Teaching Information Literacy in an Age of Misinformation – Faculty Focus

The first time I encountered a student who “just didn’t believe” the data I was using in my sociology class, it caught me off guard.  I don’t recall exactly how I responded in the moment, but with the benefit of hindsight I now know it was a tremor in what would become a seismic shift in our educational landscape.  Students who are in their late teens or early twenties have spent their educational experiences navigating misinformation, fake news, and alternative facts. I didn’t realize until my student made the comment above on how the broader shift in our society toward scientific skepticism would bear out in the classroom.  This unexpected moment in the classroom alerted me to an opportunity to explore and expand the scope of information literacy skills I incorporate in my courses. 

I had started integrating information literacy skills into my sociology classes with a narrow focus that built on research method topics that were appropriate for an introductory course.  We talked about interpreting statistics like percent change, visual representations of data, survey design, and sampling. My goal was to support both students’ learning of sociology in the course and their broader consumption of information outside of the classroom.  As we worked through information literacy lessons in class, I gained insights into how students access and process information in their day-to-day lives.  My students reported getting their news from social media, news apps, television news, and friends and family members.  They are aware of mis- and disinformation, the fact that social media is designed to be attention-grabbing, and that not all sources are reliable. This, from my perspective, is a good thing. What I see as a challenge that we as educators must grapple with, is our students’ selective desire to apply these misgivings towards not just all information, but particularly those sources of information that clash with their preferred vision for how things “should” be (i.e., motivated reasoning).  

Through this process of teaching, getting student feedback, and revising my materials, I learned that my initial information literacy focus was too narrow.  Yes, students need to know how to interpret statistics—but first they need to know whether they can trust the source in the first place.  In response to this, my focus in teaching information literacy has broadened to include evaluating credibility and point of view in sources.  I want to help them move beyond skepticism and distrust of sources to critical thinking.  Rather than approaching every source with, “This might be wrong,” my goal is to help them practice evaluating, “How can I verify the credibility of this?”  When I teach information literacy now, I focus my efforts on developing student skills in three areas.  

Evaluating credibility 

How do you determine how much stock to place in the information you see? Crash Course has a series of YouTube videos on “Navigating Digital Information” that presents information in an accessible and engaging way.  I use the video “Who Can You Trust” from this series to present information on evaluating a source’s credibility.  After students have watched the video, they participate in an asynchronous discussion where they evaluate something they’ve recently read on the internet.  They’re not limited to topics related to the class or news media; I want to discuss and practice these skills on sources and topics that students come across in their everyday media consumption.  This results in a wide variety of sources—from academic journal articles to YouTube videos—and topics—from global events to whether almond milk is safe for cats. 

Using student-generated topics shows that the process of evaluating credibility is the same, regardless of topic or source.  We talk about evaluating the author’s credibility: Is it clear who the author is?  What can we learn about their credentials?  What qualifies them as an expert on this topic?  Then we evaluate the information in the source using vertical and horizontal reading.  Vertical reading is digging deeper into the source itself: What can we learn from the source’s “About” page?  Are there references?  Is the website current?  Horizontal reading, by comparison, investigates what other sources say on the topic.  Is the original source the only one making a claim?  That would be suspicious.  What do other news sites, or fact-checking sites say on the topic?  Can we validate what we know about the author’s expertise on a different website? 

The asynchronous discussion gives students a chance to practice these skills independently, while learning from each other’s examples.  After students have posted and responded, I follow up with an in-class discussion where we go over highlights from the discussion board.  This raises some additional topics that may not have come up asynchronously and gives me an opportunity to model my own thought process in evaluating information for students.  For example, not all students were familiar with syndicated news content.  Several students thought an Associated Press piece was plagiarized because they saw it printed in multiple news sources and couldn’t identify the author.  To expand on this, I used Mike Caufield’s Understanding Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, a valuable resource that addresses “Understanding Syndication” specifically.  These in-class discussions are lively, interactive, and practical.    

Evaluating the point of view 

After we’ve talked about evaluating a source’s credibility, we move on to examining a source’s point of view.  I have students work with a partner on a structured assignment I’ve developed that builds toward evaluating a source’s point of view.  First, I talk about the difference between news stories and editorials.  I give students three headlines on the same topic without any source information and ask them to identify which two are news articles and which is the editorial based solely on the language of the headline.  Next, I have them consider the same three headlines and, using just the headlines, discuss whether they think the headline has a liberal, conservative, or neutral perspective.  One challenge of this question is that it requires students to have some knowledge of different political perspectives on the topic.  I don’t grade these responses as “right” or “wrong,” I am interested in seeing their thought process.  Finally, I ask students to choose two articles on the same topic from two different sources, and to discuss differences in how the two sources approach the topic.   

Evaluating perspective is more challenging for students than evaluating credibility.  When comparing two articles, students will comment on the level of context and detail that are present, differences in language (e.g., “spark outrage” versus “face backlash”), and whose perspectives are prominent or absent.  I’ve found that it’s less common for students to identify political perspectives in these comparisons, perhaps due to their lack of familiarity.  Allsides.com has been a useful resource in giving students examples of different political points of view.   

Primary data sources 

As we were discussing credibility in class, a student asked in exasperation, “Isn’t there a government site that verifies information?” While fact-checking sites serve this purpose for claims that a student may find on a news site or social media, I also make a deliberate effort to incorporate primary data sources into my sociology classes.  I do so to (1) show students how accessible they are and (2) reinforce how sociologists “know what we know” about society.  I emphasize to students that it will take a little more digging than a web search, but that their extra effort is rewarded with the best data sources we have on population, income, crime, unemployment, education, and other variables.  The U.S. Census Bureau has data on demographic patterns in the United States, income, poverty, health insurance, family structure, and housing.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offers interactive table-building tools that allow students to explore crime data.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data on wages, unemployment, and demographic characteristics.  The National Center for Education Statistics provides nation-wide data on education.  I use these sources in my teaching—both their finished publications and their interactive data tools—and encourage students to explore their resources.   

When I use these primary sources with students, I talk about how the data are collected and challenges in that process.  For example, crime is difficult to measure, and the FBI has expanded its data collection efforts to collect more detailed crime data.  Students might remember difficulties the 2020 Census faced in undertaking data collection during the coronavirus pandemic.  I find students have a strong tendency to latch on to these challenges as proof that the data are “wrong,” falling back to their own personal experiences as stronger evidence.  Balancing transparency about the data collection process with assurances that these data are reliable, valid, and the best source we have, is not always an easy tightrope to walk, but one of the most important things I do as a social science educator.   

Broadening the scope of information literacy skills that I integrate into my classes has been productive, both in further developing students’ skills and in helping me better understand how students find and interpret information.  These skills have cross-disciplinary applications as part of students’ general education and, when purposefully developed, have the potential to offer lifelong benefits to them.   


Krista Black, EdD, is a professor of sociology at Mott Community College.   

References 

Caulfield, Mike.  (2017).  Web literacy for student fact-checkers.  PressBooks.   https://pressbooks.pub/webliteracy/ 

Cohn, D. & Passel, J. S.  (2022).  Key facts about the quality of the 2020 census.  Retrieved December 6, 2023, from https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/06/08/key-facts-about-the-quality-of-the-2020-census/ 

Crash Course.  (2019, January 29).  “Who Can You Trust? Crash Course Navigating Digital Information #4.”  YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o93pM-b97HI 

Crash Course.  (n.d.).  Navigating Digital Information [YouTube Playlist].  YouTube.  Retrieved December 6, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8dPuuaLjXtN07XYqqWSKpPrtNDiCHTzU 

Federal Bureau of Investigation.  (n.d.).  Crime Data Explorer.  Retrieved December 6, 2023, from https://cde.ucr.cjis.gov/LATEST/webapp/#/pages/explorer/crime/crime-trend 

Federal Bureau of Investigation.  (n.d.).  National Incident-Based Reporting System.  Retrieved December 6, 2023, from https://www.fbi.gov/how-we-can-help-you/more-fbi-services-and-information/ucr/nibrs 

National Center for Education Statistics.  (n.d.).  Data & Tools.  Retrieved December 6, 2023, from https://nces.ed.gov/datatools/ 

U.S. Census Bureau.  (n.d.).  Explore Census Data.  Retrieved December 6, 2023, from https://data.census.gov 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  (n.d.).  Data Tools.  Retrieved December 6, 2023, from https://www.bls.gov 

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