May 25, 2022

New Report from Pew Internet Looks at How Teens Do Research in the Digital World

The complete report runs 110 pages (PDF) (an HTML version is also available) so what follows below is just the tip of the iceberg.

There is enough material in the full report for plenty of discussion and maybe even a conference or two.  I’ll have more to say about the findings soon. This report requires a very close read, review, and some reflection.

Finally, make sure to take a look at the precisely who was surveyed for the report. You can find it near the bottom of the overview section with many more details in the “about this study” section.


From the Overview:

The teachers who instruct the most advanced American secondary school students render mixed verdicts about students’ research habits and the impact of technology on their studies.

Some 77% of advanced placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers surveyed say that the internet and digital search tools have had a “mostly positive” impact on their students’ research work. But 87% say these technologies are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans” and 64% say today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

According to this survey of teachers, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the College Board and the National Writing Project, the internet has opened up a vast world of information for today’s students, yet students’ digital literacy skills have yet to catch up:

Virtually all (99%) AP and NWP teachers in this study agree with the notion that “the internet enables students to access a wider range of resources than would otherwise be available,” and 65% agree that “the internet makes today’s students more self-sufficient researchers.”

At the same time, 76% of teachers surveyed “strongly agree” with the assertion that internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.

Large majorities also agree with the notion that the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students (83%) and that today’s digital technologies discourage students from using a wide range of sources when conducting research (71%).

Fewer teachers, but still a majority of this sample (60%), agree with the assertion that today’s technologies make it harder for students to find credible sources of information.

Given these concerns, it is not surprising that 47% of these teachers strongly agree and another 44% somewhat believe that courses and content focusing on digital literacy should be incorporated into every school’s curriculum.

Charts and Passages of Special Interest From the Report

More “traditional” sources of information, such as textbooks, print books, online databases, and research librarians ranked well below these newly emerging technologies. Fewer than one in five teachers said their students are “very likely” to use any of these sources in typical research assignments. In the case of online databases and printed books, half or more of the teachers who participated in the survey said their students are “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to use these sources. In fact, fewer teachers said their students are likely to use these sources than to use their peers, study guides such as SparkNotes or CliffNotes, or the websites of major news organizations.

I don’t think the following comes as a surprise but reinforces what many of us have thought for a some time. More thoughts on this soon.

According to the teachers in this study, perhaps the most fundamental impact of the internet and digital tools on how students conduct research is how today’s digital environment is changing the very definition of what “research” is and what it means to “do research.”  Ultimately, some teachers say, for students today, “research = Googling.”  Specifically asked how their students would define the term “research,” most teachers felt that students would define the process as independently gathering information by “looking it up” or “Googling.”  And when asked how middle and high school students today “do research,” the first response in every focus group, teachers and students, was “Google.”

In focus group discussions, teachers framed prior generations’ research practices as a time-consuming process that involved formulating a clear research question and then seeking out relevant and accurate information from trusted sources (mainly libraries), often with the aid of an expert (such as a reference librarian).  In contrast, many suggest that today’s students define and approach the process of “doing research” very differently.  What was once a slow process that ideally included intellectual curiosity and discovery is becoming a faster-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment.  Teachers noted that this trend is driven not only by the immediacy and ease of the online search process, but also the time constraints today’s students face in their lives more generally.

Among the subgroups of this sample who are most inclined to say their students are “very likely” to use research librarians as a source are English teachers (20%) and teachers ages 55 and older (22%).  But again, these figures are only slightly higher than the 16% of all teachers who say this is the case.

The teachers surveyed are likewise heavy search engine users, and are very confident in their searching abilities

The teachers in our sample are likewise part of the “Googling” trend.  Asked about their own use of different online tools, 100% of the teachers participating in the survey said they use online search engines to find information online, with 90% naming Google as the search engine they use most often.

The question of who should be mainly responsible for this part [critical research skills] of the curriculum was also open to debate in focus groups, with some teachers openly acknowledging that they do not currently feel qualified to teach some of these skills.  Some reported that their school’s English department takes the lead in developing research skills, and that their own role is mainly reinforcing these skills.  Yet others suggested these skills need to be taught by all teachers across the curriculum, and that library staff can be a key part of that process.

Direct to Complete Report

See Also:  Joyce Valenza Has Posted about the Report on Her SLJ Blog

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.