research

10 ways to get better Google search results

Google is no stranger to us, right? You may even think Google is a bit too familiar

Google is probably a big part of your life, one way or another. But when it comes to that single box on the home page, waiting for your keyword input, what do you type in? A recent US study suggested that many Google searches don’t dig deep enough.

“Throughout the interviews, students mentioned Google 115 times — more than twice as many times as any other database. The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources.”

Rather than type a word or two in the search box and hope for the best, there’s a whole host of ways you can make Google find you far better results to suit exactly what you’re looking for. Here are 10 simple ideas to get Google working even harder for you:

1. Go beyond the first page of results

When Google returns about a billion results, you’re not even skimming the surface if you stay on Page One. Dig deeper. You may be surprised at what you find. Used with the tips below, it works especially well, because you’ll be getting more targeted results. What used to return a billion hits may now produce a million. Or a thousand. Or a hundred.
But even if you get a hundred results back, that’s still ten pages of Google goodness going on. If you ignore Page Two and beyond, who’s to say you weren’t amazingly close to finding exactly what you wanted?

2. Find similar words with a tilde (~)

With a WHAT!? The tilde looks like this:

~

Yes, a tilde looks a bit like a curly moustache.
But wait, its powers don’t stop at imitating facial hair. A tilde also tells Google to put a thesaurus to your word. For instance, if you search for “study tips”, you get one set of results. But search for “study ~tips” and you get results for study tips, study skills, study techniques, study guides, and so on.

3. “Use quotes”

When you’re looking for an exact set of words together, put them inside quotes so Google searches for the phrase in its entirety rather than as separate words. You can still add other words outside quotes.

4. Use ‘OR’ in your search

With a few interchangeable words in mind, the ‘OR’ operator lets you search for one or more of the words you choose. Sometimes you want to search a core topic, but with several separate sub-topics. By using OR between each of the sub-topics, you don’t need to bother with multiple searches. [Make sure OR is in capital letters, otherwise Google considers it as the word ‘or’.]

5. Use Google Scholar, Books, and News

Google offers other services that give entirely different results, which can be especially useful when you do academic research.
Google Scholar searches for scholarly papers. You can search within a timeframe, limiting the search to just the recent academic papers if you wish.
Google Books looks at content inside, you guessed it, books. When you need a juicy quote or want to read more about a technical detail, this type of search is great. You can also study a book before you even have the physical copy in your hands.
Google News looks at current events, making it great for relevant links about what’s happening right now in your area of interest. You can even set up email alerts every time new articles are published.

6. Search over a particular time

On the left hand side of your search, click on the text that says ‘More search tools‘. New options will appear to let you search the past year, the past month, the past day, even the past hour. You can also search a specific date range if you like.

7. Filter more

Also on the left hand side of your search, you can select various filtering options on your results. One good (though not perfect) option is to search by reading level (basic, intermediate, expert). You can also look at a search timeline, which can be hit and miss, but arranged differently to the standard search results.

8. allintitle:

Want to search for words that are so important they have to be in the page title? Just add ‘allintitle:’ before your search.

9. intitle:

If you want to search for a specific word in the title, but also drill down further with words that’ll only show up elsewhere on the page, add ‘intitle:’ before the word you require in the title of the page. Type the other words as usual. Google will do the rest of the magic.

10. filetype:

What if you only want to search for Word documents or Adobe Acrobat files? No problem. For Word files, add your search terms and include ‘filetype:doc OR filetype:docx’. For Acrobat files, add your search terms and include ‘filetype:pdf’.

These search tips are quick and easy, especially after you’ve used them a couple of times. But Google search goes further than that. If these examples have got you hooked, check out Google Guide for a complete overview of everything available at your fingertips.

Happy searching!

Is big change in higher education possible?

With votes of no confidence flying around and private ventures getting serious amounts of flack, the world of academia has been pretty animated this week.

You know it’s serious when The Guardian decides to run a live-blog of events

photo by micn2sugars

photo by micn2sugars

But rather than weigh into a debate that’s being flogged to death, I want to ask one big question:

  • Can HE actually achieve truly different models of teaching and learning to the models already in action?

Essentially, how can anyone create a bold, innovative plan to take higher education forward in new ways unless economic constraints are lifted?

I ask this because money has become such a focus in recent years that it’s currently impossible to remove the link between HE and funding. Everything requires money, so where will it come from?

Increasingly, the answer seems to be ‘from the student’, although the truth goes much deeper and is much more complicated.

Indeed, the truth isn’t possible to tell right now. Making sense of it all will probably still be tough even when the long awaited government White Paper on the future of HE is published.

Whatever happens, new models of teaching and learning will likely be hard to find with much HE funding moving in the direction of the student.

Subject to so much criticism this week, New College for the Humanities (NCH) is not particularly different to other models already on offer. However, the price tag and celebrity catch has made it easy fodder for debating.

We are facing up to at least one aspect of the future. NCH’s yearly tuition fee of £18k is going to upset many, no matter what is on offer and how it presents itself.

Despite the controversy, however, this is just the beginning of a long for-profit march. London Met’s Malcolm Gillies says that a “fundamentally different economy [is] emerging in higher education”.

Even so, take away the question of private ventures and the university system is still set for a ride into the unknown. Can the current state of affairs in HE be used in alternative ways that continue to allow freedom of enquiry as well as a platform for students to achieve the many things they want, including (but certainly not limited to) future career prospects?

The more I consider this, the more I feel something will eventually give. My hope is that the necessary change will prove positive in the main.

And it is necessary change. On one hand, the government (among others) is pushing for change. On the other hand, critics are pushing for change in other directions.

The one thing few seem to be wishing for is that everything stays precisely the same as it currently is. And yet the HE community get constantly ribbed for resisting any type of change!

Perhaps too many things will change at once. When you alter too much at the same time:

  1. You can’t distinguish between successful moves and failures;
  2. Risks are much greater in the mid to long term, if not also the short term;
  3. Nobody is sure what direction they are facing, should be facing, or even want to be facing;
  4. The subsequent confusion can lead to much flailing about and little to show for it.

The marketisation of HE takes us into new territory, but one which doesn’t look like it can easily support genuine innovation in terms of delivery and concept. Perhaps perversely, for-profit players may be best placed to find different successes by fluke, but it’s still a long shot and will continue to be strewn with controversy. The only accurate thing to say at this point is that it’s anyone’s game.

Not that it is a game, or feels like one, of course!

With students touted as being at the heart of HE, does their growing role as ‘consumer’ bring hope or horror to the sector?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask, as I’m sure you’ve long worked out.

My next post will look at the dangers of relying too much on a ‘student as consumer’ focus.

Get to grips with academic writing

Does essay writing trip you up? Do you struggle to know how you’re meant to write? Are you annoyed by gaps in your understanding?

The Guardian says that the change from A-levels to a university degree is too much for many students. Essay requirements are overwhelming.

photo by katiew
photo by katiew

Echoing many people I’ve spoken to in the past, Daphne Elliston told the Guardian:

“…putting my own words into academic language was hard. And it was difficult to believe I was entitled to my own opinion or to disagree with all these academics who’d done years of research.”

You don’t have to write insanely academic language. Rather, you’re meant to create an argument. Your job is to research, assess and reach your own conclusions.

But how? Where do you start? Here are some considerations for tackling essays:

  • Write in whatever order you like – It’s not a linear process. Kate Brooks at UWE says the process is more cyclical: “do some research, draft a bit, read some more, think, consider what you’ve written, redraft.”
    You can write before you research, you can build a conclusion before an introduction, and you can make random points as you go along and reorder those points at a later stage. Your writing route is flexible. Nobody needs to know how you put it together. The end result is all they’ll look at. And all they care about!
  • Consider your opinion throughout – From start to finish, be aware of what you think. Take the essay question the moment you’re given the assignment and ask yourself how you would answer it. Write a paragraph straight away, before you do any further reading. After some research, has your opinion changed? When you’ve finished writing, has your opinion changed? Keep asking yourself what *your* opinion is.
  • Feel free to stop reading – Academic research can go on and on. And on. As an undergraduate, you don’t need to obsess forever. With a load of ideas and a grip of core texts on reading lists, there’s no need to relentlessly search for every last scrap of data and every opinion ever made. That’s impossible. And you’re not expected to mention all this stuff anyway. There’s no science in knowing when to stop. However, if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed with information and don’t have any of your own writing to show for it, you can probably stop reading…
  • Select the best examples – With all this research done and a trillion ways to say the same thing, pick the clearest, most relevant references to make your point. Leave the others to your references only. The simple act of referencing shows you are aware of it.
  • Don’t feel offended – Some departments introduced compulsory modules on writing at degree level. However, some students found this offensive, according to the Guardian piece.
    After completing A-levels and getting good grades, it may feel strange to start all over again. While some students sense an overwhelm from the beginning, others think the process is just a continuation. By stubbornly refusing to discover more about the academic writing process, some students will miss out.
    Be open to learning. Even if you were entirely comfortable all along, give yourself a pat on the back for being so awesome. Not many people reach that level of awesome so quickly. 🙂
  • Discuss the writing as you go along – If possible, grab some time with your tutor (either virtually or physically) to discuss your draft essay. It shouldn’t take long to find out where you’re headed. There’s no need to be specific. Your job is to make sure you’re on the right track before you commit more time.
  • Work in small bursts, over a long period of time – The difference between a First and a fail may come about solely because of the way you use your time. There has long been a tendency to leave essays until a day or two before they are due in. A risky move.
    By waiting until the deadline, you have no option but to write in a linear fashion. Research also goes out of the window. We’ve not even got on to the amount of stress you’ll feel with nothing written and only a short space of time left. This is one of the most common methods of writing essays, but also one of the craziest. Do you really want to take that risk?
  • Think critically – As Daphne Elliston says, it’s hard to accept you have any right to an opinion worth anything compared to acclaimed academics and prolific authors. But you do. On top of that, you are able to disagree with what these published writers have said. So long as you back up the argument with reason and other references, you can argue however you like. I find that one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process. 😉
  • Use your own voice – YOU are the author of this essay, not someone else. An overactive vocabulary is pointless. Sounding clever and being clever are two different things. Simple language can be just as powerful when you have a solid argument.
  • List the points you want to make – Plan as simply as you can. Get some bullet points down with 4, 40 or 400 things you want to discuss in the essay. The number doesn’t matter; it’s the active consideration that’s crucial. This basic plan will get you thinking right away and will even help shape how you research. The search for references and quotations is much easier when you have an idea of what you’re looking for.

If you want to explore the academic and essay writing process even further, here are some other things you can do:

Your writing will improve as you go along. When you encounter a problem, make an active effort to overcome it. Gaps in your understanding are not weaknesses, they are merely challenges. We all face these challenges every day. Even academics with years of research have to overcome gaps in understanding. That’s why they are academics. If those gaps didn’t exist, there would be nothing left to learn!

10 things to check when reading for research purposes

Just because it’s published, doesn’t mean it’s true.

photo by eye.contact

photo by eye.contact

When you’re researching, think about the following ten things before you accept what you’re reading:

  1. Who wrote the piece – What’s their perspective, intention, bias, belief, and so on?
  2. When it was written – Is the information relevant and accurate to today?
  3. The methodology – Is it clear and does it cover enough ground to be accurate, consistent & useful?
  4. Any obvious bias – Is it written in a searching way, or is it trying to persuade you it’s correct?
  5. References & sources used – Have they covered enough ground and are the sources trustworthy and worthy of use?
  6. Missing links & blind spots – If something is missing, has it been left out deliberately, or is it merely an oversight?
  7. Lack of references, generalisation and stating points as if they are facts (but are not) – Are you reading an opinion piece or an academic study?
  8. Your own understanding & opinion – You should never believe what you read just because it’s in a journal or written by a respected academic. What perspective do you have on the issues under discussion? And have you seen other pieces arguing in a different direction?
  9. Other works by the same author(s) – What other relevant output could expand upon this? Do they have anything more recent and/or fitting to what you’re researching?
  10. Reception within the academic community – In some cases, especially for older academic papers, a healthy number of citations probably means you’ve got a respected paper or a highly criticised paper. A quick check on sites like Google Scholar should give a taste of how many times the paper has been cited.  You’re also given the titles of those papers, which is handy for finding more relevant reading material. Result!

What do you like to check for when you’re researching?