Students turn to the Internet to find information, which means that they are likely to use the Internet for gathering information for homework or to complete classroom projects. According to Web Checkout, 83 percent of students turn to a search engine to locate information with less than 1 percent of students beginning with their library website. This means, that even if you provide your students with a host of links to get them started, they are likely to rely on a search engine to find the information for them instead.
Under ideal circumstances, doing independent research may uncover new information and lead to personal engagement in the topic. The problem arises when students haven’t been taught how to critically analyze a website to verify it’s credibility. As a teacher, you can help them develop the skills they need to weed out unreliable sources and identify legitimate sources for information.
- Who Wrote It? Instruct students to look for the author of the page and read the author’s bio to determine if the author is an expert in the subject. While some sites provide a link to the author’s bio, others do not. In this case, checking the “about us” page often reveals information about the author or the authority of the site. When no information is found, chances are the site is unreliable.
- Is it Fact or Opinion? Teach students to read critically and discern fact from opinion. Articles littered with references to unnamed studies or that use vague terms like “many people”, “scientists” or “psychologists” without citing the actual sources cannot be verified and should be viewed as unreliable.
- User-Generated Content: User-generated content is common on the Internet. This ranges from Wikipedia to personal blogs and forums. Explain to your students that these sources can sometimes be reliable, but more research is often necessary to determine the validity of any claims. While user generated content can give them a starting point or can be used to trigger new ideas, it cannot be considered a reliable source unless the information can be verified.
- Is it Current? Outdated sites may contain useful information, but may provide information that is no longer valid. Teach your students to verify the age of the site by looking for a date near the headline and author’s name, or at the bottom of the page for a copyright date or for the date the site was last updated.
- Does it Look Professional? Challenge your students to be on the lookout for signs a website is not professional. Tell them to look for multiple grammar and spelling errors, factual errors or difficulty navigating the site. Professional sites contain few, if any, spelling and grammar errors and are clean and easy to navigate.
- Custom Search Engines: Making a custom search engine to include only reputable sources may be the best of both worlds. You can make your own custom search by using Google tools, or give your students the link to Search Google.Edu to restrict your student’s searches to reliable sources.
Teaching your students to evaluate the credibility of sites will serve them for a lifetime and help them locate the information they need.