Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

How Teens Do Research in the Digital World


Technology plays a good—and bad—role in teens’ research habits

Teachers say generally positive impacts are muted by the way technology distracts students and teens’ over-reliance on search engines

November 1, 2012 (Washington) – The teachers who instruct American middle and secondary school students render mixed verdicts about students’ research habits and the impact of technology on their studies.

Some 77% of Advanced Placement Program® (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.”

These complex and at times contradictory judgments emerge from an online survey of a non-probability sample of 2,462 middle and high school teachers currently teaching in the U.S. and its territories, conducted between March 7 and April 23, 2012.  Some 1,750 of the teachers are drawn from a sample of advanced placement (AP) high school teachers, while the remaining 712 are from a sample of National Writing Project teachers.  Survey findings are complemented by insights from a series of focus groups with middle and high school teachers and students in grades 9-12, conducted between November, 2011 and February, 2012.

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 agree that courses and content focusing on digital literacy should be incorporated into every school’s curriculum.
  • Most of the teachers surveyed are already working toward teaching these skills, spending class time discussing how to assess the reliability of online information (80%) and discussing generally how to conduct research online (71%).
  • Fewer teachers, but still a majority, spend class time helping students improve search terms and queries (57%), yet just 35% devote class time to helping students understand how search engines work and how search results are actually generated and ranked.

“Technology has a complex impact on teens’ research habits,” notes Kristen Purcell, Associate Director for Research at the Pew Internet Project. “The internet and digital tools like search engines and cell phones have given students instant access to more information than ever before, which most teachers see as a benefit.  Yet, teachers also feel many students lack the most important skills they need to navigate this new information environment, specifically the ability to judge the quality of information they find online and identify information relevant to the task at hand.”

The AP and NWP teachers in the study give their students’ research skills only modest ratings, and reveal the degree to which today’s students are reliant on search engines:

  • The teachers surveyed rated students particularly low on their ability to recognize bias in online content (71% rate them fair or poor), and patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find (78% give ratings of fair or poor).
  • 61% of these teachers also rate their students fair or poor when it comes to assessing the quality of information they find online. Yet 91% of teachers surveyed say that judging the quality of information is “essential” for students to be successful in life, placing it atop a list of eight skills asked about.
  • 94% of the teachers surveyed say their students are “very likely” to use Google or another online search engine in a typical research assignment, placing it well ahead of all other sources.  Second and third on the list of frequently used sources are online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia (75%), and social media sites such as YouTube (52%).
  • In contrast, fewer teachers in the study say their students are “very likely” to use research librarians (16%) or printed books other than textbooks (12%) in a typical assignment.

“The best educators are working hard to find the right role for technology in their classrooms and for their coursework,” said Auditi Chakravarty, Vice President of AP Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at the College Board.  “They know that technology can be a powerful tool for teaching and learning, and they know their students are immersed in it, so they would like to tap into that potential. But they also see that unless students develop the right skills and strategies for using them, the proliferation of technology tools we see today can have mixed results.”

Other key findings of the study include the degree to which digital tools are finding their way into classrooms and the obstacles teachers face in incorporating these new technologies into their teaching.

42% of the teachers surveyed report their students use cell phones to look up information in class.

At the same time, virtually all teachers surveyed report working in a school that employs internet filters (97%), formal policies about cell phone use (97%) and acceptable use policies or AUPs (97%). The degree to which these different policies impact their teaching varies, with internet filters cited most often as having a “major impact” on survey participants’ teaching (32%), followed by cell phone policies (21%) and AUPs (16%).

Teachers in urban areas and those teaching the lowest income students are feeling the impact of these policies more than others.  In particular, teachers of students living in poverty are at least twice as likely as those teaching the most affluent students to report these policies having a “major” impact on their teaching.

“The volume and complexity of information available in the digital world presents young people with opportunities for discovery and challenges in accessing high quality resources,” added Judy Buchanan, Deputy Director of the National Writing Project and a co-author of the report. “Today’s teachers are working hard to engage students’ passions and to teach them a critical stance towards the resources they find.”


About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Internet Project explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life.  The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. More information is available at

About the College Board

The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of over 6,000 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education. Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SAT® and the Advanced Placement Program®. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools. For further information, visit

About the National Writing Project

The National Writing Project (NWP) is a nationwide network of educators working together to improve the teaching of writing in the nation’s schools and in other settings. NWP provides high-quality professional development programs to teachers in a variety of disciplines and at all levels, from early childhood through university. Through its nearly 200 university-based sites serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, NWP develops the leadership, programs and research needed for teachers to help students become successful writers and learners. For more information, visit

Media contacts:

Pew Internet:

Kristen Purcell: and 202-419-4512

Lee Rainie: and 202-419-4510

The College Board:

Carly Lindauer

212-520-8599 (o)

646-357-2993 (c) The National Writing Project:

Judy Buchanan or 510-255-0963

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