Help your students learn to evaluate the information sources they find online.
We find and read all kinds of information resources: Wikipedia; blogs; news sites; forums; and commercial, government, and academic sites. When browsing online for individual interests, we rarely check the trustworthiness of the tidbits we find unless they’re drastically different from what we know from personal experience. But on more important matters—such as a health problem or business decision—we are much more likely to attend to aspects of credibility. We want to know the author’s credentials and look around the site to see who is sponsoring or publishing this information.
These behaviors jibe with our students’ experiences. They will tell you that gossip about Justin Bieber’s latest flame undergoes less scrutiny from them than the side effects of a blemish cream they might want to use. We all evaluate sources based on their importance to our needs.
As a “creator,” it goes without saying that the words you use, the way you talk, and the ideas you present are responsive to your audience. Even if you’ve never explicitly acknowledged it, you know that your family has a different view of what “counts”—of what is credible—than your colleagues at work. In the same way, students talk about a popular blog entry or Facebook post to their peers in words and a tone that would never come up in an interview for college or a job. Writers know this and use it to their advantage, shaping words and ideas for different audiences.
When credibility during reading and writing is couched in this way as “contextual,” your students have no trouble understanding that their academic evaluation of sources for a research project must be based on their audience and purpose and that the criteria for what is appropriate and credible will change with their information needs. When elementary or middle school teachers question whether their students are “developmentally ready” to understand nuanced evaluation, you can find studies that show that even children as young as 4 or 5 are aware of and use differing criteria to make contextual judgments about the trustworthiness of information sources.
The ability to skillfully evaluate source quality and credibility is essential in college. A large-scale study showed over 70 percent of freshmen year college research assignments explicitly directed students to evaluate the quality of the source (Donham). The study reported that many assignments were open-ended, assuming that students had entered college able to judge both the number and type of sources that would be sufficient to produce good work. Their professors assume that they will be able to identify, evaluate, and use quality sources that an academic audience would accept as appropriate and credible. Our job as educators is to make the connection between what students know at home and what they do in school.
To prepare students for college assignments and work projects, schools aim to graduate student-researchers who have internalized the standards of what makes a source credible, useful, and appropriate. To accomplish this, a three-step process (RAT) can align the teaching of source evaluation with the citation process:
• Recognize the source for what it is.
• Appreciate when it is appropriate to use.
• Take ownership of the source in order to use it.
Students (and teachers) respond more willingly to web evaluation training when we begin by acknowledging that an expert evaluates sources differently from someone who knows little about a topic. To scaffold contextual credibility evaluation, offer a quick filtering form that asks the user to identify what background knowledge he or she has and what he or she can quickly learn about the author and publisher of that information. See Figure 1 above.
After students acknowledge their preliminary level of trust in a source, they are more likely to withhold their summative judgment of the source’s quality until they can compare it to other sources and weigh the quality of the evidence and arguments in each one.
Since many factors play into evaluating a source, we have found it valuable to leverage the citation building process to scaffold the judgments students must make. What follows is an outline of the three steps in teaching evaluation in conjunction with citation.
Step 1: Recognize the source for what it is.
Many checklists attempt to teach students the elements of evaluation. We have used the AABCC (A2BC2) mnemonic: Authority, Accuracy, Balance, Currency, and Coverage, accompanied by graphic icons which serve as a visual reminder of the criteria. Through repeated use, students get into the habit of asking a series of questions about each source they find.
The ABCs of Evaluation Authority
Can you find the author/producer of this information? Is the author/producer of the information someone who has knowledge about the subject? How do you know the author is an expert? Does he or she have a degree? How do you know it is a real degree? Does he or she have a reputation you recognize? A recommendation from someone you trust? Who is the sponsor of this publication/website? Is the sponsor reputable? Don’t judge by looks!
Is the information accurate? How does it compare with what you already know about this subject? How does it compare with other sources you are using? Accuracy is often hard to determine unless you know something about the subject, so authority evaluation becomes more vital!
Is this an opinion or reportage? Is the producer biased? Does the producer acknowledge a bias? Is there any reason to distort the information being presented? What is the purpose of the site? Does the site exist to sell, to argue, to report, to persuade?
Is the information current? Does having up-to-date information matter for your information need?
Does this information actually answer my question? Do I understand it? Would this source be considered appropriate to my grade level?
Frame and Scan, then Cite
The Frame and Scan method can turn citation building into as an evaluation process. Since the elements in a citation are key to evaluating an online source, show students how to scan the “frame” the top, bottom, and sides around the content before they read the information within the source. As students search for the creator/author, ask them, “What is the evidence that the creator of this information is an expert on this topic?” This shifts them from thinking that citation is a mechanical process; it reminds them that citation is a scaffold for evaluating authority. Likewise, “Why is the publisher sponsoring this information?” brings into focus the publisher reputation and reasons to subsidize certain content.
Step #2: Know when the source is appropriate to use.
You know that when you’re just beginning to learn about something, say, buying a new car, you’re less able to recognize what is generally accepted as true and what is marketing puffery or just one person’s opinion. The more you read, the more adept you become at spotting the viewpoints in your sources. Students who are less than eager to collect a second round of sources to fill in gaps can take some comfort in realizing that the act of evaluating sources in this recursive way will reward them with greater awareness of an author’s perspective, a producer’s biases, and a sponsor’s spin later. The more they read, the more savvy they become at evaluating sources.
Predictably, certain barriers prevent students from identifying the best, most appropriate sources for a research project. First, most do not recognize what kind of source they are using: “How do I know this is a news site? Is this a journal or a magazine?” Anticipate this problem and show models of news sites with journalistic standards and pre-identify the databases that are most likely to have the types of journal articles and e-books they are going to need.
Along with not being able to recognize the credentials or authority of the source, students often believe that the copyright (©) symbol is proof of credibility: “It is copyrighted, so it must be true.” While not a measure of overall quality, the copyright or publication date—another element of the citation—does measure the currency of the information. Students must learn to look first for a publication date when their research is likely to include information that changes rapidly.
Step #3: Take ownership of the source in order to use it.
Students can learn that citing and acknowledging a source is done for three reasons:
• To give credit to the author/producer
• To allow your reader to find and use your sources
• To strengthen your argument
An accurate citation is necessary to accomplish 1 and 2, while 3 is best accomplished by an annotation. In an annotated bibliography, students explain why each source is trustworthy and credible. As with the proofs they do in math class, students show the process they used to evaluate the source.
Credibility is a contextualized series of judgment calls. Our judgments are influenced by the purpose for gathering information, the audience to whom we will present it, and by our own experience and expertise. When students take ownership of sources, they are recognizing that there are different types of sources and that they will need to flexibly evaluate them. Because this process of making a series of judgments relies so heavily on background and experience, the more opportunities you can provide for students to evaluate sources, the less you will find them believing that sharks were swimming in the New York subways during Hurricane Sandy or that they only use 10 percent of their brains.
Donham, Jean. “College ready? What do first-year college assignments tell us?” American Association of School Librarians Conference. Hartford, CT. 15 Nov. 2013. American Library Association. ALA, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/conferencesandevents/ecollab/
Hilligoss, Brian, and Soo Young Rieh. “Developing a unifying framework of credibility assessment: Construct, heuristics, and interaction in context.” Information Processing and Management 44 (2008): 1467–84. Web. 1 May 2010. rieh.people.si.umich.edu/~rieh/papers/hilligoss_ipm.pdf
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