For simple information needs, one need only type suitable search terms for the search engine and read the answer provided. More complex and thought-provoking questions, however, require skills in searching for, evaluating, and using information on the Web: online research skills. Although today’s young people have been exposed to digital media from early on, this does not imply automatically becoming skilled in online research. In fact, studies show that their skills rarely suffice for completing school assignments that require independent online research.
Accordingly, research was conducted to investigate the role of formal learning and personal factors in the development of students’ online research skills. The setting was a Finnish lower secondary school where in-service teachers were developing their instruction practices related to online research.
After being introduced to a research-based pedagogical framework, Guided Inquiry Design, they carried out a teaching intervention to strengthen students’ online research skills. A quasi-experimental pre-test, post-test, and follow-up design was used to investigate the effect of the intervention. Measurement of students’ learning outcomes covered Web search, critical evaluation, and argumentative use of Web information. Teachers’ experiences were investigated via interviews, with observations supporting the interview data.
The work considered students’ overall development in online research skills more broadly by extending beyond the formal instruction to their skill profiles and to personal factors associated with those skills and skill development. Questionnaires surveyed students’ self-efficacy beliefs related to online research, attitudes to learning, behavioural intentions with regard to online research, and information- and communications-technology activity.
Results showed that the participating teachers were able to apply a research-based pedagogical model as a source of inspiration and integrate some of its features into their teaching practices. Further, the pre- and post-intervention test results attest to a positive effect on students’ online research performance.
The intervention effect was most apparent among those students who were less active in searching the Web or using social media and those with a lower sense of self-efficacy related to online research. Also, students who had a positive attitude toward traditional teacher-centred learning showed greater improvement in their online research skills. However, a follow-up test nine months later revealed that the effects of the intervention did not last long.
In the second part of the study, which focused on the students’ skill profiles and the role of personal factors in the development of their online research skills, six skill profiles were identified that characterise performance in online research: information-literate, fact-finder, medium achiever, weak searcher, weak evaluator, and weak information-user. These profiles clarify the variation visible in students’ skills and the challenges they face. Self-efficacy beliefs stood out as a factor clearly associated with students’ online research skills. The results indicate also that positive attitudes to traditional teacher-centred learning might enhance the development of students’ skills.
The dissertation contributes to pedagogy connected with online research skills. It indicates that teachers in Finland have good opportunities to apply research-based pedagogical models for increasing information literacy generally, as both the models and the Finnish national core curriculum are based on similar learner-centred conceptions.
However, the results show that an individual teacher’s efforts to adapt new instruction methods to everyday professional practice in the classroom may not be enough for lasting learning outcomes. The findings suggest that achieving sustainable learning outcomes calls for school-wide reform to pedagogical practices.
Furthermore, this research highlights a need to account for inter-student differences in online research skills when one is planning the instruction. Students are not a homogenous group and need targeted support. Still, formal instruction cannot fill all the gaps in online research skills. Self-efficacy beliefs stood out as the only personal factor associated with students’ online research skills. Hence, boosting students’ self-efficacy and encouraging them to stay positively tuned to learning overall is important.
The doctoral dissertation of M. A. Tuulikki Alamettälä in the field of information studies and interactive media titled Development of Online Research Skills among Lower Secondary School Students: The roles of formal instruction and personal factors will be publicly examined at the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences of Tampere University at 12 o'clock on Friday 21 January, 2022. Professor Gunilla Widén from Åbo Akademi University will be the opponent while Professor emeritus Eero Sormunen will act as the custos.
The event can be followed via remote connection.
The dissertation can be found online at
Photo: Jaakko Alamettälä