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Designing Effective Research Assignments

1. Pre-search - setting students up for success assignment

Libraries work together in networks to make high-quality content available. Encourage students to make use of the library’s borrowing powers.

Sample search exercise

  1. Require students to sign up for an interlibrary loan account and then share a screenshot demonstrating they are logged into interlibrary loan.
  2. Prompt students to search in 1Search on a research topic of their interest (or your interest). Remind them to sign in with their ONID.
  3. Ask them to narrow their search to full-text online.
  4. Then ask them to look on the first search results page and select one article that indicates it is either available by Open Access PDF or Full text available.
  5. Ask them to find a second article that says “Access Options - click for more information.” For this article, ask them to follow the links to request it through interlibrary loan.

If they run into any glitches, use these videos for support.

2. Understanding search results exercises

Web Search Engine Search Results

Most students are well acquainted with searching Google for all kinds of information. But not all students are aware of how Google selects the top search results they see. And to be honest, librarians don’t know all the criteria that go into Google’s algorithm either because it’s proprietary information! Unless students are searching in Incognito Mode a number of factors typically drive search results. These factors include an attempt to find the exact search terms entered, but also include interpretations based on selections other searchers have made when conducting similar searches, the student’s search history, location, how often other sites link to the content, and paid promotion of sites. 

As a result, students will typically see Google search results tightly connected to the search terms they entered. Conversely, it also means they  see an overly simplistic set of results that over-represents some types of content at the expense of less frequently heard voices. It also means that data from students’ searches is being regularly tracked and collected. As you facilitate students’ understanding of how search tools work, highlight some of these realities and ask them to think about the implications of having all this data tracked by tools like Google.

Sample search exercise

1. Ask students to try the same Google search with and without Incognito Mode turned on. Alternatively, ask students to try Google plus a different search engine like DuckDuckGo, which does not use tracking features.

2. Ask them to compare and contrast the results they receive.

Library Search Results - Keywords vs. Natural Language

Tools like the OSU Libraries 1Search tend to either display search results by relevance or by most recently published. The relevancy rankings in 1Search are similar to Google in that the tool is trying to match the terms entered. However, 1Search does not track searching behaviors. Instead, 1Search looks in targeted source fields: title, abstract, tables of contents, keywords assigned by the author, or subject headings assigned by librarians or the database companies.

1Search is not searching the full-text of the books, articles, or reports in its collection of sources. When using library search tools, this is why a keyword search is typically more successful (e.g., urban heat islands social justice) than a natural language search (e.g., What are the social justice implications of urban heat islands?). A natural language search is less likely to match all the search terms, and the consequence is typically that few or no results are displayed.

Sample search exercise

1. Ask students to enter a natural language search (a full question or thought) into 1Search.

2. In a separate browser tab or window, ask them to repeat their search in 1Search, but this time with 3-5 keywords from the same natural language question (perhaps using search strategies like using quotes around phrases).

3. Prompt them to compare and contrast the results they get. 

Library Search Results - Narrowing Options

Most keyword searches in library tools retrieve many results. To help students prioritize the results that might be most relevant and appropriate for them and the assignment, point out several of the narrowing tools available in most library search tools. Highlight options to limit to: 

  • Peer-reviewed journals (if relevant for your class), 
  • Resource type like print or ebooks, government documents, or newspapers, 
  • Topic,
  • Publication date.

Sample search exercise

1. Ask students to search for a topic using 3-4 keywords in 1Search.

2. Prompt them to explore the groupings in 2-3 filters on the right side of the search results page, for example, the topic, resource type, and journal title filter.

3. Ask them to reflect on the whether the groupings in the filters made sense for their filter, if they saw any unexpected groupings, or if the groupings gave them any new ideas to explore.

4. Prompt them to narrow their search using one or two of the groupings, for example, a specific resource type or a relevant topic area. Ask them to observe how the search results changed after narrowing their search.