David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

How to Teach Information Literacy in an Era of Lies

Full vitae information literacy

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Every day, critics of the American president decry his penchant for "false or misleading claims," while he and his supporters fire back with accusations of "fake news." It’s no wonder those of us who teach are worried more than ever about information literacy.

The flourishing of misperceptions makes it harder for us to do our jobs in the college classroom. Many faculty members believe a key part of our role is helping students understand and thrive in the world as it is. But to do that, don’t we need to find some kind of shared understanding of that world? To succeed in college and in life afterward, students need to be able to tell a truth from a falsehood. And clearly, that is not as easy as it seems.

I would argue that, whatever your discipline, you should be teaching information literacy — the capacity to understand, assess, evaluate, and apply information to solve problems or answer questions — as part of your courses. It’s a necessary skill to teach, even if you don’t see educating students to navigate the outside world as part of your mission as an instructor.

Here are ways to incorporate much-needed information literacy into your courses this fall.

Start by talking with some experts. Librarians on your campus have been thinking about these issues for a long time, and many now regularly collaborate with faculty members to teach research skills to students. Reach out to librarians before the semester starts. Talk about your course goals and ask for their suggestions on how to integrate information literacy into your teaching and assignments.

A 2017 essay in The Chronicle noted that, in recent years, the burden of teaching information literacy to undergraduates has fallen disproportionately on freshman-composition instructors. "Required composition courses," it said, "have often assumed the function of teaching students how to think critically about topics and how to evaluate sources." But learning how to find accurate information, and how to sort out what’s true from what’s false, is integral to most courses and most course assignments.

Of course, you can always have students spend a class session or two in the campus library, learning directly from librarians. But aim for more than that. Look for ways to bring attention to information literacy at various points throughout the semester. That doesn’t have to mean introducing a lot of extra material into your already overstuffed schedule.

Focus more on the claims made and less on the source itself. Most likely your assignments already require students to find and apply information — whether tracking down secondary sources at the library, assessing the results of an experiment, or applying the right formula from a textbook. But go a step further: Break down an assignment into stages, and for each step provide a checkpoint — an opportunity for you to guide students in handling information wisely.

What sort of guidance?

Faculty members often make the mistake of teaching information literacy by focusing on the data source itself, argues Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver. Students are given a checklist of basic questions and trained to go down the list for every source they find:

  • What kind of source is it?
  • If the source is online, does it have a .com, .org, .gov, or .edu domain name?
  • Where on the ideological spectrum does the publication fall?
  • What credentials does the article’s author have?

In a 2017 blog post, Caulfield wrote that putting so much emphasis on the source — as opposed to the claims within the source — can quickly lead to absurdities: "To put this in perspective, you got a dubious letter and just spent 20 minutes fact-checking the mailman. And then you actually opened the letter and found it was a signed letter from your Mom. ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘but the mailman is a Republican!’ "

Credibility checklists are well-intentioned but often inefficient. It’s more important for students to be able to evaluate claims than sources, per se. To assess the veracity of a given source’s claims, students often have to consult other sources.

Caulfield’s promotion of "lateral reading" — consulting a variety of sources to verify a claim — echoes the 2017 findings of a much-discussed study by the Stanford History Education Group. The study, which involved a group of Stanford undergraduates and a group of history professors, found that both the undergraduates and the professors were less successful at sniffing out fraudulent online claims than professional fact-checkers were. While the students and the history professors spent a lot of time scrutinizing sources, looking for clues as to whether to trust them or not, the fact-checkers identified faulty claims by searching for corroborating information elsewhere. The students and historians were much more likely to be fooled by a source that seemed authoritative; the fact-checkers, well, checked it.

In addition to lateral reading, Caulfield suggests two other strategies for checking dubious claims. Teach your students to:

  • Look for previous fact-checking work on a particular issue. This is pretty self-explanatory. If someone has already disproved a claim, students should be able to find the correction online.
  • Follow a claim "upstream." This involves following the trail of citations. If a source makes a claim, where does the claim come from? If there’s a source provided, now is when the student should investigate that source. The idea is to get as close as possible to the original source of information, so that you can more clearly assess its plausibility.

In a thoroughly networked world — and in the era of Google Scholar, the world of academic scholarship is just as networked — our students have access to a wealth of information that can help them assess whether something is true or false. Such practices are valuable whether students are evaluating a dubious news story or a scientific result that seems too good to be true.

Teaching good research practices is almost certainly not enough. As the social-media researcher danah boyd has argued, teaching information literacy must go beyond preparing students to assess sources and claims. They need to be able to assess themselves, too. In a keynote speech she gave last March at SXSW EDU, boyd criticized traditional ideas of information literacy as being naïve in the face of a complex and fast-changing threat — as attempting to "assert authority over epistemology."

While admitting that there are no easy answers, she advocates for a renewed focus on interpreting information — on the varying ways we make sense of the information we encounter. She recommends teaching students about confirmation bias, selective attention, and other ways in which our sense of what is true may say more about us than about the information itself. Instructors, she says, should look for ways to elicit and examine these tendencies in class through "cognitive strengthening exercises" — activities designed to "help students recognize their own fault lines." Information literacy thus moves beyond determining what is true and what is false to an investigation into why we are so easily fooled, and why we so easily fool ourselves.

Such questions may seem beyond the scope of your course. Don’t you have enough on your plate just teaching your subject?

But I’d argue that information literacy is one of those meta-skills that lurk behind the ability to master any subject. How can students succeed in any intellectual pursuit if they cannot tell what’s true from what’s false?

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