How Students Can Find Reliable Sources Online Using 3 Simple Steps

In the era of fake news and Internet misinformation, ensuring that students know how to find reliable sources of information online is essential. Thanks to the relative ease of creating and sharing content online, students are confronted with publications created solely to entertain, persuade, and incite via incorrect or incomplete statistics. Students diving into the world of academic and professional-level research often have no awareness of the gaps in their understanding when it comes to performing critical and thoughtful research. Too frequently, students find themselves encountering research roadblocks (inability to develop the correct search terms with which to find the most useful information, inability to locate free and reliable sources, inability to synthesize the information into something useable once found, etc.) with no idea of how to resolve these common problems.

The following three steps can help students re-evaluate the nature of research as it is viewed in and outside of the classroom.

1. Provide context. By providing examples of the impact that false or bad information can have on a community (whether it be within your own institution, within your home state, or even on a national/international level), students will be more aware of why thorough evaluation of research matters in the long term. Locating real-life examples of faulty research will help bring a sense of reality to this often nebulous topic. For example, you could talk about Andrew Wakefield’s debunked research on autism and vaccinations and its massive impact in the form of the birth of the entire anti-vaccination movement. Educators may even consider charging students with finding examples of research fraud and charting its impact themselves as part of this learning process.

2. Encourage skepticism. More often than not, students are unaware of just how much of the information they find online is intended to mislead them in some way, or is simply incorrect. Spend time with students explaining the differences between viable information, misinformation (information that does not intend to be disingenuous but is still incorrect), and disinformation (information presented with the purposeful intention of misleading the reader). Exploring the nature of bias, satire, and viral content will provide students with a stronger understanding of the pitfalls of online information use. Following this introduction to the large variety of faulty information available to them, students should be provided with a practical tool they can use to determine the overall viability of a resource. The CRAAP test—as originally developed by librarian Molly Beestrum of Dominican University—is a great example. By examining the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of an article, students are better able to notice potential red flags within the source that may indicate a less-than-credible source.

3. Treat research like a puzzle. Presenting opportunities for research and critical thinking that push past the boundaries of a typical, boring research paper helps increase student engagement and provides a stronger framework on which to develop the research process itself. Incorporating problem-based learning and scenario-based research into the classroom environment also gives educators more of an opportunity to expose students to real-life problems within their prospective careers or the field of study itself. Asking students to work through research-heavy tasks, such as diagnosing a hypothetical patient, developing a strategic plan for a new business, rebuilding society in the wake of a large-scale disaster, etc. requires the same research skills as a topic-based paper or presentation, but with the added benefit of bolstering critical thinking skills and exposure to real-world experiences that will help students to be more successful, thoughtful professionals after their graduation.

Teaching students how to find reliable sources can be made easier by collaborating with your local librarians. Academic librarians are already familiar with the steps of the research process and how to best present evaluation schemas to students. Taking a moment to enforce these skills and build them into the core structure of one’s classroom expectations will have a positive, lifelong influence on students and their ability to find, evaluate, and use information in a more responsible and impactful manner.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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