An Active Learning Approach to Teaching Effective Online Search Strategies


Thisarticle describes the workshops that resulted from the collaboration of alibrarian and an economics faculty member. We explain our method of instruction,and some lessons we have learned about electronic resources and collegestudents1. The object of our workshops is to teach students how tolocate appropriate academic sources on the Web and in library databases, how tocreate an effective search strategy, and how to use the retrieval features inInfoTrac.

Inthe literature of library instruction, the active learning model is recognizedas a valuable complement to the traditional instructor-centered lectureapproach (Bren, Hilleman and Topp 1998). Several recent articles (Alden 1999;Bren, Hilleman and Topp 1998; Kaplowitz and Contini 1998; Germain, Jacobson,and Kaczor 2000; Leuthold 1998; Vander Meer and Rike 1996) describe specificsuccessful applications of the active learning model to bibliographicinstruction workshops. Several other recent articles describe educators’experiences teaching computer literacy in library workshops, and offerreflections on lessons learned (Brandt 1998; Greenhalgh 1997; and Kryder 1999).


Thisarticle introduces an active learning approach for instructing undergraduateson how to search electronic databases in the library.

TheActive Learning Approach:

Librarian,Teacher and Computer Staff Collaborate

Asa librarian (who knows how to find information) and as an economics professor(who suggests information to look for), we have collaborated for severalsemesters to construct active learning tools for use in a lab where eachstudent is at a computer workstation. According to Agarwal and Day (1998),“hands-on” experience gained while using the Web “provides a betterunderstanding of the subject matter and makes the learning process moreactive.” The librarian leads the class in two workshops during the semester.The economics instructor is always present, participating in the workshop andassisting with hands-on instruction. During the workshops, students learn howto navigate the Web and the electronic library Web pages, and learn how to findand use the online academic databases.


Onlinequizzes are an integral part of our active learning approach. The onlinequizzes are written in PERL script. The university computer staff writes theserver-side programs and the client-side quiz template. It is this templatethat we are able to customize for our classes. For example, after a lecture andhands-on session about a particular search engine, we administer an onlinequiz. The quiz, which has multiple-choice and short-answer questions, tests theknowledge of search commands for retrieving information on the Web. It isimmediately graded and returned to each student’s desktop. We conclude with adiscussion of the search strategy and syntax for each of the questions.Students respond with enthusiasm to these pedagogical devices, which helpengage them in the learning cycle and reinforce learning.


First Workshop:

Web Search Engines, Boolean Operators


Web SearchEngines

Weteach principles of electronic searching by starting with Web search engines.Although most students already have experience using the Web, many are using itineffectively. Our approach takes advantage of their knowledge base by buildingon existing skills, and encourages students to learn the concept of creating aneffective Web search. We do not expect every student to drop all of his or herbad research habits, but we do expect that the students will learn toappreciate the value of searching the Web (i.e. the use of Boolean operators),instead of just surfing the Web.


Inour overview lecture on the Web, we use two popular search services, Yahoo! andAltaVista2, to demonstrate and explain the hierarchy of a Webdirectory and a Web search engine (Notess 1998). Simply put, Yahoo! is adirectory of approximately 1.2 million links that are cataloged and placedwithin a hierarchy of searchable category headings. AltaVista, on the otherhand, is an index that uses computer programs, referred to as “spiders,” tolist all text available on the Web, approximately 150 million pages (Sullivan1999).


Whilehard and fast rules in search strategy are unlikely to fit all cases, weinstruct that Yahoo! is more appropriate for the initial first stage searchesof a research paper topic, and AltaVista is more appropriate for the follow-upsecond stage of research. One of the illustrations we use is the example ofresearching a term paper on the public policy issue of privatization. Yahoo! ismore appropriate to retrieve an overview of the resources because, as adirectory, it organizes the resources by relevant categories, such as economicregulation, health care, and social security. AltaVista is more appropriatewhen the student has a background on the issue and needs to search selectivelyby keywords for resources on a specific aspect of a policy issue, such as theprivatization of state prisons in New York.


Boolean Operators

Foreffective use of Web resources, students need to know how to use the search andretrieval commands for online search engines. We emphasize three major searchtechniques: limit searches by applying Boolean logic, creating phrases, andspecifying a particular domain in the URL (Web address). The basic principlesof Boolean logic, the union and the intersection of sets, underlie the syntaxfor all search engines (Morton 1993). We teach the application of the Booleanoperators “AND, OR, NOT,” first in discussion/lecture format using Venndiagrams, and then again in a hands-on context by guiding students through apractical example on their PCs. We find that some students understand Booleanlogic when shown the Venn diagrams, and others learn more easily by practicalexample.


Forour practical hands-on session we choose searches and strategies that ourstudents are possibly already familiar with, such as college sports scores. Wewalk students through a simple search in AltaVista and show them how to limitthe number of hits retrieved by applying the Boolean “AND” (+ in AltaVista).Each student at his or her terminal follows along with the instructor usingAltaVista and retrieves the following results:


college scores basketball retrieves 2.5million hits

+college +scores +basketball retrieves 300,000hits

+college +scores +basketball+uconn retrieves 11,000 hits.


Creating a phrase furtherlimits search results:


+”collegebasketball” +scores +uconn retrieves 4,372 hits.


Westress that a major key to identifying and locating Web resources is knowingthat online resources are currently distinguished by seven top-level domainnames that appear in the URL of a document:


.com commercial

.net gateway or host

.org non-profitorganization

.edu educationaland research

.gov government

.mil militaryagency

.int international, intergovernmental


Alsostressed is the fact that a search can be limited to a specific domain:


+ domain:edu + “heart disease”

+ domain:org + “heart disease”

+ domain:com + “heart disease”



Withthese examples, students learn that limiting hits to the “.com” domainretrieves documents including companies selling pharmaceuticals or hospitalequipment for heart disease. A “.org” site delimiter includes documents fromorganizations like the American Heart Association, and a “.edu” site delimiterincludes documents from research divisions of universities.


Thehands-on experience and discussion allows students time for the information tosink in. This process often takes place aloud, as students exclaim afterobserving their 2.5 million hits narrow down to 4,372. Students quicklyappreciate that applying Boolean logic to their Web searches is more efficientthan conducting natural language searches (i.e. searches with words unconnectedby Boolean syntax). The correction of spelling errors and other mistakesenhances the learning experience and reinforces the importance of usingaccurate syntax.


Immediatelyafter the lecture and hands-on section of the workshop, students take a quiz totest their newfound skills. As students are answering the questions, they areactively beginning to test the new ideas they have learned. The quiz iscorrected online and immediately returned to each student’s desktop. Studentscan resubmit until they get the correct answer. We then review the quiz, withan emphasis on how AltaVista interprets the Boolean concepts illustrated by thequiz questions.


Atthis point, we conclude our first workshop. At the end of the workshop, termpaper topic assignments are discussed, and each student makes a choice from alist provided by the economics instructor. To prepare for the second workshop,students are asked to apply some of the strategies they learned to find fiveWeb resources relevant to their topics.


The Second Workshop:

Academic Databases and Boolean Logic


Academic Databases

Oursecond workshop instructs students on how to locate and use academic databasesfocusing on InfoTrac Expanded Academic Index. Students will find full-textjournal articles online, and have the full-text delivered to their e-mailaddresses. Virtually all academic libraries and many public libraries offeraccess to at least one interdisciplinary full-text database3. Thesesubscription databases are licensed to libraries for a fee. They are notaccessible from Web search engines.


Webegin our second session with a lecture format on principles for evaluating thequality of online resources (Tate and Alexander 1996). To illustrate thedifferences between academic and non-academic sources, the librarian brings inhard copies of the Journal of LaborEconomics, Review of Financial Economics, Economic Inquiry (all refereed and full-text on InfoTrac), Newsweek and Time (also full-text on InfoTrac). The librarian then leads theclass in a discussion of which materials might be most effective for a termpaper. Students are quick to point out the differences between the periodicalswhen they are displayed side by side, and can explain why faculty requirescholarly references.


Whenexamining results from their own searches, students are able to evaluate thequality of resources on the full-text online academic databases. The ease withwhich this high quality and relatively fast (when compared to Web searching)research is accomplished encourages students to continue using these valuableresources.


Boolean Logic and Field Searching

Aswith Web search engines, an important confusion to overcome is explaining thatdifferent academic databases use different syntax for expressing the sameBoolean concepts. Continuing in the discussion/lecture format, we explain howdatabases catalog records by assigning labels to fields that are common to eachrecord. We try to familiarize students with the most heavily used fields:author, title, date, journal and subject.


Forexample, the commands to search the title fields in the following databases andsearches engines are expressed in the following ways:


InfoTrac ti basketball

AcademicUniverse headline(basketball)

SilverPlatter basketball in ti

AltaVista title:basketball


Oncestudents understand that the above title field searches are merelysyntactically different commands for the same expression, they are able toapproach learning a new database from the perspective of looking at how thatparticular database search engine requires a field search to be expressed. Asstudents begin to understand the concept of fields, they become less confusedby the lack of uniformity in syntax across search engines.


Thediscussion is followed up by a hands-on illustration using the academicdatabase, InfoTrac. In this database, we teach students to use the advancedsearch dialog box and limit search results by keyword, text word, author, titleand subject. Once mastered, the use of fields greatly enhances search resultsand cuts down on research time.


Fromthe list of hits retrieved in InfoTrac we have students e-mail themselves atleast one article and then check their e-mail accounts to retrieve it. This istime consuming, but, once students see the article in full-text on theirdesktop, there is no more confusion about the services provided. We find thatthe guided hands-on practice is an effective demonstration of how theelectronic library eliminates the tedious chores of traveling to the library,pulling bound volumes from the stacks, and standing at the photocopy machine.This helps to conserve time for the intellectually rewarding task of analyzingthe information and writing the research paper.


Inthe remainder of the second workshop, students work at their PCs to implementthe Web search strategy they had previously prepared for their term paper topic(the assignment made at the end of the first workshop). The workshop leaderscirculate and provide individualized assistance. The assignment after thesecond workshop is to continue working on their term paper topic in InfoTrac.As follow-up, each student is required to e-mail a list of topic-relevantcitations from InfoTrac to the instructor.



Withrespect to development of the online quizzes, an important consideration is toweigh the pros and cons of inventing versus buying Computer AssistedInstruction (CAI) software appropriate for the task. In our case, we inventedthe tools needed. We worked with a template developed by our computer center inthe PASCAL programming language to deliver online quizzes. We learnedfirst-hand the steep learning curve necessary to make relatively simplealterations customized to the template. With time invested in this approach,there is a large incentive to remain locked in and not switch to existingsoftware tools. In the second semester of teaching the workshops we switched toa software package (WebCT), which has more functionality in terms of grades,and records students’ scores. Had we investigated more thoroughly, we would nothave gone down the invented route.


Asecond lesson is that it is easy to underestimate the powerful effects thatattractive presentation, active learning components and the lure of thevocational value of IT skills have on increasing student interest in these workshops.We have been gratified by student response to the colorful graphics and onlinequizzes that illustrate use of the electronic library. In evaluations, thestudents report that they have a better concept of what academic resources areand how to locate them. Lest they forget their new skills, it is necessary forother classes to draw on this skill base. Hence, it is important that the useof the electronic library become an important part of the university curriculumand the teaching culture.


Shelley Cudiner is a Librarian III at the Jeremy Richard Library ofthe University of Connecticut in Stamford and has been employed by UConn for six years. She serves as areference and instruction librarian and is chair of the Reference Team. Most ofher teaching is now conducted in a computer classroom with individual terminalsfor each student. She co-developed the course “Information Technology SurvivalSkills,” and is currently in the process of creating an online digitalcollection of Long Island Sound seaweeds.




Oskar Harmon, Associate Professor of Economics, joined the University ofConnecticut faculty in 1982. While at UConn he has served as an economist forthe New York State Tax Study Commission, and as a research associate for theConnecticut Center for Economic Analysis. Professor Harmon has been a leader inInformation Technology at the Stamford Campus, winning a UConn Teaching andLearning Grant for a project to develop and use WebCT course Web sites. He isan expert in state and local tax analysis and has published numerous articlesin academic journals including The National Tax Journal, State Tax Notes, and TheJournal of Urban Economics.









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This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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