Search engines like Google nowadays provide the key access point to information online. Users can quickly gain an overview of a topic by simply entering a few search terms. Yet, as may be suspected, there are differences in how users succeed at this task. This has recently been demonstrated by researchers from the German Institute for International Educational Research (Deutsches Institut für Internationale Pädagogische Forschung – DIPF) and the Goethe University Frankfurt in a study with 15-year-old students. When asked to select the most useful links from a list of search results, the adolescents should have mastered a traditional cultural technique in its various facets: reading.
A total number of 416 adolescents from 75 German schools participated in an add-on study, which was run in 2012 in the context of the “Programme for International Student Assessment” (PISA). The findings, which have been published in the journal “Computers in Human Behavior”, systematically reveal that 15-year-old students are generally more capable of checking search engine results for their relevance and credibility if they possess good reading skills. Moreover, proficient readers are more likely to also look up subsequent results or connected pages. This, in turn, is additionally useful for the evaluation of the search engine results. There is also evidence that different components of reading competence are at play when selecting search engine results. Recognition of individual words is important at the word level while meaningful semantic integration of words is important at the sentence level, and finally the comprehension of entire paragraphs happens at the text level.
Several inferences can be drawn from this: “Students with low reading skills apparently run the risk of being left behind in the digital world, too“, says Dr. Carolin Hahnel from DIPF, lead author of the study report. The educational researcher adds that “even given that search engines facilitate a lot, reading remains an essential skill.“ At the same time, reading online is evidently different from other types of reading. Word recognition and semantic integration are already fundamental to text comprehension when reading a book. They play an even more important role when it comes to evaluating search engine results. Regardless of the need to explore the exact relations more thoroughly, the study indicates that reading skills support different evaluation strategies, i.e. superficial, heuristic scanning of records for specific details as well as close, systematic processing of all records. Presumably, the word and sentence level come into effect in the case of superficial scanning while the text level is more relevant for a more thorough inspection of links.
The team of researchers used a simulated search engine environment for the study: test-takers were asked to evaluate links on preconfigured search engine result pages. For instance, queries focused on the preparation of a school talk on migraine or on finding out how to change a bicycle chain. The researchers had previously assessed the test-takers‘ individual reading competencies by applying standardised diagnostic instruments. Relevance and credibility of the search engine results had also been established earlier. The 15-year-olds were asked to select the most appropriate web page. For the talk on migraine, for example, this was a link to information from the German Migraine and Headache Society. The researchers finally applied generalised linear mixed models to establish the connection between reading skills and link selection. This statistical method for the analysis of not normally distributed data also allows for a consideration of random effects – for example regarding variations in the adolescents’ internet affinity.
There are some limits to the interpretation of the findings: a simulated test environment can only represent a small part of the real web environment. Moreover, other skills and knowledge are relevant to selecting search engine results, e.g. memory and prior knowledge. Also, additional investigations into the effect mechanisms of individual reading skill components are necessary. “Still”, Hahnel points out, “teaching children to read makes a good starting point to preparing them for the digital world.”
The article on the study written by Dr. Carolin Hahnel in collaboration with her DIPF colleagues Professor Dr. Frank Goldhammer and Dr. Ulf Kröhne as well as Professor Dr. Johannes Naumann from the Goethe University Frankfurt has already been published as an online-first version:
Hahnel, C., Goldhammer, F., Kröhne, U., & Naumann, J. (2018). The role of reading skills for the evaluation of online information. Computers in Human Behavior, 78, 223–234. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.10.004
Study: Dr. Carolin Hahnel, DIPF, 49 (0)69 24708-727, email@example.com
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The German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) based in Frankfurt am Main and in Berlin delivers empirical educational research, digital infrastructure and targeted knowledge transfer, thus contributing to coping with challenges in education. Knowledge for education is processed and documented by the Leibniz Institute to support science, politics and practice in education – to the benefit of society.
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