Research Strategies for Senior Students


Our school has a subscription to a  website called the Study Skills Handbook which offers study tips to senior students. I’m sure it’s a valuable resource; so valuable in fact that it’s behind a $1200/year paywall that requires a login password in order to access it. What a bargain. I’m sure those tips wouldn’t be found anywhere else on  the Internet for free at all.

Anyway, I got an email from someone at school today promoting this resource, and amongst the several study tips it suggested, it listed this one…

You could also ask your local librarian for any additional direction on where to look for resource material for your assignment. Librarians are often your best source of information. They know how to help people access relevant and appropriate information, in books, the Internet or computer based references. One of the challenging aspects of Internet based searches for school students is the complexity, language and purpose of websites, not to mention bias and reliability.

It’s true that the Internet can be a wild and woolly place to find information, with the potential for complexity, bias and reliability concerns. However, it is also the environment that most resembles real life, where complexity, bias and reliability concerns are just part of the way the world actually works. While it would be nice to think that the real world could be packaged up into nice neat little packages, decoding the messiness of real life and sorting through all that stuff is one of the real skills our students need.

That said, here are a few suggestions that students can do when they are given a research task on any topic . Of course, the suitability of each of these suggestions will depend on the topic being researched.

1. Start with the Wikipedia article. For whatever potential concerns that people might have about the public edit-ability of Wikipedia, the fact is that for the VAST majority of topics it will be the most current, most accurate and most well researched summary of the topic. Start there.

2. Having read the Wikipedia article on the topic, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and look at the citations list. One of the requirements of Wikipedia articles is that they include a citation for every statement made, and any uncited statements are challenged and eventually removed. So for many topics, looking at the citation list (and links) will provide a treasure trove of further research ideas.

3. Go to Google Scholar at and search for your topic there. These articles are all reviewed academic papers and usually provide excellent reading on most topics. Not only that, but each article in Scholar shows a link to the downstream papers that cited them, which again provides further reading. If an article has dozens, or hundreds of papers citing it as a source, then you can assume that other researchers have found them valuable. Your students probably will too.

4. Set up a bookmarking system that allows you to keep a collection of relevant links in one place. I HIGHLY recommend Diigo, not just because it is by far the best online bookmarking service around, but it also allows group collaboration on shared bookmarks and online markup of webpages. Using Diigo, a student can make comments and leave sticky notes directly ON a webpage, share those annotations with their partners, keep an organised list of relevant research articles and much more. Diigo is probably the number one tool that students should be using with web research, yet I wonder how many of them actually even know about it?

5: While in Diigo, do a search for the obvious tags related to your topic that are being used by others. This will reveal another rich resource of ideas on a topic by connecting with links and sources that other people have already found useful. It’s often a much better way to narrow in on relevant study resources than a regular Internet search because it has already been through a kind of social approval process. As more people tag a resource it gains social credibility and value, making it more likely to be the kind of resource that others will find valuable.

6. Set up some kind of tool that allows them to curate content. I recommend Flipboard, but there are many others like Zite, ScoopIt or even Pinterest. By curating relevant content into one place it builds a go-to resource for more reading on a topic. Curation like this should be a key digital information strategy.

7. Then there is the use of Internet search in general, such as Google or Bing. But too often students take a very limited approach to search because they simply don’t know any better. As well as using a rich array of search strategies and search operators (there is way more to it than just typing a couple of words into Google!) there is also Book SearchMap searchImage search, etc, each with their own nuances and advantages. While these various search tools and techniques won’t be applicable to every topic and subject, many will. Our students need to be taught about them so they know when is appropriate to use them.

8. Finally, particularly if you;re researching something that is fairly current or topical, go to Google Alerts and set up an alert for anytime that topic is mentioned online. You can be as specific or general as you like in your search terms, but whenever a new result matches that query it can send you an email to let you know about it.

So there are a few ideas for helping your students deal with those “Other Resources” that might be out there on the big scary Internet. There’s a LOT more that could be included in there, but this is a start. Maybe some of these ideas and tools are new to you, so you might like to take a look at them yourself in order to be best able to assist your students navigate this information rich, and often overwhelming, world of information they live in.

And none of that information I just shared was behind a paywall. You’re welcome.

Creative Commons Image:

Organising the World’s Information

According to their corporate fact page, Google’s mission is “to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful

That’s a pretty lofty goal when you stop and think about it, yet I find it fascinating to see just how successfully Google have been at achieving this enormous goal. Not just with the obvious “easy” stuff like web search, but with things that are slightly harder, like mapping. Seriously, you have to think pretty big to work on creating an accurate 3D model of the entire planet, populating it with 3D models of every building and structure, overlaying it with millions of geolocated photos and videos and live traffic data and all that other amazing stuff you find in the Google Earth layers! (Oh and while we’re at it, let’s build some cars with special cameras on the roof and drive along every road on the planet to take photos of what it looks like. Pretty amazing really!)

When you look at so many of the other projects that help organize the world’s information – Data, Statistics, Photos, Videos, Books, Languagethe human body (and way more), it’s pretty obvious that Google takes its mission statement seriously! In Google’s relatively short history, our ability to easily find, manage and mine information, all thanks to this massive organisational project started at Stanford by two grad students, has totally changed the way we think about and deal with all manner of information. I suspect that over time we will eventually come to see the “post Google era” as one of the most dramatic shifts in human history.

Anyway, here’s another one for you, in case you haven’t seen it – Art Project. Google has partnered with art galleries and museums around the world to provide streetview-style gallery walkthoughs and high resolution imagery of artworks. When you see the way it ties together with background information on the artists, videos from the museums, overall searchability, being able to add to your own collections, make notes, etc, etc, I think it’s an outstanding example of not just a great resource for anyone interested in art, but an amazing insight into how useful information can become when we have the right tools to make it accessible.

I can hardly wait until the Sydney Google Teacher Academy next week! Only 9 more sleeps!

What Libraries Need

Ah serendipity, how I love it.

We have a major building project going on at school right now.  The bulldozers are busily demolishing walls from our old library, and and we will soon have a beautiful new library Information and Research Center.  From the plans I’ve seen, it should be a great space.

I was asked today to come to a meeting next month and give a short talk to a group of parents and supporters of the new school library building project.  Many of these folks are still getting their head around the massive shifts in the way information is managed.  Many of them perhaps don’t realise that the term “library” no longer means what it once meant.  Information is different in a digital age, and so libraries need to manage information differently.  My talk to them needs to cover (briefly) an overview of how information and libraries and “books” are different to what they used to be.

So I thought it extremely serendipitous when I opened my email this afternoon to find this little video.  I’m sure I’ll be able to find one minute and twenty seconds to share this video with the group.  Should be a good place to start the conversation.

I have no idea how they managed to get this little girl to say all those complicated phrases! Thanks to VALA for making the clip, and to Tony Brandenberg for passing this along via OzTeachers.

How Tagging Solves the Problem of the Physical World

This article was written for Education Technology Solutions magazine, but I’ve also republished it here, because I can.

One of the unavoidable buzzwords of Web 2.0 is the term “tag”.  Everywhere you look online you come across the term, and everything from photos to news articles to blogposts are getting “tagged”.

But what exactly are “tags” and why are they such a big deal these days? To understand the importance of tagging, first let’s consider the problem that tagging sets out to solve.

There was a time when everything in our lives existed only in the physical world.  Books sat on shelves. Photos were in photo albums. Music was stored on CDs. Life was simple.  If you wanted to find that photo of your sister-in-law Wendy wearing a silly hat at last year’s family Christmas party you simply went to the family photo album and flicked through the pages till you found it.  The photo was a real physical object that existed in one real physical location.

Storing a photo in a family photo album seems pretty obvious, but the problem is that this method of storing, finding and accessing an object does not scale well. If we had to find that one photo from a room full of photo albums the problem becomes a little trickier. The ability to quickly find something becomes exponentially more difficult as the size of the collection of objects increases, and also as the object becomes more miscellaneous.

For example, have you ever wandered the aisles of a supermarket trying to find a particular item, only to discover that it was located in a completely different section to the one you expected it to be in?  The more obvious items are easy – milk is in the diary section, steak is in the meat section and frozen beans are in the frozen vegetable section of the freezer.  Easy. But as the item gets more unusual or miscellaneous, it gets harder to know just where the supermarket has cataloged it on their shelves.  We expect to find tinned fruit salad in the canned goods section of the supermarket, but if you like to put fruit salad on your breakfast cereal it would also be handy to have it located in the cereal aisle, in fact it might even boost sales of the tinned fruit.  Both of these locations actually make sense, although the people responsible for stacking the supermarket shelves ultimately have to make a decision and put it in only one location.

Why don’t they just put items in every location where it makes sense?  Why not put items in multiple places, making it easier for people to find them no matter where they look?

Of course, the answer is due to the physical limitations of the world we live in.  Supermarkets simply don’t have the physical space to put items in multiple locations. Even if they did, trying to shop in a store that had lots of products in lots of places would end up as a confusing mess.  The idea makes sense, but it doesn’t really work very well in the physical world we live in.  In the physical world these limitations force us to make decisions about the “best” location for every real object.

In an digital world, these limitations of physical objects don’t exist.

Take bookmarking for example. When you browse the Web you often find useful websites that you may want to revisit again, and all web browsing software offers the ability to “bookmark” or “favorite” these sites to make them easy to get back to.  We typically find an interesting website, click the Bookmark menu and choose “Save as Bookmark”… when we want to go back to that webpage, we look through our list of bookmarks and select the one we want from that list

As our collection of bookmarks grows into a long random list most of us eventually work out that we need to organise them somehow, so we start putting our bookmarks into collection, or folders.  Sites that are personal might go into a folder called “Personal” while sites that are useful for work are dropped into a folder called “Work”. Again, as your collection grows you’ll probably find that you need to be more specific, so you end up with a collection of folders designated with names like “IWB Resources”, “Maths Resources” or “Games”.  You can keep adding folders, bookmarking new websites into existing folders or adding more folders if appropriate ones don’t yet exist. Things are nicely organised now, right?

Sort of.

What happens when you find a really good Maths game resource that works well on an IWB? Do you put it in the IWB Resources folder, the Maths resources folder or the Games folder? The truth is, it makes sense to put it in all of these.  You could always bookmark it three times, once in each folder, but as your collection grows, you realise that this could get pretty unwieldy and complicated.  You could just make a decision and put it in one folder only, but unless you remember which one it went into, you may never find it when you need it. You are now facing the same problem as the supermarket shelf stackers; you have an object – in this case a website – that makes sense in more than one place, but to put it in multiple locations is just going to be confusing and hard to maintain.

The solution is to use tags.  Tags are like keywords that get attached to a resource and used as search terms when you want to retrieve it.  A resource can have as many tags as you like, in fact the more tags the better.  It’s a little bit like saving the resource in multiple locations, except instead of having to actually place it in all those locations, the tags simply create an association with those locations.
Tagging works because the tagged objects are digital, not physical. In the digital world, things don’t ever really “exist” anywhere, so having them “exist” in multiple locations becomes a non-issue. A search for all the websites tagged with the word “maths” will generate a list of every website with the tag “maths” attached to it. The search doesn’t care where each website is physically located.  The only thing that matters is that every website has the keyword – or tag – “maths” attached to it.

The fact that the same site might be both an IWB resource and also a game is largely irrelevant.  If a tag search was done for websites tagged with the word “game”, then the IWB-based maths game website would still be in the list.  The beauty of tags is that they allow resources to be cataloged in any ways that make sense.  A decision does not need to be made about the best way to catalog an item, because it can be cataloged in any and every way that makes sense.

In a digital world, photos that are tagged with keywords can be easily retrieved from a huge collection just by looking for one or more keywords. So, if that photo of your sister-in-law was tagged with words like “christmas”, “sillyhat” and “wendy”, then any of these search terms would find the photos.  Someone searching for the word “christmas” would find it, along with every other photo in the collection tagged with the word “christmas”.  Searching with the term “wendy” would find all the photos of Wendy, and a search using “sillyhat” would find any photo tagged with that term, regardless of who was wearing the silly hat.  To find the specific photo you were after, a search using several of these tags would quickly narrow down the search to photos of Wendy, at Christmas, wearing a silly hat. Each tag acts like a filter to only show the photos that match the criteria.

Tagging works because computers are really good at quickly searching through massive amounts of data. Getting computers to find things is pretty easy, but tagging adds the necessary “hooks” that the search can latch onto. Without these tags attached to each resource, computers find it difficult to link each resource to the ideas that you wish to associate with them.  The computer might be able to find things quickly, but tagging helps it know how those things relate to YOU. By adding tags to things, you build a collection of metadata around each object that makes it meaningful to you.  It lets you associate those objects to ideas that make personal sense to you.  And as you tag more and more resources, patterns start to emerge that make it even easier to see the semantic nature of that information, further helping you make sense of it.

Tagging is everywhere on the web however if you are new to the idea and want to see tagging in action, two great place to start are for web bookmarks, and for digital photography. Searching these sites using tags is a nice easy way to see the real value of tagging as a way to organise massive amounts of information in a digital world.

For more detailed information about tagging and how to use it effectively, take a look a my K12 Online presentation entitled “I Like Delicious Things” at

I Like Delicious Things from Chris Betcher on Vimeo.

Image: ‘Symmetry