Search Engine Exercise

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Purpose : To familiarize students with using search engines; to help students come up with more productive search techniques; to show students that not all search engines are alike.  (More generally, to help students become more critical of the tools they use.)

1)     Break students into small groups of 3-4.  Each group will need at least one computer, though the exercise works best if each student has a computer to him or herself.  The students in each group will be looking at each others' screens, so try to cluster the groups as much as possible.
2) Have each of the students within a given group call up a different search engine.  (I use www.yahoo.com, www.hotbot.com, and www.altavista.com.  Other search engines are certainly possible; I use these because they are fairly popular, and usually produce nicely varied results.)
3) Throw out a topic to the students and have them look up that topic on their search engines.  (Usually I use whichever author we have read most recently in class.)
4) Have the students in each group compare the lists of sites that came up on each screen.  Note the differences that result.  (Odds are that most students at this stage will simply have put in the topic as given, without using sophisticated keyword searches.  If you feel your students are more advanced, you may want to limit them to just the topic itself, at first.)
5) Ask students for ideas on how to refine the search so as to pull up more useful information.  What sort of information are you looking for?  Ask for possible keyword suggestions that will get at the sort of information desired (e.g. "history," "biography," "career," "review," or the name of a specific author or work associated with the topic at hand).  Have the students try their ideas, then compare results as a class.
6) Discuss operational symbols (if the search engine supports them) such as quotation marks to enclose proper names, + and - signs to include or exclude specific words from the search, and so forth.  Again, have students try their ideas and share results as a class.
7) Wrap up.  Field questions (if you have not done so already); reiterate the point that generally speaking, one search engine will not provide all the information one might need, nor will one search.  Use different engines and different keywords to uncover useful sources.  Finally, encourage students to bookmark the search engine(s) they found to be the most useful.
Total suggested time : 30-40 minutes