Creating Skeptics: Helping Students to Judge the Credibility of Online Content

Filed in: Credibility

By Barbara Ray

Behind the Research

12.17.09 | There’s an old adage in the newspaper business on verifying claims: if your mother says she loves you, check it out. That adage could go far in the classroom in helping youth discern fact from fiction, poseur from expert online. Yet it gets a little tricky.

For starters, high-stakes testing means that content, such as media literacy, not directly related to the test often gets relegated to second-banana status. There is also limited opportunity in the classroom to practice with real examples, given that many schools block access to the full online experience.

Despite these and other challenges, educators work hard to give their students the tools to judge veracity in the online world. Often, that information is in the form of a checklist that walks students through the key elements of judging validity—accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency and coverage. Yet the checklist isn’t foolproof. Some quasi-credible sites can meet the test.

Also, few students (or adults for that matter) regularly walk through all the points on the checklist. It might be more effective, argues Frances Jacobson Harris in “Challenges to Teaching Credibility Assessment in Contemporary Schooling,” to also teach students to develop a personal suite of automatic decision-making strategies. Sometimes they will use these strategies more rigorously when the situation calls for it, and other times, they will use a less-involved set of steps. 

That is, tell students: “Here are the general rules for credibility assessment, but you must use them judiciously. Sometimes they apply and sometimes they do not. In the end, it is up to you to determine what is credible and what is not,” writes Harris, a librarian at University Laboratory High School at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

For examples and a more in-depth discussion, see Harris’s chapter in “Digital Media, Youth and Credibility.” The book, edited by University of California, Santa Barbara communications professor Andrew Flanagin and associate professor Miriam Metzger, is part of the MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning published by MIT Press.

Also, says Harris, embedding these lessons in larger curriculum rather than a stand-alone lesson is likely the most effective method of instilling justified skepticism. In the best cases, these learning moments provide collaborative and apprenticeship-like opportunities and create opportunities to practice asking the “who, what, where and why” questions that provoke deeper thinking. It is also helpful to provide students with a variety of similar websites that challenge their assumptions and prompt them to look harder for more clues to the site’s validity.

Finally, in an example of “you can lead a horse to water …,” Harris suggests using the sources that youth seek out to teach lessons in judgment and credibility. Use eBay to teach consumer skills. Have students compare Amazon book reviews to New York Times book reviews. In political science, have students compare blogs with national party websites, or extremist sites with more objective news sources.

There are many examples of websites that offer guidance on this topic. Here are a few:



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