Getting Beyond Google: Simple Ways to Help Students Critically Evaluate their Sources

Associate Professor Mark Hempstead works with graduate students to conduct electrical engineering research in his lab. (Anna Miller/Tufts University)

By Jennifer S. Ferguson, Team Lead for Arts and Humanities, Tisch Library, Tufts University. Her book, Using Authentic Assessment in Information Literacy Programs, was published by Roman & Littlefield in October 2018.

If you teach a class with a research component, you have probably had students who use dubious resources as evidence to support their conclusions. You may have wondered why students continue to rely on Google to conduct research despite the many high-quality resources available to them at Tufts. This article will help frame why student research habits are not what we expect and suggest simple solutions for improving them.

First, it’s important to remember that college-level research is a big leap for most undergraduates. Students may still be getting used to being away from home, negotiating a new environment and perhaps sharing a room for the first time. When it’s time to write a research paper, rather than making use of the incredible array of resources that the academic library offers, these students often rely on research habits they developed in high school. While these practices worked in the past, they might be informed by incorrect information or a lack of research instruction. Many high schools no longer have librarians or have too few to teach research skills. While some students do receive research instruction, the set of resources they are required to navigate is far more limited and their use of those sources require less sophistication. This situation applies to students regardless of the type of institution in which they are enrolled—from community colleges to Ivy League universities. In some cases, undergraduates enrolled in highly competitive institutions are at a greater disadvantage than community college students since they may be reluctant to ask questions because they assume they should already know the answers.

Since most students don’t arrive at the University with good library research skills, it is up to us to teach them. Students need to learn new search interfaces, which take time to navigate and require specialized knowledge. They need to learn to interrogate the sources they find to determine levels of authority, bias, and credibility. For students used to Googling everything and getting instant results, the college research environment seems complex and unfamiliar. Fortunately, there are some relatively simple ways that faculty can help students to develop their skills in evaluating information sources as well as to assess those skills.

Pre-/post-reflective questions

A simple one-paragraph in-class writing assignment based on two prompts can help you and your students discover where students are at the beginning of the semester and whether or not they progress. This in-class writing can take place on the first day of class and again toward the end of the semester using a simple prompt.

Example in-class reflective writing prompt:

“The assignments in this class will include a research component that might include locating data, statistics, and/or scholarly research articles. Please answer the following two questions about your research process: 1) How and where do you find data, statistics, or research to support your argument? and 2) How can you tell if the data, statistics, or research that you found are credible, reliable, or authoritative?”

Once students have answered those questions at the beginning and end of the semester, you can compare the results to discover whether their answers changed as well as how and in what way. In this case, let students first tell you what they already know. Then use that information to correct misperceptions and fill in the gaps. Then let them tell you what they learned.

Prompts and framing questions to help students think critically

Along with the pre-/post-test, you can also revise the wording in your assignments to encourage students to think critically about the information they find and use in their assignments. Without those framing questions, students often don’t understand, or misunderstand, the nature of the research they need to do. Below are samples of the language used in typical research-based assignments along with some simple revisions that can help students to better evaluate the sources they use to support their arguments. Keep in mind that you don’t have to include every framing question, only those that directly address what you want students to learn and to demonstrate.

  • Prompt to encourage students to support their arguments with relevant and reliable evidence, including data and statistics.
    • “Your essay should explain the reasons behind your position and support it with relevant and reliable evidence.
    • Additional Framing questions: “Your essay should explain the reasons behind your position and support it with relevant and reliable evidence. Please be sure to answer these questions about any outside evidence that you cite: Where did you find the information that you cite? Why do you consider this information to be credible or reliable? If you cite data or statistics, who funded or sponsored the collection or analysis of the data? Which voices or communities are not included in the data you cite and why?”
  • Prompt to encourage students to include multiple points of view in their essay to take a position on a controversial issue.
    • “Your paper must anticipate and acknowledge your opposition’s main counterarguments.”
    • Additional framing questions: “When citing outside sources to support your argument, please answer these questions about it: Where did you find the information that you cite? What information did you find that you didn’t use and why? Which voices or communities are not included in the information you cite and why?”
  • Prompt to encourage students to use primary resources in order to reconstruct a particular historical moment.
    • “Your research paper should be based on research conducted in primary sources.
    • Additional framing questions: “When citing primary source materials, please answer these questions about it: Why did you choose to cite this source? What perspective does this source bring to your research? What perspective is missing from your research and why?”

Keep in mind that you can always add discipline-specific framing questions into your assignments. The questions listed above are only a generalized sample of the many ways that you can help your students to frame and understand how information is constructed as well as what they should think about when they choose to cite a particular source. Even if students continue to use data of dubious provenance, they will have to account for why they chose to use it. This will encourage them to think more critically about who creates information, what kind of information gets created, where that information is disseminated, and why it reached them in that way.

Additional Resources

Alison J. Head, “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College.” Project Information Literacy.

Connecting Students with the Library using Assignment/Project Design

Research Assignment Design

Incorporating Information Literacy in Assignments

Community of Online Research Assignments

Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

Lessons You Can Use to Introduce Basic Information Literacy Concepts

SEE ALSO from Teaching@Tufts

What Is Critical Thinking
Index of Teaching Technologies
Creating Inclusive Courses