Learning to do Internet research properly

Nathan Ducker, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University


Quick guide

  • Key words: Search, parameters, decision criteria
  • Learner English level: Any 
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: 0
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Computers, white board/chalk board, board markers or chalk, note taking paper


University courses often include a research project, or require students to use the Internet to find information for essays, presentations, or other purposes. Many students waste huge amounts of time surfing the Internet as they do not first organize a research plan with specific questions to help guide their search for concrete answers. This activity is designed to help students develop good research behaviors.

Note: It is better that students use English as the language of the search, but another language will not affect the outcome of learning to use the Internet. Have all computers switched on at the start of class to save time.



Step 1:  Pose students a comparative question to research. I use: Which city is better to live in: New York or Sydney? 

Step 2:  Allow students 20 minutes to work in pairs to find relevant information online.

Step 3:  Divide the whiteboard into two columns (N.Y. and Sydney respectively) and have students write their information in the appropriate column on the board.

Step 4:  Review the information with the class, with the following parameters:

Eliminate false facts: New York is in the U.S. West.

Eliminate opinions: I think the restaurants are better in Sydney. – Whose opinions are valid?

Eliminate ideas that lack valid evidence: The people are friendly. – What is the proof? 

Eliminate non-relevant ideas: The Sydney Opera house is beautiful – Is this a sensible criterion to base important decisions on?

Step 5:  Just to emphasize the amount of time that can be wasted on the Internet, count the remaining ideas (probably less than 10). Then do the calculation: (number of students X number of minutes searching the Internet) / number of facts remaining on the board after elimination. For example: 20 students X 20 minutes = 6 hours and 40 minutes / 10 facts = 40 minutes per useable fact.

Step 6:  Now, inform students that there are more efficient approaches to Internet research. Then, give students 8 pieces of information needed to make the decision to live in one of the cities. Some examples might be: safety, education, size, public transportation, climate, job hunting environment, health care, leisure facilities or culture.

Step 7:  Students again work in pairs for 20 minutes. Using the new decision criteria each student in the pair does research on only one of the cities.

Step 8:  After 20 minutes, repeat #3 and #4. You will have much more varied information, and far more useable information points. Eliminate non-relevant information according to the parameters from step 4. You should find that students have a much larger number of useable facts.

Step 9:  Redo the earlier calculation (number of students X number of minutes) / number of useable facts). Compare the fact / minute ratio from #5 and #8 to illustrate the efficacy of preparing criteria before searching the Internet.

Step10: Divide the decision criteria from #6 among student pairs. Students write a comparative question relevant to the earlier decision criteria. For example, health: Which has more hospitals, New York or Sydney? Elicit one question for each criterion and write on the board. Each student in the pair uses the Internet to find appropriate facts on only one of the cities. 

Step 11: Elicit answers to the questions, accepting only answers that have data to support the answer. Q. Which is the bigger city? A. New York has a population of xxx; Sydney has a population of xxx. Advise students that as university students they will need to use facts in this manner to back up their arguments.

Step 10:  Follow up homework: Students write a short report or presentation on which city they choose using data to support their decision. 



Many university students are not well practiced in self-directed research. By teaching them about using pre-determined criteria, students can more effectively use their time, resulting in more coherent, well-thought-out, properly supported reports and presentations.