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The little searcher that could: Middle-school students' search string construction during Web-based research

, Harvard University, United States

Harvard University . Awarded


Performing Web-based research is common practice for today's students, yet educators are concerned that students are not as effective as they need to be. The purpose of this study was to examine students' search string construction to determine what types of search strings are most effective for producing relevant search results and to identify student attributes associated with constructing effective search strings.

Participants were 310 fifth through eighth graders from a middle-class suburb (mean age = 12.7 years, SD = 1.2; 45% male). Students performed three open-ended research queries and two Internet scavenger hunts. In addition, students completed a reading assessment and questionnaire about their Web use and attitudes. An automated tracking tool captured URLs, keystrokes, and screen shots during the Web research. Students' search strings were extracted from these logs and coded for three characteristics. Search result relevance was rated using the screen shots.

Few middle school students search using the ideal approach that expert adults would employ, but many have developed heuristics for constructing effective search strings. As their literacy skills and Web experience increase, students progress from copying search strings to generating original natural language strings to composing narrow, exact, succinct search terms.

Information-seeking goals and effective strategies differ between ill- and well-defined queries. During open-ended research, an ill-defined information gathering task, students' search strings varied considerably. However, two approaches were effective for obtaining relevant results during open-ended research: (a) representing the research topic using a single term or question and (b) representing the topic and a focus area using discrete terms or a natural language phrase. Students' literacy skills and cognitive development positively predicted their use of these effective strategies.

In contrast, during fact-finding, a well-defined information seeking task, students predominately searched using narrow questions. Questions and other strings that used specific, exact terms to represent the research topic and focus area were effective for retrieving relevant results. Students' literacy skills and Web experience positively predicted their use of effective fact-finding search strings.

Recommendations for helping middle school students to search effectively include developing traditional literacy skills, practicing Web-based research, and leveraging natural language heuristics.


Guinee, K. The little searcher that could: Middle-school students' search string construction during Web-based research. Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University. Retrieved August 2, 2021 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

Citation reproduced with permission of ProQuest LLC.

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