Helping students research and find facts in English

Brad Smith, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University


Quick guide

  • Key words: Wolfram Alpha, research, facts, search, Internet
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University students (all levels)
  • Preparation time: A few minutes
  • Activity time: 30 minutes
  • Materials: Computers (one for each student or pair of students) with web browsers and Internet connection

Students often find that beginning a research project is especially difficult due to the need to wade through sources that use dense English prose with encyclopedia-style entries, such as those provided in commonly used websites such as Wikipedia. They also find it frustrating to quickly find basic facts on topics using English sources, which may result in many students giving up and simply using Japanese-based web sources. Wolfram Alpha is an answer engine that resolves queries by showing computational data and statistics through charts, graphs, and tables rather than providing information in encyclopedic-style entries that rely primarily on prose. Used as a starting point for research, Wolfram Alpha has the potential to give students a simpler way to find and understand basic information about a topic in English and may ultimately help students to build and communicate their own ideas rather than attempting to translate Japanese sources or copying directly from English-based sources.

Go to the Wolfram Alpha site <> and familiarize yourself with it by performing various searches for different kinds of data. Search for “Japanese vs. English” and examine the results in relation to finding similar information by using an Internet resource such as Wikipedia. Note also that the quality and amount of information found through Wolfram Alpha may depend on the topic and kinds of searches performed.

Step 1: Ask the students to use Wikipedia to research the major differences between English and Japanese. Give them 10 minutes to find as much information as possible and to write down as many facts as they can find for the comparison.
Step 2: Ask students in pairs to discuss and compare the information they found from Wikipedia.
Step 3: Assign the same task again using the Wolfram Alpha website. Show students how to type in their query Japanese vs. English and give them 10 minutes to examine the results.  The students should again write down as many pieces of factual information as they can find.
Step 4: Ask the students to share the information that they found using Wolfram Alpha and discuss it in pairs.
Step 5: Discuss, as a class, which site (Wikipedia or Wolfram Alpha) was better for finding factual information. Gather different ideas about which stages of research Wolfram Alpha is best used for and why.
Step 6: Give the students another research topic and ask them to write a short summary of some of the information they found using Wolfram Alpha. Ask them to write down any facts they found interesting and share them in an online or group discussion.

This exercise is intended to show students an easier starting point for web research rather than using text-heavy research sites such as Wikipedia. It is also a way that students can find information quickly and form their own ideas based on facts rather than through a filter of dense prose or from possibly biased sources. Lower-level students can also get practice doing some basic research and creating their own sentences based on a Wolfram Alpha search. Be aware that Wolfram Alpha is still not complete and some searches will result in very few hits. If you intend to use it as a regular tool for a class, you may want to confirm that the information results are available and suitable for your level of learners.