Monday, July 20, 2009

Yes, There's a Need - Part 2

Using performance assessments to study how people search is very revealing. Several years ago, we identified five major things that students don't know how to do that keeps them from achieving information fluency. In case you're unfamiliar with our work, these are 1) turning questions into queries, 2) selecting appropriate databases, 3) recognizing relevant results/finding better keywords, 4) evaluating the credibility of information, and 5) using information ethically (creating citations).

Upon closer examination, there are five problem areas related to evaluation alone--the facet of information fluency where students' shortcoming are most evident. These have to do with 1) reading carefully, 2) understanding different types of queries and when to apply them, 3) navigating by browsing effectively, 4) truncating urls and 5) checking for page information. Not knowing about a technique or how to apply it is one thing. Even when students (and adults) know the techniques, going too fast tends to erase any advantage the techniques might provide.

Speed is likely the biggest factor responsible for ineffective, inefficient searching. In terms of efficiency, it is ironic that the slower you go the better you perform.

We've consistently noticed "the-slower-the-better" relationship while conducting research. The faster a person goes, the more likely it is that important clues will be overlooked. The place this really has a negative impact on information fluency is (not) finding better keywords in snippets and (not) tracking down leads that can be used in determining the credibility of an author or an author's work. It is possible to find good clues by scanning, but the speed at which students scan a page renders understanding what is read unlikely. This is why we advise students taking our assessments to take their time.

Speed tends to be the factor that explains why a student scores higher on a pretest than a post-test. Our current assessment work utilizes a pair of 10-item tests.* Students who take less than 20 minutes tend not to score very well. That's 2 minutes per item, most of which require submitting a query or navigating to find answers, reading content to find clues and checking on those clues with a subsequent search. It's very hard to do that in 2 minutes. Deliberately slowing down, taking time to look for clues (because you know they are there) makes a big difference.

Because people have other things they want to do with their time, knowing when to slow down and conduct a careful search is paramount. My advice is, slow down when the stakes start to get high. For some, this will be when a grade or money is on the line, or a performance review or a job. Not every search demands the same careful consideration. But when it does, you need to take the time.

So time yourself. After becoming familiar with the instructions, give yourself two minutes to try the following search activity. Without looking at the possible answers (click 'give me a do-over' rather than 'show me the words'), allow yourself five minutes and do it again. Do you notice a difference in your score?

In what contest is one of the prizes a Hasbro action figure of the winner?


*If you'd like to try the 10-item tests yourself, sign up for Investigative Searching 20/10 (sign in as guest for access). The assessments are featured in that course.

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