Students Can Search, But Can They Research?

“Students know how to search, but they don’t know how to research.”

That’s a phrase that came out of my mouth long ago, though I am not sure if I heard it somewhere or made it up. My career has spanned roles working as a grades 6-12 school librarian, “moonlighting” as an adjunct instructor for a required undergraduate course on research at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Feinberg Library, and then teaching as an adjunct professor for pre-service school librarians. Throughout this work, student research has been my mission and curriculum and an eventual aphorism, encouraging student librarians to teach the research process enthusiastically to their PK-12 students with skill and a sense of fun.

Two years ago, on a panel at the New York Library Association Conference with then-New York State Commissioner of Education John B. King, Jr., I repeated those words about student searching. Dr. King stopped, wrote it down and said, “May I use that?” This was the same John King, Jr. who served as U.S. Secretary of Education for President Obama. Even now, I don’t care if he remembers who said it; I just want him to remember that searching and researching relate to school librarians and their crucial instruction in digital literacy. Part of what makes this instruction so vital for fellow educators to understand is that the research process is transferable, a skill set that teachers should depend on their students’ having throughout their school journeys.

Teaching this skill set gets school librarians overacting a bit. Students are puzzled when we get so excited, so animated about teaching them how to use and manage information. We want them to love the hunt, and it’s such fun teaching them how to be sleuths! In that spirit of fun and guidance, I offer to you stories and strategies in teaching students to research, collected through the years. And yes, you “may use that”—all of it!

Narrowing the Subject: What about It?

In all my years of teaching, there were only about ten times when I had to tell a student, “Your topic is too narrow, think more broadly to find good supporting information.” Usually it is the reverse, as students start searching with BIG topics that return over a million Web results. I taught students that it was OK to be a bit sarcastic as they narrow their subject to a topic, and then to their focus. I suggested they mentally conjure a reader asking, “so, what about it?” This approach came from the original 1998 Power Tools by Joyce Valenza, which dovetailed well with the “discipline-subject-topic-focus” approach I used with my undergraduate research class. Valenza’s collection of tools/forms was so logical and useful that one of my English teachers signed out for her maternity leave and came back with a new son and an outline to launch a senior capstone project.

 Ask a student—a middle school student, a high school student or a college student—to think of their search process as a funnel and you find yourself explaining what a funnel is. Some of them make the connection to a kitchen tool or a mechanic’s tool but most just nod and take your word for it that such a thing exists. Here’s a better approach: Take them through the process by starting with a discipline like science, a subject like biology, a topic like genetics and then a focus like the ethics of cloning or genetically modified foods. “What about it?” takes students from a topic to a researchable focus. If they ask that question about three times, they are usually at a focus stage. At this point, it’s time for some pre-research before writing a thesis or answering their inquiry questions.

The Funnel down Game

Sounds like a dry lesson, doesn’t it? Why not make it a game? Picture hopscotch, converting that game field to a funnel with a class of sixth graders doing their first research project on earth science topics. Get student volunteers to start at “discipline,” moving forward as they can identify their next step as they “funnel down.” Their “game pieces” are on graphic organizers where they record their answers as they go. They also get to select which resources to use to start their searching, choosing from an online catalog for books, online encyclopedias, or a list of our databases preselected with the teacher. Tie “discipline-subject-topic-focus” to the Dewey Decimal System or genres depending on how your library is arranged.

After a few years of doing this in middle school, high school students just need to be reminded of their sixth grade game with a quick review of the funneling process and the “what about it?” question. They can complete that part of the search process in minutes with a graphic organizer with spaces to designate which general and subject-specific databases would be their starting point.  What about college students’ research? As a course project launch, we played a verbal form of the middle school game with the same graphic organizer as the high school version.

Source Evaluation in Action

To move students from searching to researching, they need to be taught a process that will stay with them even if they try to forget it. For sixth graders, undergrads, and those in between, I teach evaluation models like CARRDSS, CRAAP, and the Eyebrow test.

Joyce Valenza and the chair of the English department at Springfield (PA) Township High School developed the “CARRDSS” evaluation protocol (Credibility, Accuracy, Reliability, Relevance, Date, Sources behind the text, Scope), described in Power Tools Recharged (ALA 2004). In my experience, it helped students at the middle and high school as well as college levels be much more thoughtful about the sources they used from the Internet. Then along came the “CRAAP test” with that easy-to-remember acronym that sounds like it would make the average fifth grader (known for bathroom humor) giggle. CRAAP asks students to evaluate the Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose of information.

Indeed, fifth graders remember it, but it was actually developed for college students by the librarians at Meriam Library, California State University, Chico.

And the Eyebrow Test? I made that up on the spot in front of a class of eighth graders while getting ready to introduce CARRDSS to them, long before I knew about the CRAAP test. They were getting itchy, thinking they knew all about how to evaluate a website. This was their third year of doing research with me as their librarian, after all. A teachable moment began as they wiggled and tuned out.

So I spouted a series of questions. How many of you know how to roll your tongue? Are your ear lobes attached? How many of you can raise one eyebrow? Did you know these are genetic traits? Now they were paying attention, trying to do each thing I suggested and having fun.

Why eyebrows? As I told the students,

… once upon a time, I worked with a terrific social studies teacher who had a VERY high hairline (gesturing to the top of my head). And he was GREAT at raising one eyebrow. But, you had to watch out when he did! He was either about to pull a practical joke—which he did often—OR he was skeptical about something. What does “skeptical” mean? When people raise their eyebrows, doesn’t it look like a tilde (~)? It does to me!

I continued,

I want YOU to be skeptical when you are finding the best sources for anything from which sneakers to buy to what database article or website has the best information for your project. I want you all to be skeptical users of information. Once you narrow your topic from a broad subject to a researchable and interesting topic and then to a focus, you can make good predictions (using graphic organizers, of course) about what kind of sources you need to develop and support your argument.  Think through that list of descriptors you wrote yesterday (you have your finished graphic organizer for that), then you start to research, not search.

 Then I modeled a search.

Let’s try some of your terms. Wow! Look at that hundreds of thousands of results! Ever try advanced searching? I think that’s just what you need. Down to a couple of hundred? Time to get skeptical! First look at that URL—what does it tell you? Dot com? Dot gov?  Dot org? Does that matter to your topic or does that make you raise your eyebrow in skepticism?

Finally, I introduced a worksheet to guide their processes.

Now that you have some results from your researching, it’s time to use the Eyebrow Test and worksheet. We will examine every website you think will work for the Author, URL, Date, Sources, Bias and Relevance. We will work though an example together and then you need to write down what you find for your source the first few times until it’s an automatic response in your head for any site you visit. It doesn’t take very long.

After a few years of working with the Eyebrow Test in my school, it was not unusual to see a high school class searching in the library and notice students smirk and raise their eyebrow as they looked at their search results as they had learned in middle school. If they noticed me, I often got a “Mrs. Johns, this one definitely calls for an eyebrow lift!”

Oftentimes, I taught middle school students during the school day and undergrads in the evening.  It was just as fun to watch twenty-four college students roll their tongues, check their earlobes, and try to lift one eyebrow as it was to watch sixth graders do it. Some of the college kids rolled their eyes, too, but they usually laughed and admitted that being careful meant that they had more meaningful and helpful results for their research.

Brandy Miller teaches seventh and twelfth graders at Notre Dame Junior/Senior High School in Utica, New York.  As one of my Syracuse iSchool “Literacy through School Libraries” graduate students, she wrote this for an assignment on digital literacy:

… a critical aspect of acquiring digital literacy is learning the characteristics of a credible resource. Without that basic knowledge, students will struggle to fully attain this form of literacy. I like this method [CRAAP] because kids love it. It’s fun, easy, and informal. Few students will remember every little detail they simply read off a how-to sheet of guidelines. However, what 12-year old won’t remember CRAAP? As I like to say, “Use CRAAP so your sources don’t stink!” The acronym makes a challenging concept very approachable and is clearly designed for the audience. I intend to use this method with my seventh graders this year as they begin their research unit. I know that the acronym will help them commit the practice to long-term memory.

Teach a systematic research process that students can use over and over for all research. Applying the CARRDS, CRAAP, Eyebrow Test, or another information literacy evaluation model will make a difference for all students at all levels. With today’s overload of information and onslaught of “fake news,” it’s a literacy all students need.


Works Cited

 Evaluating Information – Applying the CRAAP Test. Meriam Library, University of California, Chico. (accessed January 14, 2017).

Valenza, Joyce Kasman. Power Tools: 100+ Essential Forms and Presentations for Your School Library Information Program. ALA, 1998.

Valenza, Joyce Kasman. Power Tools Recharged: 125+ Essential Forms and Presentations for Your School Library Information Program. ALA, 2004: 4-13.


About the Author

Sara Kelly Johns. a longtime school librarian, has taught as an adjunct for the Feinberg Library, SUNY Plattsburgh (where she was awarded the Adjunct Excellence in Teaching Award) and as an online instructor for Syracuse University’s iSchool and Mansfield University’s School Library and Instructional Technologies. She is Past President of AASL and the New York Library Association (from which she received the NYLA Lifetime Achievement Award). She is the author of a chapter, “Flipping the Switch for School Library Advocacy” in Creative Library Marketing and Publicity (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). Her e-mail is

MLA Citation Johns, Sara Kelly. "Students Can Search, But Can They Research?" School Library Connection, February 2017,

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Entry ID: 2061182

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