Teaching and Learning Resource Center

Comparing Search Tools Activity


For this activity/assignment, students will locate information sources for a specific purpose or information need using multiple search tools. The assignment is intended to help students consider the need to match their information need to the appropriate search tool, rather than using the same tool for every search. 

Learning Outcomes

  • Use a variety of different types of search tools to locate information
  • Explain how context can impact the selection of appropriate search tools
  • Recognize that first attempts at searching do not always produce adequate results

Related Framework Concepts

  • Searching as Strategic Exploration
  • Authority is Constructed and Contextual

Learn more about the Information Literacy Core Concepts


  • This could be an individual or a group assignment/activity, depending on your specific needs
  • This could be a standalone activity, or incorporated as part of a larger, scaffolded research project


Version 1: Individual or group assignment
  1. Identify a topic or question you would like students to explore or answer, or a specific information need (e.g. find five peer-reviewed articles on this topic, find three news articles on this topic). If a group assignment, each group could be assigned a different question or topic or information need (some of which would more appropriate for a Google search, and some which would require more specialized search tools).
  2. Have students search for information sources that they think would be helpful for meeting the information need. Students should conduct the search in stages, using a different search tool each time. For example:
    • Search 1: Google
    • Search 2: Google Scholar
    • Search 3: Academic Search Complete
    • Search 4: Discipline-Specific Database
  3. At each stage, students should review their results and attempt to locate one or more sources that they think would be helpful for meeting their information need. They should also conduct a general evaluation of their results, noting factors such as:
    • The types of sources in their results list (e.g. are the sources primarily websites, news articles, journal articles)
    • The overall relevance of the results for their information need (does it appear that most of the articles would be helpful, or did they struggle to find the sources that appear credible/relevant?)
  4. After completing each of the searches, students could discuss which of the search tools was most helpful or produced the most relevant results for each information need. If each group  focused on a different topic or question, students could be encouraged to discuss why a specific search tool may have been very helpful for one topic, but not for a different topic.
  5. As part of the post-activity discussion, emphasize the importance of considering the context and the specific information need when determining where to search for information.
Version 2: Part of a scaffolded research project

This version could be used as one part of a scaffolded research or inquiry-based assignment in which students are required to create an initial bibliography of sources related to a specific topic or research question.

  1. Students should identify at least three different search tools that they plan to utilize as they search for sources. In some cases, they may need assistance identifying search tools other than Google and Google Scholar.
  2. Using the first search tool, students should create an initial bibliography of sources they consider to be relevant to the topic or research question. The specific number of required sources at each stage would be determined by the instructor. For each source, students should identify the type of source and briefly explain why it appears to be relevant.
  3. Students should continue to search for sources, using a different search tool each time, and selecting the required number of potential new sources to add to their bibliography.
  4. After completing a search in each of the search tools and selecting sources, students should review their entire list of sources and select the ones they think are most relevant to complete their initial bibliography. They should note which source came from which search tool.
  5. When they submit their bibliography, students should also include a short reflection focused on the value of utilizing multiple search tools as part of the research process.