Internet Research Can Be Overwhelming
Homeschool high school teens in the 21st Century have an enormous wealth of internet data available for research papers, essays, science fair projects, and debate cases. Most likely, your teen is already very familiar with the internet, but does he know how to use it for academic research? If not, he needs a strategic, systematic plan of attack; otherwise, he’ll be overwhelmed and unfocused.
One of the hallmarks of a classical education is the broad base of knowledge that comes from reading classics on a wide range of subjects. Classical orators drew from their own extensive inventory of information and experience when inventing topics for compositions and speeches. Some well-educated men occasionally made trips to peruse the vast collection of manuscripts in the famous library at Alexandria, but by and large, most men had to depend on their memory of the classic’s main points since hard copies were not readily available.
Not so for today’s rising classical scholars. The volume and availability of hard-copy texts in the library as well as the millions of documents stored on the worldwide web could easily overwhelm a young high school student without a strategic, systematic plan for research.
Start Your Research Strategy at the Library
Do you want your teen’s research time on the internet to be productive? Take him to the library first. Your initial goal at the library is reading broadly for ideas that coalesce into at least one recurring theme that can be crafted into a narrow thesis statement. Once you have a couple of solid ideas for your thesis, you can turn to the internet to find great content like primary sources, specialized databases, statistical info, government policy, and opinion editorials.
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Teach your homeschool teen these 4 rules about internet research before he gets to high school:
1. Maximize Search Engines and Directories
Search engines are algorithmic programs that scour databases to retrieve web pages containing key words. Generally, logical principles are applied to find relationships between terms. How do search engines work? When a new website goes live, search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo! follow all the links on a website and create a cache of stored information like key words and site meta descriptions. Every page on a website is indexed. Periodically “spiders” crawl the links on these pages and update the database; broken links are eventually removed so that these pages are not returned in searches.
When a user enters a search term, the search engine checks the index and provides a list of best matches with the title of the website and a short summary of the page. Search engines are programmed with criteria that establishes authority of a site (page rank), relevance (keyword density), and popularity (external links). Don’t just settle for your browser’s default engine; try Google Scholar, Science Direct, and Yippy, too.
Unlike search engines, subject directories are not programs; rather, they are catalogs of relevant sites organized according to topic. They are compiled by humans and usually branch off into more and more detail. Let’s say you go to the Google directory to learn more about the leadership struggle in Libya. You’ll start with the general category “Society” then drill down to “Politics” then “By Country” then “Libya.” At this point, you can click on the link to an index of Libya political sites including parties, organizations, governments, and media to research your thesis.
2. Choose Effective Search Terms
Before you begin serious searching, consider your topic. What unique words, distinctive names, abbreviations, or acronyms are associated with your subject? Do any of these special terms belong in phrases or strings, and do they follow a certain order? The query [scholastic achievement test] would bring more precise, relevant results than the exact query “test achievement scholastic.” Brainstorm synonyms, equivalent terms, or even misspellings which might show up in a search.
Use simple search terms that you think might be on a page written about this subject. For example, don’t enter the query [my head hurts] since the search engine will look for pages with the words [my],[ head], and [hurts]. Instead think like the author, and enter [headache]. Eliminate all unnecessary articles, pronouns, and prepositions.
Putting double quotes [“x”] around a word tells the search engine to look for the exact keyword match. If you put quotation marks around “Roosevelt,” your results may not include web pages that call President Roosevelt “Teddy” or “Theodore.” You can exclude words from your search, too, by using a minus sign or the word NO before the keyword. For example, if you want to know about the mustang horse, you might want to use this search term [mustang –cars] or [mustang NO cars] so that the search engine doesn’t bring back web pages on the Ford Mustang.
Generally, upper and lower case letters don’t make a difference, and punctuation is ignored unless it is a dollar sign [$]. You can also specify a whole class of sites. To illustrate, add the extension [site:] to the search query [Libya site:.gov], and the search engine will check only government sites for Libya. If you want to limit your search to one site like the Wall Street Journal or The Economist, you also use the colon as follows [Libya site:wsj.com] or [Libya site:economist.com]
3. Evaluate Credibility of Sites
Anyone can launch a blog or website for little or no money, so be very cautious about your sources. In Your teen’s research paper, essay, speech, science fair project, or debate case should only lift quotes from legitimate authorities. After your search results are returned but before clicking on the link to the web page, examine the URL (web address) carefully.
- Can the data can be trusted?
- Have you heard of the entity in the domain name before?
- Does it make sense that this organization is publishing data about your topic?
You would expect to see articles on U.S. foreign policy towards Libya to be on domains like the New York Times and Reuters, but you might be suspicious about content on a personal webpage and an internet service provider like aol.com.
Once you click on the web page, look for footnotes, a bibliography, and other documentation of sources. Consider the author’s authority when looking at his byline or bio.
- Are there links to other reliable sources within the body of the document?
- Do the links indicate a bias?
- Are there opposing viewpoints for a well-balanced analysis?
- What do others say about this website?
You can search for this entity in the subject directories or a website information directory like alexa.com. No rising classical scholar wants to be embarrassed by quoting inaccurate statistics or faulty evidence.
4. Merge the Library and Internet Results
Now that you have completed your preliminary internet research, you can merge the accumulated internet data into your library results. Keep track of your online bibliography, and conform your citations to the MLA or Chicago Manual of Style to make life easier when your begin writing. (Cite it Right is my favorite citations manual for MLA, Chicago, and APA style guides.)
Like the classical orators of old, your high school teen’s research and reading strategies will equip him for winsome argumentation and persuasive delivery. Instead of being an overwhelming obstacle, all that data will on the internet and in the library will become fearsome tools in the hands and mouth of your rising classical scholar.
Does Your Teen Know How to Write a Multiple-Source Essay?
Want to learn even more? Three sources, each with multiple pieces of clear evidence, makes for a much more persuasive speech, essay, or research paper. Have you taught your homeschool teen how to write from multiple sources yet? Listen to my podcast on writing the multi-source essay.