Learning to search like a pro – Just Google It

Heading photo credit: Collin Key, Canoe. A tropical ride, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license

Expert searching

As a teacher and a member of staff in a Library, honing my research skills should be central to my professional development, and an activity I engage with on a daily basis in the future. I should be to be able to research effectively, efficiently and expertly as well as to guide others to develop their own skills.

Over the next five blog posts, I will journey along a path that takes me through the jungle that is Google, into the unknown lands of Google Scholar, through the swamps of A+ Education, into the better known, but still daunting, territory of Proquest Education, before landing me on the battlegrounds of Social Media. As I take this journey, my skills of research will grow, develop and morph along with my inquiry questions.

First stop: Google

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.38.32 AM.pngGoogle. A company that has become such a ubiquitous part of life that its name has become a verb, in common usage and formalised in English Dictionaries around the world.

After some preliminary investigation, involving searching and re-searching my three inquiry questions, I decided to continue this journey by following the path set by my second inquiry question: How do the pressures on schools and teachers interact with the goals of Inquiry Learning? This question is one I have been pondering a lot lately, as I look across the divide from the world of cultural institutions into schools, and consider what I know of the challenges of Inquiry Learning in the classroom.

Employing expert strategies to search in Google: A journey

My plan of action for searching Google looked like this:

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I fleshed out my key concepts, and their synonyms/related terms:

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As I researched, my key concepts and related terms grew and morphed as I drilled down into the focus of my Inquiry Question, and as the “answers” threw up more questions.

The following is a sample of the searches I did, showing an array of the different search strategies one can engage with on Google. The table is best read chronologically, as search strategies are built on and become more complex as one moves down the table.

Search string Notes re. search operators Number of hits Evaluation of results
“inquiry learning” school pressure goal The boolean operator AND is assumed in Google searches and thus was not required in this search string

Putting inquiry learning in quotation marks ensured it would be searched for as an entire concept and not separated into its parts

The number of results, the content of the results and/or the order of the results changed significantly when the order of terms in the search string was altered (see figure 1). This is because Google gives priority to search terms depending on where they come in the search string. The scope of variation included some strings resulting in the listing of scholarly articles, and some not having any scholarly articles listed, and the number of results varying from 151 000 to 655 000

655 000 The number of “hits” from this search string is both unmanageable and overwhelming.

Searching the string listed on the left, resulted in websites that were occupied largely with defining Inquiry Learning and giving information on what makes for “good” Inquiry Learning (in both general and subject-specific contexts). The content providers ranged from businesses, schools, bloggers and academics writing for journals to organisations funded by the European Union.

Whilst there were a handful of “hits” that looked at the “challenges” of implementing inquiry-based learning, these addressed only student-centred challenges, including such things as motivation and background knowledge. My interest in regards to challenges relates to the practical side of the interaction between teacher, time and curriculum content. As such, my inquiry question revolves more around investigating the pressures felt by teachers operating in a school environment and the impact of this on the way in which Inquiry Learning in the classroom is facilitated.

Given the nature of the “hits” obtained, and the disjoint between this and the direction of my inquiry question, my search string needs to be made more precise. I want to find information specifically on the challenges teachers and schools face in implementing Inquiry Learning at the coalface of the classroom, and my search string needs to be improved to target that information more accurately.

“inquiry learning” school curriculum time challenges Quotation marks

Strategic ordering of terms within the string

2 140 000 Whilst the number of results obtained from this string is completely unmanageable, the results that came up on the first few pages were much more aligned with the “gist” of my inquiry question (see figure 2). These search terms have broadened my search, possibly due to the inclusion of the common term, “time”.  More complex searching and more specific terminology is required to further improve the accuracy of my search.
challenge OR difficulty OR conflict OR pressure OR burden “inquiry learning” OR “inquiry based learning” OR “discovery learning” OR “guided inquiry” school OR classroom OR class OR “learning environment” curriculum OR syllabus OR timetable OR resources OR “time constraints” This search string was designed with complexity in an attempt to reduce the number of hits.

In this search string, the boolean operator “OR” has been used to specify alterative synonyms to include in the search, thus allowing for the capture of sources that use different terminology when talking about similar concepts.

If a search string contains terms linked by the boolean operator “AND” as well as terms linked by the boolean operator “OR”, most search engines require the application of the search strategy nesting. This means that the synonyms separated by “OR” are put in parentheses together. However, in addition to Google not requiring the use of “AND” (being an assumed operator), it also does not recognise parentheses (see articles on Musings about Librarianship, Boolean strings, Boolean Journal and Quora). Where there is a “gap” between terms, whether they are in quotation marks or not, Google reads this gap as an “And”. If there is an “OR” (or the pipe operator “|”) between the terms, Google will apply that instruction to the terms immediately to the left and right, whilst respecting terms in quotation marks.

Parentheses are not recognised by Google. That said, putting parentheses in your search string in Google will not negatively impact on the results (and it may be a good habit to just keep including them so as not to fall out of the habit, as forgetting them in other search engines will have a negative impact).

Google uses automatic word stemming, so there is no need to use the truncation searching technique to ensure the search results include the plurals of each search term.

The synonyms relating to “challenge” were placed first in the search string in an attempt to counter the sheer number of generalist sources on inquiry learning, its facilitation and best practice, and focus in on those sources that primarily addressed the challenges relating to Inquiry Learning.

461 000 My search string has successfully resulted in a narrower search. Whilst this search still produced an unmanageable number of “hits”, the content of the sources ‘found’ was the most significant so far (see figure 3). The number of hits was also the smallest up to this point.

There is still a distinct need to drill in further to achieve greater accuracy in terms of the content of the “hits” acquired.

criticism curriculum | syllabus | timetable | resources | “time constraints” AROUND(5) “inquiry learning” | “inquiry based learning” | “guided inquiry” school | classroom | class | “learning environment” Australia The search operators from the example above were re-used in this sample (where I have substituted “OR” for the pipe operator “|”). In addition, the proximity operator “AROUND(n) was used to bring in more accurate “hits”. 383 000 The results from this search are satisfyingly accurate (see figure 4). The number of results continues to narrow, which is partly attributable to the greater specificity of my search terms (acquired from the analysis of sources discovered during other searches). There is a lot of information that can be gathered from the sources in this list of “hits”, and this can also used to further narrow my search and drive my re-search.

Whilst the number of results is still far too large, the size of the Google database may mean that this is a largely unavoidable part of Google searching.

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Figures 1-4

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Figure 1 – Variation observed when changing the order of terms in a search string in Google.


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Figure 2 –  Second sample search results


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Figure 3- Third sample search results
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Figure 4 – Fourth sample search results

Google – the lay of the land

Investigating the search strategies of Google, and experimenting with search terms and operators, it became apparent the Google search engine is designed for the “man-on-the-street”. This makes sense, given the ubiquity of the search engine. One’s own personal experiences point towards this. I use Google all the time in this way. Got a question on the weather? Google. Want to know the current time in another country? Google. Maths calculation? Google. Cooking conversion? Google. Inane question that you are too embarrassed to ask an actual person? Google. Wondering what is on tv tonight? Google. On and on it goes. The breadth of the questions we rely on Google to answer for us is a clear signpost of just how eclectic the results we get will be when we use Google for research purposes.

An investigation of Google’s Search Help Centre reinforces the notion that Google is made for all of life’s purposes, not just research. Google’s “tips and tricks” on searching using Google include examples on finding quick answers to queries about the weather, definitions of words, calculations and unit conversions. The list of search operators given includes instructions on searching for popular hashtags, and finding products to buy at a certain price.

Whilst I was surprised at the amount of good quality, exciting sources I found, the volume of results was overwhelming and would make efficient research very difficult if this was one’s main avenue for finding source materials for research.

As I investigated my Inquiry Learning questions using the Google search engine, the results I got were a rainbow of diversity. Alongside some peer-reviewed academic papers and research reports, there were a plethora of such things as book advertisements, online articles containing arguments made without references or bibliography, and websites selling flashcards and other “educational” products.

Whilst I was able to increase the relevance of the results of my search as I progressed, the scope for a small change in my search string to result in a significant “blow out” in my hits and the content that I found made the process feel very unreliable.

So, onwards and upwards I go.

Next up: Google Scholar.

Based on the information uncovered, collected and processed during this stretch of my research journey, my inquiry question has become more articulated and gained some specificity. My question has birthed two more questions:

  • How has the implementation of the Australian Curriculum impacted on the use of Inquiry Learning in schools?
  • What are the main concerns of teachers engaging with Inquiry Learning?







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