In yesterday’s The New York Times an editorial asked if search engines, and Google in particular, are making students stupider because they acquiesce critical thinking for clicking on search return links and then copying the information they find without providing any sort of analysis:

In December, the National Center for Education Statistics published a report on adult literacy revealing that the number of college graduates able to interpret complex texts proficiently had dropped since 1992 from 40 percent to 31 percent.

I certainly agree high school and college students have no idea how to employ effective Online Research Methods that will result in a properly cited and “thought about” term paper.

When one creates an argument for a term paper, one must not start with the returns of a search result. One starts with a larger question in search of an answer.

Then that answer must be attacked in a methodical cycle of consequences that will shape and form an argument.

Oftentimes a student will realize, but not act upon, the discovery that the verifiable facts do not support a substantial paper and that process must be terminated and another started in its place.

That re-starting and that self-rejection of a bad idea is missing from the lives of most students today as most research term papers are written the night before the paper is due. Deleting a bad idea and starting from scratch is an important lesson not only in a term paper but as a fact in the terms of living an intelligent life.

Knowing when things are not going well and another plan must be set in place is a critical analysis most students are never taught because it is easier, in the Age of Grade Inflation, to instead push them along through the system and to not prod their minds for an original or contemplative thought.

If students were taught better critical thinking skills they would not tolerate their pressed herding through the system but since the system does not teach them that skill they never learn how to manipulate their own equal thoughts into an overall unequal advantage.

Unbridled and non-critical search returns fool students into accepting — not thinking — that what they click on is real and truthful and of scholarly merit while those of us who know better understand there’s a lot of chaff returned in any search return.

Google led in ranking sites by how often they are linked to other highly ranked sites. It did so using an elaborate variation of a concept familiar in natural science, citation analysis. Instead of looking at which papers are cited most often in the most influential journals, it measures how often Web pages are linked to highly ranked
sites — ranked by links to themselves.

The problem with the way Google returns results is by popularity of the site and not by the intellectual merit contained in the site and most students miss the inherent danger in that problem: Popularity trumps rational intelligence on Google.

That’s fine as long as you know and accept that dangerous possibility of falsity in the search returns as a truth in the process of crafting the argument for your idea. Too often students believe Google is the King without clothes and instead of sewing up the holes around him, they turn a shy eye and accept the ether as a cover for reality.

Citation analysis has been attacked in library circles for inflating the ratings (and indirectly the subscription prices) of certain journals. Search engines have the opposite problem: dispersion rather than concentration of interest. Despite constant tweaking, their formulas display irrelevant or mediocre sites on a par with truly
expert ones.

“Citation analysis” concerns how many hardcopy journal articles are cited by a hardcopy journal article. That process can be incestuous with self-quoting and self-service in scholarship where, say, out of 11 citations an author invokes, 10 cite other self-reverential articles the author wrote — but generally hardcopy journal citations have been thought about and discussed and peer-reviewed for content and veracity
of thought.

That critical thinking process is vital in curing the idea over time of what we know to be truthful and — what we know as a cadre of intellectuals — what can never be factual. That kind of self-critical community of thought is how our American university system is set to bend ideas and to test varieties of truth and understanding in shaping
the scientific and theoretical world around us.

When we rely on a search engine for peer review we are slipping down a sloppy slope of click fraud and link farms intended to skew search returns in order to earn a higher advertising fee. When intelligence is framed by revenue, the small, original, nuggets of truth we have come to love and cherish in the collegiate community crumbles before us like ash from a camp fire.

In 2002, graduate students at Tel Aviv University were asked to find on the Web, with no time limit, a picture of the Mona Lisa; the complete text of either “Robinson Crusoe” or “David Copperfield”; and a recipe for apple pie accompanied by a photograph. Only 15 percent succeeded at all three assignments.

Google can now help find those returns but Google’s improvement sheds no light of help on the continued loss of critical thinking in the student researcher’s mind. That failure to curiously and intellectually thrive in Online Research Methods proves a hollow point how term papers handed to professors for grading solely based on non-critical link returns must be returned to the student marked “unoriginal in argument” and “lacking in critical analysis” and “empty in the creation of new thoughts and ideas” for
discussion.

We fix that problem by teaching our students to have sound training in all forms of Online Research Methods and the first step in the noble effort is to require them to always question what they read and to never believe what they think they know unless and until they can back up that belief with at least three verifiable scholarly sources beyond the immediate self.

We help them get there by diving deeply into the wounds and riddles of established scholarship and sometimes that means trading a clean copied search return for reading a messy and confounding full article to find real meaning in how words are actually put together to form a shared healing of human thought and refusing to accept an amputated idea of what Google thinks we hope to know.

28 Comments

  1. For an example of how link popularity can be manipulated, use Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” feature to search for “French military victories.”
    It returns the following “Did you mean: french military defeats.”
    The page that is displayed looks like a Google page, but isn’t. It’s just the most popular page as determined by Google’s ranking system.
    Just because something is in the top 10 on a search engine return doesn’t mean it is necessarily correct.

  2. I have to go with “stupider” David. I see students in high school who haven’t even read the assigned books. They buy the books and carry them to look good but the bindings are never broken. They go online and search for summaries and then “write” about that in their papers.

  3. Hi Anne —
    Yes! Those “student skimmers” have no original thought when it comes to discussing the book. I always require discussion and pop quizzes for the books I teach and I always use a secondary, less-well-known text to use in comparison for any assigned papers to ensure a research writing assignment can’t be bought or copies from the web.

  4. I read about that TurnItIn.com turmoil. The service is outstanding. The problem is the students are getting caught and they, and their parents, are looking for someone to blame other than their own earned misfortunate. The copying of thoughts and ideas can’t be the child’s problem so it must be the entity that catches them doing the dirty deed: TurnItIn.com!

  5. David your method of discussions and pop quizzes for the books you teach is a great solution to the problem.
    I guess some students don’t realize that as easy as it is to find the answers online or get their work completely online, that the teachers can find the same information online just as easily and catch them. TurnItIn.com sounds like a good idea.
    The fact people are seeking blame elsewhere than themselves is no surprise. Nowadays no-one is responsible for their own actions it seems.

  6. Hi Mik —
    It took me awhile to realize comparing well-known pieces guaranteed students would cheat or buy their papers online. I actively challenged that notion to create a set of questions or research problems that were unique and off-the-wall to trap them into actually doing the thinking. Most of the students were not thrilled with me!
    😀
    I tell my students, “If you can find it on Google, I can find it on Google, and I will.”
    That still doesn’t stop the majority of them, though.
    I agree TurnItIn.com is a keeper!

  7. One of the things I discovered at University was the periodicals wing in the library. By using a computerised index, I could find articles on most subjects I had to write about. Not only did I get kudos for having quoted periodicals, I found the most interesting stuff hidden away in a rack on a shelf. The regular books in the library and Internet research (this was 93-97) was OK, but periodicals often had a different take on the matter.
    Most periodicals I used are available online now, but Google doesn’t index them well. If students could come up with good keywords to search, and discern among “academic” sources, it would be fine. Sadly information overload is hitting the current generation of students who are too keen on copy-paste.
    I’d love to spend afternoons flicking through film review magazines, art exhibition periodicals, and philosophy reviews. Half of the time I read articles that weren’t linked to the subject at all, but sometimes I found nuggets.
    A big library desk with papers, magazines and books over it is way more satisfying than a laptop with a TCP/IP link to the world.
    -Fruey

  8. Hi freuy!
    I’m with you on “having your own library” and stacks of books and magazines everywhere. Sure, getting online access through EBSCO Host and other scholarly databases is fine — if you read the full text article.
    Many students don’t do that. Sometimes they read the summary but most times they just copy the link for citation purposes and then copy and paste a quote into their paper. The work is sloppy and uninspired.

  9. Hi Katha —
    Nice to see you here!
    Your link doesn’t work unless you have access to Ebsco Host so thanks for publishing the details of where to find the article.
    I love hotlinks — if they’re formatted correctly – and if you can figure out how to link your URLs to words or phrases in your articles instead of just posting a raw link then we’re once again golden together.
    I tried to explain the process to you without success so maybe someone else here smarter than me can help you!
    SOS!
    😀

  10. I told you….I have a god gifted capacity to goof up when I am with hot links! 😀
    There was an investigation on the effectiveness and efficiency of Google search engine for detecting word for word plagiarism in master’s thesis. 200 electronic masters thesis were examined. Undocumented phrases from each thesis were searched against the World Wide Web using the Google search engine. Exact phrases from each thesis were searched for 10 minutes. Exact matches or potential occurrences of plagiarism were found in 27.4% cases. The average time for finding a match was 3.8 seconds. This article speaks in details about how this search engine can be used to detect plagiarism in master’s thesis.
    It was the data that made be remember this article.

  11. Wow, Katha! What a great article!
    It should send a chill down any student’s spine!
    Finding plagiarists is easier than plagiarizing in the first place but few students realize that cold fact until they get caught and have to pay with their reputation for their intellectual laziness.

  12. My point is – if a Master’s thesis is plagiarized, how can we expect the high school students or the undergrads to maintain a high performance?
    What is the reason behind it?

  13. I take your point, Katha!
    If we force the high school students to not plagiarize then we hope they won’t do it as Masters students. Right now they don’t get caught early on enough or get punished hard enough they just keep on cheating and copying all the way up the pipe.
    You can imagine what sort of person they become in real life when they enter the real world.

  14. There was another article I read recently in U. S News and World Report, March 3, 2006 (the link won’t work as it is in EBSCO host) where the writer says American education is taking a back seat to other countries, particularly in science and math. The author states that if the U.S. does not keep up with foreign competition then there will be a decline in American prosperity.
    The reason, according to the writer is complacency. I don’t know how true it is…….but all I know, there is no short cut for working hard…..

  15. Hey Katha —
    It’s true. Americans are getting dumber while the rest of the world is getting smarter. Part of that is due to the homeschooling movement where non-standardized institutional learning and share intellectual discipline is lost. Some of it is due to Grade Inflation. Some of it is due to the lazy lives we lead as a nation of prosperity — it’s difficult to self-motivate when much of the struggle of living is taken for granted.

  16. That’s exactly what the article says. It won’t happen in near future but its impending there. It is very interesting article David – I wish I could provide the link for everybody!
    As far as my knowledge goes the ‘’No child left behind’’ movement happened to hamper the natural growth of education. Realistically when I see an eighth grader using calculator here for doing his math – I envy him. Back home, we are not supposed to use calculator before grade eleven, and that makes us cram all the tables from 1 – 20, because we have to pass our test which is of 100 points in exactly two and half hours – that sometimes gave me sleepless nights – I crammed all the tables – but I didn’t like it.

  17. Hi Katha —
    Yes, the calculator has ruined our math skills and Google has ruined our reading skills and Instant Messaging has ruined our writing skills!
    When I was younger we were not allowed to use calculators, either. It was around the 11th grade too where they were allowed in class but only in a limited manner.
    Boy have times changed!

  18. Its still the same back home as far as calculator goes. I didn’t like it when I had to cram, but now I understand it sharpened my math skill – no doubt about it. It was kind of ”do or die” type situation – if you want to get good grade in math you have to have some sleepless nights.
    And I agree with you about the rest – IM and Google has destroyed us.