Posted in Inquiry, Research, Search, TC@Columbia

Teaching Students How to Research for Understanding with Technology

Searching for information on the Internet can be extremely challenging for our students. This is widely due to the sheer amount of information that is currently available out there. A lot of teachers assign projects that have students conduct searches, whether using a paid database, or Google. Many teachers that I know tend to equate searching for information with learning. They believe that if students are searching for their information online that they will naturally make sense out of what they find. Research however paints a different picture. When students search for information, they tend to search for predetermined answers and are not comprehending or reflecting on the meaning of what they have found; they are simply searching for the one answer that the teacher is looking for (Fidel et al., 1999).

Unfortunately searching, or what teachers often call research projects, often ends with the harvesting of the data, rather than extending into the next stage of the process. Searching for information is essentially meaningless without a deeper purpose. With this concept of “researching” in mind, let’s consider what it takes to teach students how to research for understanding with technology and become more competent researchers in the process.

A “Research” Project

Eighth grade students were recently assigned a research project about an historical figure. The students were required to use one of two paid research databases and were not allowed to use Google to collect their data. Once students had located their data they were instructed to create a PowerPoint about the historical figure and use only the information that they gathered from the paid research databases as their primary source of data. Once completed the students were asked to present their historical figure to their class.

The above is the general framework that many “research” projects take on. The students are instructed to gather their data from a source, or sometimes sources, and then they present on their data, usually in the form of a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation. The problem with this framework is that unless this is a Ctrl-C + Ctrl-V lesson, there is no learning for understanding taking place. That is because this lesson assumes that researching (data collection) is a one step process.As you can see from the diagram, under this framework of research there is no way to know if the students are understanding what they are collecting and then presenting on. This framework, as designed, assumes that the students have had the time to analyze the data for being (a) accurate, (b) factual and (c) up to date. In order for there to be a learning outcome the students have to have ample time to reflect upon the data in order to make meaning in order to understand what the data is telling them (Jonassen, 2011). This lesson, currently designed, fails to accomplish that outcome by ignoring crucial steps in the research process.

What Is Understanding

Understanding is a flexible performance capability that encompasses four dimensions that take into account that learning is an active process, not simply a matter of absorbing information or practicing basic skills. Such performances require learners to stretch their minds, to think using what they have learned and to apply their knowledge creatively and appropriately in a range of circumstances (Wiske, 2010). The four dimensions of understanding are:

Domains of Understanding


Knowledge of important concepts

Research is a multi-stage activity that requires searching for data from multiple sources of information

Methods of disciplined reasoning and inquiry,

Data sources should be triangulated; compared and contrasted before being used

Purposes and limitations of different domains

Information sources use hierarchies when displaying results of searches

Forms of expressing understanding for particular audiences

Demonstrating understanding of information by performance using multiple tools that are appropriate for various audiences

(Wiske, 2005).

Understanding Searching With Technology

Equally important to this discussion is the knowledge of how search engines work. First, a search engine is just a vehicle for the retrieval of data from a database or network. Google is the most popular example of a search engine, however the paid research databases like EBSCO and GALE are also search engines. The database that is queried by the user requires first, that information be gathered from around the web, and second, that this collection of data be processed in such a way that a page’s relevance to a particular set of keywords may be determined (Halavais, 2009).

The most basic form of processing that is common to almost every modern search engine is the extraction of key terms that are used to create a keyword index for the web by an “indexer” (Halavais, 2009). Like a book index, information about which words appear on any given page are reversed so that the searcher is given pages that contain the keywords that they are searching for. Once the set of results are generated, they are ranked in some way to provide a list of topics that present the most significant “hits” first (Halavais, 2009). The most common display of search results is as a list with a brief summary, or snippet of the page that contains your keywords.

A problem that arises in research projects with students is that they tend to click on the first few results on a list. The results of a search are usually ordered by relevance of the page which uses among other things how many times your search words are found on that page and how many other pages link to the page. The problem with this is that relevance does not always equal reliable. Researching requires multiple sources of information, not just what the search engine deems to be the most popular for your search.

Stages of Research

Researching is the act of solving problems by asking questions. In order to learn from the data being sought, students must have an intention to find information that will help them solve that problem (Jonassen, 2011). Students therefore must have a purpose other than fulfilling the requirements of the assignment. Researching requires at least a four-step process:

1. Plan

2. Strategize

3. Evaluate

4. Triangulate

(Jonassen & Colaric, 2001)

Research Process

PLAN – Identify what the problem is and the questions that you are going to ask.

STRATEGIZE – The route that you are going to take to search the web for information about your questions.

EVALUATE –  The sources of data that you are  using for credibility, accuracy and currentness.

TRIANGULATE – Compare your sources of data against one other.

Putting This All Together

Teaching students how to research for understanding requires multiple-steps. This framework allows students the time to both evaluate where the data is coming from, compare the data against each other, reflect in order to make meaning and then present on their understanding of the data and information gathered. If we use the historical figures research project mentioned earlier, this framework would break that project down as follows:




Student selects historical figure and asks how they were important to American History


Student identifies how they answer how their selected historical figure and their answer to the essential question(s) and/or problem


Student selects databases they will use to gather data that supports their answer to the essential question of their historical figure’s importance to American history.


Student evaluates their sources of data and identifies the limitations of them.


Student compares data that was collected from their sources and looks for discrepancies and similarities.


Student reflects upon their data and how they have used it to support their answer to their essential question.


Students selects the appropriate tool to present their data to an audience.


Equipping our students with the skills to search effectively is the first step in using the Internet as a source of information. The above framework is structured to scaffold students throughout the research process, beginning with identifying the topic that are both meaningful and relevant to them, the learner. This inquiry-based process emphasizes metacognition, with students reflecting on the research process itself. This allows students to engage in learning that has significance and value. Technologies can support and extend this value to students by allowing them to investigate, solve problems, access, manage and evaluate information that they find. These skills are vital for the information rich world that they are growing up in and when learned will help them to become better consumers and producers of information and knowledge.  

Works Cited

Colaric, Susan, and David Jonassen. “Information equals knowledge, searching equals learning, and hyperlinking is good instruction: Myths about learning from the World Wide Web.” Computers in the Schools 17.3-4 (2001): 159-169.

Fidel, Raya, et al. “A visit to the information mall: Web searching behavior of high school students.” JASIS 50.1 (1999): 24-37.

Halavais, Alexander. Search engine society. John Wiley & Sons, 2009..

Jonassen, David H. Meaningful learning with technology. Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall, 2011

Wiske, Martha Stone, and Lisa Breit. Teaching for understanding with technology. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.



3 thoughts on “Teaching Students How to Research for Understanding with Technology

    1. Hi,

      Yes, I did cite the Raya Fidel article from 1999 mainly due to the fact that not much has changed with student and teacher behavior when it comes to information searches online, and mainly due to the fact that the study looked specifically at high school students which was the scope of this project.

      3 of the works that are cited are from 2009 and later, so by research standards they would be considered recent.

      Halavais has some recent publishing’s (more recent than 2009) on search in general. He’s a rather interesting guy. His critics though argue that he tends to paint too rosy a picture of searching by claiming that it improves democracy and doesn’t really address the fact that searches bring up what is popular and how they may actually hurt democracy in the long run.

      DH Jonassen has a lot of published articles that are later than 2011. His last published article is from this year and looked at assessing problem solving. It is a fantastic read.

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