a huge upside for student research in the sheer amount of information available and accessibility. That upside is tempered by concerns that students' digital literacy needs to improve—in today's world, students need to know how to judge the quality and relevance of the information they find, as well as how to sift through large amounts of information.

Were there any findings that were surprising to you?

It was interesting to see how many of these AP and NWP teachers (of all subjects) are devoting class time to teaching students how to assess the reliability of online information, how to conduct research using the Internet, and how to improve search terms and queries. Given the pressure teachers feel to teach to assessments and time constraints to cover required material, incorporating lessons on skills that are not formally tested is quite a commitment and evidence of how critical they feel these skills are.

More than nine in 10 of these teachers identified "judging the quality of information" as an essential skill for students to be successful in life, putting it atop the list of skills we asked about (along with writing effectively).

What are the implications of these findings? Do they mean that students will go on to college and to the workforce not knowing how to do quality research?

That's not the conclusion I would draw. Rather, I would say this research confirms that today's students approach research differently, with different tools and different skills.

For educators, this shift may mean curricular changes to emphasize things like evaluating online information, synthesizing large amounts of information from many different sources, recognizing bias in online content, determining the trustworthiness of sources, and how and where to find the best online sources.

It may also require a different approach to designing research assignments—many of the teachers we surveyed and talked with in focus groups told us that they design assignments that require students to find multiple sources of information and synthesize that information into a new idea. This moves students away from the temptation to copy and paste the first information they find via a search engine, and instead spend more time thinking about and processing information.

How should teachers use these findings in their own classrooms to improve student research skills?

I think the message most teachers we talked with wanted to get across was that digital tools and online research are obviously how research will be done in the world moving forward, and it's incumbent upon middle and high school teachers to make sure their students have the skills they need to operate in that world.

Beyond being able to find and assess quality information for academic purposes, teachers stressed that this is a life skill that will benefit students in all areas of their lives—whether it's in their engagement in the political process, how they manage their health, how they keep up with what's happening in the world. Being able to sift through and evaluate large amounts of information will be essential to all parts of students' lives in the future.

Vol. 32, Issue 32, Pages s12, s13, s14

Published in Print: May 22, 2013, as Q&A: Research Perspective
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