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Teaching Adolescents How to Evaluate the Quality of Online Information

Julie Coiro

Associate Professor of Education at the University of Rhode Island
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photo of a young student working on a laptop

An essential part of online research is the ability to critically evaluate information. This includes the ability to read and evaluate its level of accuracy, reliability and bias. When we recently assessed 770 seventh graders in two states to study these areas, the results definitely got our attention. Unfortunately, over 70 percent of their responses suggested that:

  • Middle school students are more concerned with content relevance than with credibility.
  • They rarely attend to source features such as author, venue or publication type to evaluate reliability and author perspective.
  • When they do refer to source features in their explanations, their judgments are often vague, superficial and lack reasoned justification.

Other studies highlight similar shortcomings of high school and college students in these areas. From my perspective, the problem is not likely to go away without intervention during regular content area instruction.

So, what can you do to more explicitly teach adolescents how to evaluate the quality of online information?

1. Dimensions of Critical Evaluation

First, talk with students about the multiple dimensions of critical evaluation. Making reasoned judgments about the overall quality of information on a website benefits from clear definitions and discussion of these dimensions:

  • Relevance: the information's level of importance to a particular reading purpose or explicitly stated need for that information
  • Accuracy: the extent to which information contains factual and updated details that can be verified by consulting alternative and/or primary sources
  • Bias/Perspective: the position or slant toward which an author shapes information
  • Reliability: the information's level of trustworthiness based on information about the author and the publishing body

After defining and discussing the dimensions, encourage students to compare and contrast these terms (see Figure 1). They should notice that evaluating relevance and accuracy involves considering the quality of the content itself. In contrast, judgments about perspective and reliability require an examination of details about the author and his or her agenda in relation to a specific affiliation. Understanding these differences provide a concrete way to remember that any judgment should be informed by a critical examination of both relevant claims and an author's level of expertise to make those claims.

Figure 1. Understanding dimensions of critical evaluation.

Credit: Julie Coiro

2. Modeling and Practice

Next, make time to explicitly model how to evaluate each dimension and provide repeated opportunities for students to practice and apply these strategies to information they encounter during the research process. Demonstration lessons can focus on how to:

  • Verify and refute online information
  • Investigate author credentials
  • Detect bias and stance
  • Negotiate multiple perspectives

For more details, you can explore Instructional Strategies for Critically Evaluating Online Information or this planning guide for designing think-aloud lessons about online reading comprehension. The most productive lessons weave these strategy demonstrations into your own curriculum-based scenarios that align with important content in your lesson.

3. Prompting

Pair strategy instruction with written prompts to guide students toward independence. When reading on the Internet, adolescent readers often distort or disregard new ideas that contradict their thinking, and revise their reading path to focus only on locating details that confirm their thinking. Prompts can ask students to systematically look for evidence that supports and refutes key claims. Cross-checking claims between multiple sources (see Figure 2) can help adolescents:

  1. Recognize ideas they might otherwise ignore
  2. Weigh the usefulness (and reliability) of these ideas against what they previously believed to be true
  3. Consider that new ideas may actually be more accurate than their original thinking

Figure 2. Three stages of thinking prompts for evaluating sources.

Credit: Julie Coiro

4. Things to Consider as a Healthy Skeptic

Ultimately, adolescents should have many opportunities to see the value of a healthy skepticism toward information they encounter in both online and offline contexts. Your curriculum can be a great springboard for introducing students to multiple perspectives and new ways of thinking about content. In my experience, older students appreciate the structure and clear expectations of thinking prompts that move beyond the typical checklist and ask for evidence that supports their thinking. Adolescents also like working in small groups as they grapple with these issues, and then meet back to exchange strategies with the whole class. To that end, I will close with a list of strategies to use or adapt to fit your students’ needs as they refine their ability to think critically while conducting online research:

  • Is this site relevant to my needs and purpose?
  • What is the purpose of this site?
  • Who created the information at this site, and what is this person's level of expertise?
  • When was the information at this site updated?
  • Where can I go to check the accuracy of this information?
  • Why did this person or group put this information on the Internet?
  • Does the website present only one side of the issue, or are multiple perspectives provided?
  • How are information and/or images at this site shaped by the author's stance?
  • Is there anyone who might be offended or hurt by the information at this site?
  • How can I connect these ideas to my own questions and interpretations?

What criteria are you helping your students develop for critical thinking about online information?

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Julie Coiro's picture
Julie Coiro
Associate Professor of Education at the University of Rhode Island

Hi Susan, What a great idea to include these as part of a "typical" set of study skills that middle school students need to be successful! As you say, with regular practice, we can help students make this a natural part of their study routine. Thanks for the link! :-) Julie

Julie Coiro's picture
Julie Coiro
Associate Professor of Education at the University of Rhode Island

Dburris - Thanks for your thoughts about math applications - I love your connection to the core standards! This gives me some tangible ideas about how to apply these concepts and dispositions when reading statistical information, especially when the information is displayed in graphs or tables in a way that distorts the truth. Teaching students to examine the scale and how to represent information in multiple ways (perhaps linking to infographics) could be an interesting activity!

Sandra Todd's picture
Sandra Todd
11th and 12th grade English teacher

I use a checklist with my students. I don't address bias in the checklist, so I will have to consider that if we're doing persuasive or hot topic research. Most of the research we do in class is pretty non-controversial, so slant is less of an issue. However, we confirm reliability by getting 4 "yes" checks dealing with authorship, recorded dates, (working) links to other sources, lack of typographical and spelling errors, purpose of site or sponsoring organization, URL addresses ending with .edu or .gov or .mil, and if bibliographic info is provided.

Rafael Angel's picture
Rafael Angel
IB PYP MYP DP Spanish B and French B

Dear Julie,
thank you for the insights you share in this article!
I was immediately able to relate it to Foreign Language Teaching, where developing the sense of being able to access information in the target language is one of the most empowering experiences. Nonetheless, part of developing this feeling also includes becoming aware of the quality of information we are viewing and considering utilising.
Considering the availability of genuine, authentic information for most languages and the value of using it in the classroom, developing good habits to read & evaluate its level of accuracy, reliability and bias through a foreign language helps us enhance such practices in our mother tongue.
Thank you for sharing, again.

Julie Coiro's picture
Julie Coiro
Associate Professor of Education at the University of Rhode Island

Dear Rafael,
Thanks for your note. It's definitely interesting to see the parallels between reading critically on the Internet and thinking critically about information in a different language. I would imagine it is even more challenging to critically evaluate sources when the cultural and/or linguistic nuances of the information and the author could be quite different from that of the reader! As we share and communicate more and more with people whose language and culture is different than our own, this will certainly be something important to consider!
:-) Julie

renlibrarian's picture

Schools of education need to encourage new teachers to collaborate with school librarians who can support their curriculum and enrich student learning by making the information literacy connection.

Sontse's picture

I think critical thinking alone won't be as effective as critical thinking along with scientific context of the world. I found that manipulations concentrate on lack of knowledge.
I've recently tried articulating my idea on Reddit:):
"Online educational program with $1000 reward
The basic idea behind this project is to teach critical thinking through studying academic subjects. To create context of the reality and nurture rational thinking skills. All successful graduates will receive $1000 in cash. Have you ever witnessed a person becoming a victim of a cult; deceitful politics; propaganda; conspiracy theories; fraud; manipulative individuals; general self-harm due to erroneous thinking...? Did you feel like helping one? But you didn't know how. May be you thought it required background knowledge/skills. May be you didn't want to hurt anybody's dignity. Or, simply, you didn't have proper means of communicating to one. I guess we are all familiar with these situations. Often times we'd just let it flow the natural course. Hoping for the best. Unfortunately, most humans don't realize which information or skill can make them happier. People apply their own set of values to new things and tend not to do things that don't make sense to them. In this day and age we see plenty of information of all sorts. It is easy to get lost and find oneself misguided. Without proper skills this world seems mad and hopeless. It is fact that our whole existence is product of our brains. As someone said: our history is acting out of individual psyches. I won't surprise you, if I tell you that the most practical and effective way to change our society is education. Look at all the troubles in the world. Most of them could be prevented or minimized by simple information. Luckily, thinking can be mastered. Our brain may be adjusted. I believe people are good. They are just misguided on what the genuine good is. Most people are smart, they just need to validate their senses. Human race has achieved tremendous results. And we can do much more without wasting our precious time. If $1,1 billion of donations, that were made by individuals during 2012 Presidential campaign for top candidates(Obama-Romney) were invested in people. It would touch 1,100,000 lives. Not by repetitive political ads, but by true knowledge. Now, I don't mean elections are unimportant. I'm just saying there are better ways of tipping the balance in the swing counties. And at last, American government will concentrate on productive governing, instead of playing politics. I mean, it's the best investment out there. People will learn facts; improve relationships; learn value of empathy; increase effectiveness; acquire logical skills; earned money will go into economy through businesses. Imagine what impact this program and $1000 can do in developing countries. People will not hold it to themselves. Positive testimonies will make it viral. Most will start learning without any reward. People will will be introduced to rich ways of experiencing reality. Experience wholesome meaning of things. Create sense of meaningful information. It will lead to maximizing progress and happiness for all.

Structure: Continually crowd-funded project. 3-5 month course. 2-4 hours a week. Online education( methods of Identifying(photo, typing pattern) and test assesment(peer review essays, labs, quizzes). Complementary material from all over internet(Youtube, .EDU, Ted). Host final exam at some college or school. Volunteer mentors. Easy digestible and pop science-like material. It's very important to create some unified and reputable source of knowledge.

Syllabus: Teach the following subjects through lens of critical thinking: Philosophy(religion, atheism). Psychology: Emotional intelligence(communication, conflict resolution, leadership), relationships. Biology: theory of Evolution. Politology: US Constitution. History: social and technological progress. Astronomy. Sociology. Anthropology. Art.... Along with teaching the subjects. Present existent opinions and do critical/scientific assessment of them. Do mass media analysis. Ask students to spot(fallacies, cognitive distortions, structure, meaning). Test for knowledge and skills of critical thinking of the subjects.

Design: Show two logos of money and mentor availability. Let them be interactive and let people waiting in the line watch in real time course availability

So, I had this idea lately and finally transformed it into written words. Please share your thoughts. Edit: I'm sorry for the erratic text and my English, hope it makes sense:)"

Hank Machtay's picture

First week of school for my freshmen we discuss FACT, RUMOR & OPINION. Based on discussion students fill in a table with definitions (and key words to help identify each) and a Fact, a Rumor and an Opinion about our school. Then they each go online, first to an entertainment website and then to a news website, to find F,R&O.

Interesting dynamic: I have students who are great at rote learning and they struggle with this. I have others who struggle with schoolwork but have "street smarts" and they get an "A" on this assignment. Great way to start the year.

ElizabethCobb's picture

Very interesting and informative facts you have discuss here about the online info, and also it is very important for us to have knowledge about it. Thanks

Ginger J. Haynes's picture
Ginger J. Haynes
Online Education

Interesting Information and just the Quality shows the factual and Relevant data of the Online learning prospective . Mostly Teachers did not have the Perfect complete Information about the Subject that if student ask the Questions they did not answer even a single Question.

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