Google First, Think Second

A while ago I wrote a blog post about a molecule I was particularly fond of as part of a chemistry meme (May 2010  I will not name the molecule for reasons that will become clear later.  About 7 months later I noticed that my blog was getting a number of hits from people searching for the formula of the molecule in question, the synthesis and characterisation of which formed part of my laboratory course in spectroscopy.  More to the point, those queries, coming from my university for the most part, were framed exactly like the questions that I’d written in the pre-laboratory exercise for the experiment.

OK, so what’s the big deal?  Student use search engines to look up information for assignments.

Well, actually that is a big deal.  Firstly the assignments in question were not about information retrieval from the internet, they were about using basic chemical skills and information that most students should know.  Secondly, the information the students were seeking online was, at best trivial, at worst, demonstrating an alarming lack of effort or understanding on their part.  It seemed to me as if I had set a question that was unreasonably difficult or that the students lacked the knowledge to answer it.

That sound fair enough though, doesn’t it? People should be allowed to look hard stuff up online.

Yes generally, but in this case the students had been supplied with a picture of the molecule (coloured ball and stick, with key to decipher the colours).  The question was simply to write down its molecular formula.  All that was required was to count the number of pink, purple, black, grey and blue balls in the picture and write them in the standard form.

I decided to take some action.  I searched for the name of the compound and realised that my original blog post was the number 1 hit.  I created another blog post (October 2010: and gave some instructions on how to complete the task:  “You have a picture of the molecule in your lab manuals, and also in colour on the [electronic] version of the lab manual.  It may be old fashioned, but I suggest you try counting the atoms to try and figure out the formula”.

This year has seen a massive increase in the number of hits to my blog searching for this compound and the range of queries has broadened from the one above to include almost all aspects of synthesising and characterising this material.  I’m a little intrigued by the motivation of the students who do this.  Are they simply looking for reassurances that their answers or interpretations of data are ‘correct’?  Are they too lazy to think for themselves and looking for a source of information to reword as needed?  Do they not understand aspects of the tasks and so need additional support?  Is the lab manual unclear as to the requirements? Is it easier to search for data than to interpret it themselves?  These questions form two broad categories, one in which the terms of the assignment are deficient, and one in which the deficit lies with the abilities and/or attitudes of the students.

I should probably note at this point that I’m not seeking to criticise the students for using the internet to help with assignments, more to understand what motivates them to use it and to try to correct which ever deficit exists.   If I could work out where the deficit lies, then I’ll be happy to start criticising.

More broadly however, the chances of me noticing this kind of behaviour are quite slim.  It is only because this experiment is not widely carried out in undergraduate laboratories that I even noticed the hits.  My reasoning for this is simple: search for ‘synthesis of aspirin’ and have a look at the information available. No thinking required what so ever to produce a write up of that experiment, and it is even possible to download completed lab reports on the topic for modification.  If we assume the behaviour I have observed is normal for our students and happens for most lab assignments then we should seriously consider the nature of those assignments.    The key question should be: what percentage of lab marks in any given assignment can be achieved by sourcing information from the internet and regurgitating it into the report?  What percentage of marks can be gained by simply recognising that a diagram or webpage contains the answer to the question and reformatting it?  And if we want marks to be awarded for thinking and demonstrating understanding of the techniques and procedures involved, how do we encourage students to do so without help from the internet?

It is clearly unnecessary for students to memorise vast quantities of facts in order to graduate.  Information handling (retrieval, processing, whatever!) is a vital skill and one that graduates should be able to do, but not as a shortcut to avoid thinking or asking for appropriate help.  I want to say something like ‘good students don’t google’ but I have no evidence to support the statement – I don’t know which students are doing it.  For now I shall content myself with the notion that my lab assignment is not the synthesis of aspirin, that the quantity of information available on the internet is incredibly small for this particular experiment, and I shall bare this experience firmly in mind as I develop a couple of new experiments for next semester.  I will be googling the questions as I set them and working out what percentage of marks will be available to reward that behaviour. It will be as low a percentage as I can possibly make it.

7 Replies to “Google First, Think Second”

  1. Give them a 5-minute-feedback opportunity at the end of class one day. I do this frequently w/ my students about whatever I’m curious about. As long as you frame the query non-threateningly, my students have been quite honest. (sometimes disappointingly so, as on my feedback prompt: how did you study for the last exam, and is your study strategy working for you?)

    Ask them to give you some feedback on lab assignments and give them the prompt “what strategies are you using this semester to answer pre-lab questions, and what were your motivations in doing so?” or some such wording. I bet you’ll be surprised by the answers you receive. It may help you reword your pre-lab questions next semester, too 🙂

    1. @azmanam Yes, I think that’s a great idea. There are a few other common misconceptions that I’d like to find the root cause of as well so it will be worthwhile to try.

  2. I have always said that my PhD taught me the judicious use of google, but there is a difference between utilizing it as a troubleshooting resource and using it as an excuse not to learn the source material. In my experience that line is one that undergrads rarely comprehend. It is obvious that the way students are learning now is vastly different from what it was 15 years ago. With my undergrads I tend to emphasize developing the knowledge of what it is and using the internet as a resource for how to use it.

  3. And yet this very thought – we shouldn’t require students to memorize (i.e., learn) as much since they can just Google it – was proposed by Prof. David Smith of York back in September (subscription require). I called him out on it (open access), but the firestorm that I sought never took. Maybe this time it will, or at least the membership in the two camps will become apparent.

    1. @John Spevacek Sorry – your comment got caught in spam.

      I think there is a difference between memorization and learning basic skills. I would not expect students to learn the molecular mass of 100 compounds, but I would expect them to learn how to calculate it when given a structure. I also see little point in students becoming vast repositories of factual data that is easily looked up, but I also don’t see the purpose of using google in lieu of basic chemical skills.

  4. To me, where it gets really crazy is when they tell me “I found this formula on wikipedia”, and the damn formula is on the textbook and/or on the class notes (which they insist I post online !

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