In the article “A visit to the information mall: web searching behavior of high school students”, the authors aimed at describing the searching behavior of high school students and recommending changes in the design of the web that may improve the learning experience of students (Fidel et al, 1999). The authors conducted a field research to analyze the web-searching behavior of high school students for the three weekly assignments. The field research was a case study involving activities including: observation in class and at the terminal with students thinking aloud; interviews with various participants including students, the teacher who assigned the assignments, the one and only one librarian and the principal of the school; and discussions within research team. 8 students who enrolled in a horticulture class voluntarily participated in the research for the team members to observe them searching online information on a one-on-one basis and interview them at the end of the observation period. Since the students were observed in the horticulture class for three successive weeks and not all the 8 students were present during the three weeks, the team totally observed 21 search sessions in the observation period. After recording observations and interviews, the authors found that the students performed focused searching, in which they just looked for information to accomplish the assignments without deviating from this task such as guiding searches according to assignment sheets and ignoring entertaining diversions on the screen. The authors also discovered that the students performed swift and flexible searching, where they scanned sites quickly and determined the relevance of sites by skimming the first screen and the graphics of the sites. In order to make sure that one can always start a new search and ask for help, the students used landmarks to continue exploring new sites with a safe and familiar site. Overall, they were satisfied with their searches and results but impatient with slow response. The reasons why the students enjoyed searching the web were because the web had a variety of formats such as pictures and sounds, covered a multitude of subjects, and provided easy access to information. However, the authors had also observed that the students encountered difficulties while searching, by which the authors considered that it implied the need for training to students, teachers and all involved and the need for designing the web to customize user seeking and searching behavior in order to improve the learning experience of students.
In my review, I will mainly focus on the aspects of Methods, Results/Discussion and Paper and its Format.
The method of data collection is thoroughly explained in terms of who and what was studied, how they were selected and how data were collected. Six males and two females of eight students in West Seattle High School were studied, in which five of them were in the twelfth grade and the rest of them were in the eleventh grade. Some were experts in surfing the web, but others just surfed occasionally or even had no experience in surfing. Nonetheless, all of them had very little experience in online information retrieval and had no knowledge about the horticulture area. The web-searching behavior for finishing horticulture assignments of the students was intended to be observed and analyzed in the study. The horticulture teacher assisted the research team in inviting eight students to voluntarily participate in the study as requested by the team members. Data were collected through observing the eight students in class and at the terminal with them thinking aloud and through interviewing these students, the teacher, the librarian and the principal of the school.
In my point of view, one weakness in the data collection methods is that the research team members unintentionally participated in what they were studying. Firstly, the team introduced itself and explained the purpose and nature of the study to the participating students at the first meeting. Secondly, each team member accompanied the student that he or she was observing throughout the project to go to the library, sat beside the student and tape-recorded the narration of the student in the search process. Finally, the team members asked the students several questions at the beginning and at the end of each search session. As a result of Hawthorne effect, Babbie (1998, p.286) states that if the subjects of study realize that they are being studied, it is inevitable that whatever the observer does or does not do will have effect on what is being observed. In this research, the observers might affect the behavior of the students by imposing pressure on them. Since the students had known the purpose of the study at the very start and they were being closely observed while searching, it was difficult to expect them performing searching as naturally and honestly as they would do without being focused by strangers. Thus, this might lead to three students being absent in the horticulture class during the three-week observation period even though they knew that the research team were depending on them to conduct the research. In fact, the rate of absence is somewhat high in an eight-student group. Even if the absences were just coincidence and it was nothing about the research, there were still clues to the possibility that the students did not like being closely observed and felt like being supervised. For a few times, the students were sitting at the computers and started searching already without waiting for the team members to record their behavior. Moreover, the team members found that most of the students did not like school most of the time. Both of the phenomenons uncovered that the students were likely to dislike being watched to complete tasks. Furthermore, it was unusual that the students performed focused searching by keeping exploration to a minimum on the web and ignoring entertaining diversions on the screen. As the students had little experience in information retrieval on the web, they normally had curiosity to widely explore the features of the web and were supposed to be distracted with the entertainment provided by the web while searching. It was probable that the students did not show natural searching behavior when being watched. Despite the Hawthorne effect brought to this study, it was ethical to have told the students the truth that they were being studied. Therefore, the research team should have been sensitive to and cautious about the consequences of the effect on the research.
One of the strengths in the article is that the research team clearly summarized and categorized the behavior of the students when preparing for a search and during a search, by which the research team succeeded in achieving part of the purpose of this study to describe the searching behavior of the students. For instance, the research team realized that the students prepared for a search by following experience of the past or other participants. Some students considered that a previously successful search should guide them to another success in a new search, whereas most students assumed that efficient searching would be supported by following the suggestions or hints on where to start searching given by the teacher, the librarian or their classmates. For the search processes, the research team observed that all students performed focused searching and advanced through searches swiftly and flexibly. In addition, they used landmarks and assumed that one could always start a new search and ask for help. Likewise, the team accomplished suggesting changes in the design of the web so as to improve the learning experience of students. The changes included providing knowledge tools such as encyclopedias, lexicographic aids, synonym finders and thesauruses, landmark shelves and spell-checker programs. Also, the design of the web should be able to filter non-useful information and enable users to access sites using partial or incomplete URLs. Furthermore, the research team suggested that graphical clues should be used to identify type of information provided by web sites. Finally, the team recommended that the first screen should include as much pertinent information about the site as possible.
Nonetheless, there is one shortcoming that the research team did not categorize the difficulties or problems that the students encountered while performing a search. Basically, the team did mention about the difficulties for particular students in the section that described the searching behavior of the students. However, the team did not create a classification of those difficulties that specifically led to the main recommendations in the discussion section, which in turn failed in looking for common difficulties and paying attentions to different difficulties encountered by different students. According to Babbie (1998, p.297), by having done an organized list of the variety of types of the difficulties encountered by the students, one can then more easily discover the characteristics of the students, the web environment or the like associated with those different types of difficulties. Consequently, the recommendations for resolving those difficulties would be more persuasive to the audience. For example, some students do not perform searching as efficiently as others do because they are unable to identify appropriate search engines and it is found that expert surfers are good at identifying search engines. Then, it is convincing that the students who do not perform searching well need training for surfing the web in order to help them search productively.
Fidel, Raya, Davies, Rachel K., Douglass, Mary H., Holder, Jenny K., Hopkins, Carla J.,
Kushner, Elisabeth J., Miyagishima, Bryan K., & Toney, Christina D. (1999).
A visit to the information mall: web searching behavior of high school students. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(1), 24-37.