January 29th, 2018

Helping Students Develop Critical Information Processing Skills


teaching information processing skills

The wealth of digital information has shifted our focus in higher education from developing critical thinking skills to developing critical information processing skills. Today’s students are digital natives, and many assume these students possess basic research skills because of their natural ease with technology. However, many college students lack important information processing skills to understand electronic material. Grafstein (2002) noted that “Given the seductively easy accessibility of masses of unregulated information, it is imperative that students, from the very beginning of their academic careers, adopt a critical approach to information and develop the ability to evaluate the information they encounter for authenticity, accuracy, credibility, authority, relevance, concealed bias, logical inconsistency, and so on” (p. 199).

Although most agree these skills are needed by students, rarely are these skills taught within the context of a typical college or university course. Generally, either research courses and/or library services fill this void. Many courses only provide limited reasons for students to use library services. So for many college students, information processing skills are haphazardly caught rather than specifically learned.

Interestingly, this phenomenon occurs even more so in online courses. Winter, Cotton, Gavin, Yorke (2010) found that online students had issues with a number of information processing skills including validating online resources, even for those with strong e-learning skills. The ability to sift through the myriad of resources and information electronically is not an innate ability, even for those who grew up with the Internet. It is important to consider the context in which you teach to recognize how and when students are learning these critical skills.

For example, although there is the expectation that my students arrive to the program possessing effective critical information processing skills, the reality is something quite different. I have learned that I need to deliberately teach these skills in order to successfully teach my course content.

Faculty can incorporate these information processing skills in a variety of ways and in the context of almost any course. The primary strategy is to teach a course concept or skill using a facilitated electronic activity. Consider the following activity, designed as a discussion question in an online graduate education course.

Read the following web articles. Discuss what you conclude after reading the linked articles. Is there educational “truth” to the claim? Explain your suppositions.

  1. http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/
  2. http://brandongaille.com/average-attention-span-statistics-and-trends/
  3. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38896790
  4. https://ccit.college.columbia.edu/sites/ccit/files/weinreich-web-use-study.pdf

The topic of these articles relates to the unsubstantiated claim that human beings now have the attention span of a goldfish. As you can easily see by the URLs, there is only one scholarly source cited. This scholarly source was one of the original studies investigating website usage and web navigation. The findings of these studies have misinterpreted, and yet have inspired a number of other articles recommending various applications of our “8-second attention spans.” This misapplied information is stimulating educational thinking and may influence educational practice in the near future.

This activity always generates substantial interest and response from my students. The discussion board essentially explodes with comments. My students are always shocked to realize how easily they were persuaded by popular media and how often they failed to investigate such claims. Students always remark about the critical reading and researching skills they developed in the process of the activity. Many assert their new-found motivation to research everything before believing it. While their zeal for research may wain, students do develop as skeptical thinkers through this and similar activities.

Other activities can be designed to incorporate online research, critical reading, and analysis skills. Course content that requires multiple perspectives, differing opinions, and controversial issues is perfect for creating one of these activities. Developing several targeted activities for a course is relatively easy, yet these can be powerful tools in assisting students in practicing these skills.

Here are a few tips for designing critical information processing activities:

  • Use a theory or concept that is important to the field
  • Provide digital resources to show multiple angles, perspectives, or ideas
  • Ask simple questions that require analysis, research, and evaluation to answer

Critical information processing skills are best taught rather than caught. When it comes to life-long learning, these skills are the keys to thriving in a technological world. It is important instructors recognize the need and opportunity we have for teaching these skills. Adding a few targeted activities to your course can assist your students in developing these critical information processing skills that will serve them well in your course and beyond.

Kimberly Chappell is an assistant professor of education at Fort Hays State University.


Grafstein, A. (2002). A Discipline-based approach to information literacy. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(4), 197-204.

Winter, J., Cotton, D., Gavin, J. & Yorke, J.D. (2010). Effective e-learning? Multi-tasking, distractions and boundary management by graduate students in an online environment. ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology,18(1), 71-83, doi:10.1080/09687761003657598.