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“Teaching the Computer” and Other Fun Substitutes for Boolean Searching

I’ve been doing a lot more teaching and research consulting this term than ever before, and lately I’ve kind of fallen into a different way of teaching complex searches. I used to be more explicit about using boolean to build those wonderful long strings, complete with parentheses and all that jazz. Unsurprisingly, this method left students impressed, but slightly baffled.

Lately, I’ve started “teaching the computer” each of my concepts in turn, and then using the search history to combine the concepts. This started with my senior thesis writers who needed ways to manage immense strings of MLA International Bibliography controlled vocabulary terms. I’d teach them to mine the thesaurus for broad and narrow terms for each of the concepts, explaining why the rules of indexing require that they include even the narrowest terms they could find (which I talked about here). And then, after we’d gathered as many broad and narrow terms as we could for each major concept, we’d hop over to the search history and combine the concepts. Et voila! Beautiful search results (most of the time).

Now I’m trying this out on less advanced students who are having trouble with the concept of combining terms. I help them “teach the computer” each of their concepts and then combine concepts. So, in ProQuest (for example) I might have the student brainstorm all the possible words associated with the concept “poverty” and string them across the top search box using OR “to let the computer know that any one of these could fit my concept.” Then move the cursor to the next search box and start stringing together words associated with illness and health care, again putting an OR between each term. Suddenly, our result set has tons of good articles about the relationship between poverty and disease.

Something about the process of describing a concept to a computer and then having the computer find the overlap between concepts seems to be easier to grasp than the more technical process of combining terms and groups of terms. Maybe it means that we have to juggle fewer terms and concepts in our short-term memories. Maybe it means that we can chunk up the process into easier steps rather than thinking of the search as one massive and frustrating step. Who knows… I’m not a cognitive psychologist. But my advanced students especially seem to reach that “ah-ha” moment pretty quickly and move on to adapt it to their own needs. It’s early days yet with my less advanced students, but so far I’ve seen a few of them repeating the process without a hitch. And several times, I’ve gotten the feeling that my consultations were shorter because the students reached that point of feeling able to go and try this on their own more quickly.

Unfortunately for my ego, this leaves students less impressed with my librarian-ish super powers… after all, anybody can think up words that describe a concept. Ah well. I suppose there’s some value in having people think they could do this without my help. :)

4 thoughts on ““Teaching the Computer” and Other Fun Substitutes for Boolean Searching

  1. Very good idea. Thanks for writing this up. The more I read blogs, the more frustrated I am with my truly miserable professional education and the limited opportunities I have for learning from my peers in person.

  2. You’re right, Steve. There really isn’t much venue for learning from peers, which is a shame! It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard, but then I look at the places where we are supposed to get most of our professional development (conferences, journal articles, etc), and there seems to be a black hole right were “growing as a teacher” should be. Or maybe it just gets crowded out by all the cool new [thing]2.0 discussions.

    To get more recognition, maybe we should call it Teaching 2.0. :)

    Anyway, I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to team teach with my co-workers every now and then (usually a couple times a year), and that these same co-workers are always eager to say “I just heard so-and-so use such-and-such strategy, and I think I could apply it this way.” I learn so much from them.

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