Goodbye, Boring Database Instruction. Hello, Search App Smackdown!

How a high school librarian turned turn "uncool" database lessons into a fun, challenging, and competitive game.
Illustrations By Lars Leetaru

Illustrations By Lars Leetaru

Librarians are keenly aware of the value of teaching students to use databases. But has your “tried-and-true” instructional approach to these resources become “tired-and-boring?” If so, flip your instruction into a Search App Smackdown! This fun, challenging, and competitive gaming approach meets the American Association of School Librarians’ 21st-Century Learning Standards, skillfully integrating technology and standards by putting kids in the driver’s seat.

First of all…databases?

We know what they are, and why they’re important. But the term “databases” just isn’t cool. Sorry, dear vendors, but it’s true. For years I struggled to get past the word. Then I realized that, for my high schoolers, it makes more sense to label resources by what they do instead of what they are. As I watched students use vendor-created widgets embedded in our LibGuides to scan databases with minimal fuss, I hatched the term “search app.” Next, when I couldn't stand to do one more step-by-step, look-at-this-feature lesson, I realized I had to try something different. We were experimenting with flipped instruction when I had an epiphany, and “Search App Smackdown!” was born.

I know that my students must learn how to use databases to access to quality information, be ready for college-level work, and develop solid research habits. However, none of these reasons matter if students can’t see an immediate advantage or reward to using these valuable resources. For young adults, WIIFM—What’s In It For Me?—matters.

I’ve discovered that the selling point for using databases is efficiency. While Google is super fast, students can, after exposure to databases, readily see benefits to accessing vetted information quickly when it is paired with awesome shortcuts, saving and sharing possibilities, easy-to-use highlighting, citation, and narration features, and the ability to set up RSS feeds for automatic search updates—all options that translate into less time spent on project completion. Exposing students to the unique content, features, and utilities of their search apps is what the Smackdown! is all about.

Prep for the Smackdown! Flip the instruction

Flipped instruction essentially reverses the order of things: content that’s usually presented in the classroom is recorded and made available online for students to absorb at home; practice and application is flipped to school time. We are a 1:1 school, and database instruction was a prime candidate for this reversal; it’s short, to the point, and relatively repetitive across products.

Based on previous student and teacher feedback, I selected the databases (see p. 38) that the ninth graders needed now (and through their sophomore year) for academic success. Then I created brief (four minutes or less) screencast video instructions for each resource. I used QuickTime, but there are lots of good tools, including some that are free, such as Screencast-o-matic. In each video, I review the importance of a particular database to current assignment needs, the type of information and resources found there, basic and advanced searches, and the product’s special features. Students have a printed chart to help them organize notes and that prompts them to watch for certain items in each video.

Each video is embedded in a short Tildee lesson that instructs students to:

• Use the organizer while watching the video and note the scope of the database, how/where to access it, notable features (e.g., video, audio, time lines, interactive maps, narration of text, etc.) and utilities (e.g., print, save, email, highlight, cite, etc.), and anything else that they find important or interesting.

• Go to our LibGuides and use the search widget to explore the assigned database and look for important features absent in the video. Note these on the organizer.

The whole process, from viewing the online Tildee lessons with embedded videos to examining the database and completing the organizers, takes about 15–30 minutes. Students can watch and review the instructions as often as needed. This year, two database explorations were required per assignment.


Get ready to rumble! How the Smackdown! works

Each day, students enter the library to the soundtrack of loud, lively music. They immediately find their team table and present their two organizers. I quickly check each student’s work, looking for two or three critical items on each organizer. If these items are missing, I know they either didn’t view the video or access the database.

The organizers are worth five points if complete, zero if incomplete. Points earned count toward individual and team scores. Since points are all or nothing, students quickly learn not to disappoint their teammates. Checking the organizers and recording scores only takes a few minutes and can be accomplished while students are getting settled. Then, it’s time for the Smackdown!

Smackdown! rounds are fast and furious. Armed with knowledge about specific databases, students work in teams to answer questions using the search apps. We prepare at least 30 potential questions for each database. The questions range from basic (e.g., What is the main controversy about the Roanoke settlement?) to the more complex (e.g., Using the interactive maps, determine which state has the highest rate of infectious diseases.). Since the goal is to establish new research routines, many of the questions are written to prompt students to use special features or navigate in a certain way. Smackdown! is a speed and accuracy game, so the questions are also designed to be answered quickly.

The goal for each team is to answer the most question cards during the activity. One person in each group is the designated “runner,” responsible for coming up to the checkpoint (where the librarian is stationed), reporting the team’s answer to the question that they’ve drawn, and, if it’s correct, picking up the next question. If the answer is wrong or incomplete, the runner returns to the team, and the group works on a new response. Each correct answer is worth one point that gets added to the overall team score.

The set of question cards is identical for each team, but shuffled so the different groups aren’t working on the same one simultaneously. A few minutes are reserved at the end of each round for teams to compile challenge questions from the two databases used that day. Team-generated queries are submitted to me to check, and, if they’re of competitive quality, I award additional points. The teams dig deeper in the databases to create questions that will stump their opponents later in the fourth and final rounds, where they can assign their questions to the opponents of their choice.

1603-SearchApp-QuickGuide-SBThis year, Round 1 (i.e., the first day) focused on two key history databases. Round 2 included science and literature databases, and Round 3 used an Opposing Viewpoints database and a career app. At home, students viewed the videos and completed the organizers, two per day, for three days.

On the fourth and final day, all of the search apps were used for the final challenge. During this round, teams also may draw task cards. These cards describe a typical ninth grade assignment. The goal is to determine which database will best serve all aspects of the task. For example, a card may state: “You must learn about Italian immigrants in the 1890s and create a video that incorporates audio and print primary sources. Which search app would be best to complete this assignment?” Students would need to recall which resource covered historical subjects and offered primary sources in a variety of formats.

What are the benefits of Smackdown!? It allows for formative assessment of my instructional goals and provides accountability to administrators for both student learning and database costs. Bottom line? Students have fun while learning foundational skills, and time with them is spent in active application of flipped instruction. For a summative assessment, we use FlipGrid and ask players to reflect on what they’ve learned during the Smackdown! experience, describe how they’ve used one of the apps in class, and state when and how they could use one of the databases in their daily lives.

I review student reflections and game results with my teacher partner, Susan DeAngelis, who teaches an advanced computer applications class. We consider information gleaned from their responses when planning future events. Most important, after several years, we are all still enjoying the Smackdown! experience.

Boyer-Brenda_ContribBrenda Boyer is the librarian at the Kutztown (PA) Area Senior High School.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Shelley Blackman

I attended your session last year at Internet Librarian conference in Monterey, CA. (October, 2016). I am grateful for the many ways you shared on ways to revitalize database instruction and I am excited about putting some of these ideas (like using the app organizer, delivering tutorial before instruction) into practice. I plan to share the Project Information Literacy Report and the free tools with my colleagues. (Just so you know, I work for a community college library but we use many of the same databases and user characteristics are very similar to those at a H.S.) Best regards, Shelley Blackman

Posted : Jan 18, 2017 03:30

Jenny Blaylock

Brenda, So many great points in your "Databases" article. I especially like the WIIFM? question for students. As a high school librarian, I will use that during instruction. Your libguides are amazing. I went looking for your "App Organizer" and didn't find it. Will you share it with me? Thank you for your inspiring words! Jenny Blaylock

Posted : Mar 14, 2016 12:27


As soon as I'm finished this comment about how awesome this is, I'm emailing my teachers to see who would want to do this as a lead in to research projects. We don't have a lot of databases, but I really want to see them used more and this sounds like such a fun way to get them in there. Thanks for sharing!

Posted : Mar 11, 2016 06:49

Brenda Boyer

Hi All! Here's the link to the Smackdown organizer the students use while viewing the tutorials: Cheers! Brenda Boyer

Posted : Mar 10, 2016 12:15

Teresa Plumer

I attended your presentation on this at AASL and loved it! When I got back I put together an activity like it for my 6th graders. It worked great! I'm planning on doing the same for my 7th graders next year. Thank you for your ideas and inspiration.

Posted : Mar 03, 2016 09:26

Gailyn Miranda

Teresa: Here's a stab in the dark....I love this idea so much, but haven't yet implemented it in my library. Would love to speak with someone local who has. Are you by chance in CA? Thanks, Gailyn Miranda

Posted : Mar 03, 2016 09:26

View More Comments




Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones


Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones


Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

Get connected. Join our global community of more than 200,000 librarians and educators.