Skills to support inquiry

To enable students to search effectively for information as the basis for their inquiry, they will need many skills. These range from basic alphabetical skills to more sophisticated online search skills, questioning skills and critical thinking ability to assess what they find.


Library specialist contribution
Effective searching
Evaluating information
Information Ethics: Copyright, citing sources, plagiarism
Internet safety
Further reading

Library specialist contribution

Library staff are part of the educational team who guide students thinking from “lower level facts through to concepts and, ultimately to higher level, transferable generalisations (or conceptual understandings).” Kath Murdoch (2006) quoted in Approaches to social inquiry: 5

School library teams make a particular contribution when they:

  • support students as they attempt to find and synthesise single and multiple streams of information
  • support students as they critique and evaluate information from multi modal texts
  • support students to evaluate the authority, accuracy and currency of information
  • encourage students to attend to their ethical responsibilities in complex information environments
  • assist students to develop proficiency with tools of technology - could include use of tools such as blogs, wikis, tagging.

Librarians support student critical thinking when they:

  • ask more questions, answer fewer
  • make available alternative sources of information and media including on controversial issues and deeply held beliefs and values
  • encourage students to reflect on and evaluate the credibility of resources
  • share unfamiliar perspectives (Approaches to social inquiry: 7).

Effective searching

Arrow puzzleSkills needed to search effectively include:

  • alphabetical and numerical skills for juniors (see activities on Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, on EPIC)
  • classification: Dewey – a basic introduction suitable for schools at all levels
  • online search tips and techniques.

There are many online tutorials teaching search skills, for example:

image by Horia Varlan

Boolean searching

Named after British mathematician George Boole (1815-1864), this technique is based on logic. It allows you to include, combine, or exclude search terms in an online search. The following websites use simple activities to show how Boolean searching can be a very useful skill:

  • The Boolean Machine, by Rockwell Schrock, gives a simple, interactive one-page demonstration of how Boolean searching works. Just move your cursor over the AND / OR / NOT and you’ll see how it influences your search results. This is an ideal tool for teachers and school librarians at all school levels.
  • Boolify- Kids search - Makes advanced web searches easy through a simple drag-and-drop interface.
  • Basic Search Tips and Boolean explained, by Joe Barker of the University of California, Berkeley, gives a two-page explanation of search strategies. He advises you to focus on simple searches, as you can more easily see what has worked and what hasn’t.

Fun classroom activity to demonstrate Boolean 'AND' and 'OR'

This is a lighthearted way to show how ‘AND’ and ‘OR’ affect search results and how Boolean searching works.

Start with everyone standing up. They can only remain standing if they fulfil each of the ‘AND’ conditions that you make up, for example:

  • you came to school by bus (all those who didn’t must sit down)
  • AND you play a winter sport (anyone who doesn’t must now sit down)
  • AND you have a cat at home (those non-cat owners have to sit down)
  • If you still have more than one person standing, make up one more condition to knock out more students eg hair  or eye colour
  • This exercise shows you how using AND reduces the number of results.

Doing the reverse, for OR you start with everyone seated, and as each 'condition' is announced, get the students who fulfil each one to stand. You could use the same conditions as in the 'AND' example, but by using 'OR' instead, the effect is cumulative. You should be able to have the whole class standing after about three conditions – showing how the use of OR in an online search can produce huge results sets.

Evaluating information

Research shows students tend to begin an information search for their inquiry by going online. The online environment involves some additional challenges in assessing what you find, when compared to evaluating print resources such as books or journals. To find accurate answers to their inquiry they will need to evaluate how reliable the information is.

Evaluating search results involves skills including critical thinking and detective work. The following sites are a sample of those with tools such as checklists, tutorials and lesson plans.

Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything: Information designed for teachers at all school levels including. Resources include the The five Ws of website evaluation poster for primary schools based on Who, What, When, Where and Why.

How do you evaluate information found on the Web? Provides links to sites offering checklists, tutorials, and lesson plans suitable for use in primary and secondary schools.

Five toe test

Evaluating web pages – techniques to apply and questions to ask: The UC Berkeley Library has developed a number of workshops on ‘Research-quality web searching’, and offer the following tutorial on evaluating web pages. Written for American college students, the content would be readable and useful for secondary students and their teachers.

Information Ethics: Copyright, citing sources, plagiarism


Copyright means the creator of a work (artist, composer, director, illustrator, performer, photographer, producer, or writer) has the exclusive right to make and distribute copies, create derivative works, and publicly perform and/or display his or her own work. It acknowledges the rights of the creator in relation to their intellectual property, and sets out the rights of others in terms of access to, and use of, someone else’s work.

  • For copyright licensing in a school context, refer to Copyright Licensing Limited (CLL) who provide ‘licence schemes that extend the limited copying rights of educational institutions under the Copyright Act. A licence gives you advance permission to copy from a range of copyright protected resources. It also provides assurance that the copyright owners will be paid for any work copied.

Citing your sources: standard referencing tools

When using the ideas, images or words of others, you must acknowledge this. This source might be a magazine article, website, book, poem, movie, interview,  email or photograph, to name but a few.

Citing your sources makes it clear where your information came from, and whose opinions or arguments you have used. It helps distinguish your ideas from other peoples, and can show the breadth of the research you have undertaken.

There are many systems used for writing citations, and each follows a specific format. The main ones used in New Zealand are:

  • APA (American Psychological Association)
  • MLA (Modern Language Association of America)
  • Chicago (from the Chicago Manual of Style)

Bibme: a number of New Zealand schools use this fast and easy bibliography maker. After entering the details of the item (book, magazine article, website, newspaper, or film) it offers a choice of standard citation styles: APA, MLA, Harvard or Turabian. It then automatically formats your citation to your chosen style. It also gives students guidance on the layout and punctuation each citation style uses for citing from a range of media types.

University of Auckland provides:

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) has an easy-to-follow guide to APA referencing, based on the 6th edition of the APA Guide. This might be worth printing off and laminating for displaying in your school library above the research terminals or laptop benches.


Plagiarism can be defined as stealing or using or passing off someone else’s work, words or ideas, even accidentally, as your own. Plagiarism also includes paraphrasing or rewording another person's work, without acknowledging its source.

Plagiarising other people’s intellectual property is regarded as totally unacceptable in all school and tertiary educational institutions. It can result in ‘fail’ grades for assignments.

By citing all sources, you acknowledge where your information has come from, and avoid the plagiarism trap.

The Western Illinois University Libraries has put together a lighthearted Disney-style YouTube video, A Fair(y) Use Tale, which cleverly uses snips from Disney movies, to convey messages about users’ rights and obligations under (US) Copyright law.

Internet safety

Even if your school has guidelines for Internet access and use, cybersafety awareness among your users of online tools and resources will need ongoing reinforcement.

Visit our Digital Citizenship page for more information and resources about evaluating information, internet safety and Intellectual property.

Further reading

  • Berger, Pam & Trexler, Sally. (2010). Choosing Web 2.0 tools for learning and teaching in a digital world. Foreword by Joyce Valenza. Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited. Addressing the question, "What does twenty-first-century practice look like?" the authors give school librarians and teachers

a starting point for change and growth within an inquiry framework and present new strategies for learning in a digital world. They position the teacher-librarian and the school library program in the middle of the learning community with an emphasis on discovery, collaboration, and communication.

Literacy—the learned ability to read and write—once meant a person was educated and able to function in the world. While reading and writing remain essential in the 21st Century, technology now has made other literacies equally important. These other literacies include Information Literacy, Media Literacy, and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Literacy. Unfortunately, from an educational perspective, these three complementary literacies have been developed by different groups of educators.

  • Greg Byerly, in this article in the online School Library Monthly, XXVI:9, May 2010, provides a range of annotated websites on each of these three literacies, essential to 21st Century learning.
  • Barbara Stripling focuses on the challenges of teaching students to think in the digital environment, in her article in the April 2010 issue of School Library Monthly: Teaching students to think in the digital environment: digital literacy and digital inquiry.

image: question mark, by Ryan on Flickr