Reliable Sources: Promoting Critical Thinking in the [Mis]information Age

teaching information literacy in college

Information cannot always be trusted. Despite popular opinion regarding the devastating impact of the Internet on the modern age, the inherent untrustworthiness of information is not new. Satire, misinformation, and disinformation have been circulating for centuries, even long before the printed word. However, thanks to the relative ease of creating and sharing content online, our students are confronted with publications created solely to entertain, persuade, and incite via incorrect or incomplete statistics.

Meanwhile, rapidly advancing technology provides novice researchers with immediate access to overwhelming numbers of resources, and the traditional steps of the research process–such as resource evaluation–have seemingly fallen to the wayside in deference to instant gratification and confirmation bias. 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, thoughtful research. As educators, we must spare the time and effort required to help fill in these gaps and provide students with a workable set of skills to address this lack of critical thinking in the research process.

Beyond the potential lack of credibility of information resources, students also struggle with other steps of research performance such as locating viable resources in a timely manner, accurately determining the relevance of found information to their topics, and applying the information to their assignment in a way that is both informative and useful. Each of these steps of the research process require not only a deeper understanding of how research should be performed but also a toolbox of critical thinking skills that students can use to overcome potential obstacles. 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, reliable sources; inability to synthesize the information into something useable once found) with no idea of how to resolve these common problems. This leads to frustration and may cause students to resort to the use of more accessible (but ultimately much less viable and pertinent) information materials.

Making critical thinkers of burgeoning researchers in an age of information overload and “fake news” requires three steps to help students and faculty alike reevaluate the nature of research as it is viewed in and outside of the classroom:

1. Explain the consequences. 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 (e.g., Andrew Wakefield’s debunked research on autism and vaccinations) and its massive impact (the birth of the entire anti-vaccination movement) will help bring a sense of reality to this often nebulous topic. 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 researchers to be skeptics. 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. Even information that does not intend to be disingenuous (“misinformation”) exists in droves, thanks to a surplus of non-expert authors and open source, self-funded publishers on the web. The first component of this step is to spend time with students explaining the differences between viable information, misinformation, 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 of such a tool. 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.

Delving deeply into topics of information management and critical thinking development within the classroom environment requires a sacrifice of time and effort that many educators may find difficult. Thankfully, this process can be made easier via collaboration with the research and instructional librarians at one’s institution. 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. This is a skillset that is vital to academic and professional success. By giving students the tools they need to be critical researchers, we build the foundation for entire generations for whom the truthfulness and usefulness of information is paramount, making for a stronger, smarter society.

Katherine Jones is the undergraduate services librarian and an assistant professor at Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus. In addition to providing personalized research assistance to individual students, Jones conducts embedded information literacy instruction to students studying a variety of disciplines–most of them STEM-based fields such as aviation, unmanned aerial systems, and mechanical and electrical engineering.