An essential part of online research is the ability to critically evaluate information. This includes the ability to assess its level of accuracy, reliability, and bias. In 2012, my colleagues and I assessed 770 seventh graders in two states to study these areas, and the results definitely got our attention. Unfortunately, over 70 percent of the students’ 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 lacking in reasoned justification
Other studies highlight similar shortcomings of high school and college students in these areas (see, for example, a 2016 study from Stanford). 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?
Dimensions of Critical Evaluation
First, talk with students about the multiple dimensions of critical evaluation. Students learning to make reasoned judgments about the overall quality of information on a website benefit 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 these dimensions, encourage students to compare these terms. They should notice that evaluating relevance and accuracy involves considering the quality of the content itself in relation to what’s important to their purpose and whether the author’s claims are supported with evidence-based factual reasoning. Judgments about perspective and reliability require an examination of details about the author (from multiple people’s viewpoints) and his or her agenda in relation to a specific affiliation. Understanding these differences provides 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.
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
You might use this planning guide for designing think-aloud lessons about online reading comprehension or explore articles such as “Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World.” The most productive lessons weave these strategy demonstrations into your own curriculum-based scenarios that align with important content in your lesson.
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. To examine relevance and accuracy, have students consider the quality of the content. To determine reliability and perspective, they should consider the author and his or her agenda in relation to his or her affiliations. Cross-checking claims between multiple sources—using a framework like the one in the PDF above—can help adolescents:
- Recognize ideas they might otherwise ignore
- Weigh the usefulness (and reliability) of these ideas against what they previously believed to be true
- Consider that new ideas may actually be more accurate than their original thinking
Digital scaffolds such as those embedded in this Online Inquiry Tool check students’ ability to weigh evidence that supports and refutes claims surrounding controversial issues across multiple sources and perspectives.
Things to Consider as a Healthy Skeptic
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 meeting with the whole class to exchange strategies.
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?