Identifying and evaluating good online sources

Students today are just a few clicks away from endless global knowledge and its learning potential. They must have the skills to sift through this information, identifying good sources while discarding the irrelevant or questionable.

With anyone able to publish online, evaluating sources is a crucial skill for students, benefiting them well beyond their education. Best of all, you can help students practice this skill in a Kialo Edu discussion, where they can be tasked to add reliable sources to support their arguments!

Why do students need to use high-quality sources?

High-quality sources are evidence-based, trustworthy and objective. When our students use such sources, they not only increase the credibility of their own work or contribution, but they also develop a more accurate understanding of the topic at hand.

This is crucial in the Information Age, when misinformation and disinformation are pervasive. It’s essential for students to think and consume information critically, and teachers can guide and help students develop these skills through activities and lessons focused on this.

Helping students understand and use the CRAAP test is one important method, as are classroom activities like Kialo Edu discussions that can encourage students to provide evidence to back up their arguments.

How to identify good online sources

Ultimately, we want students to be comfortable getting their information from a diverse range of sources and cross-checking it where necessary.

Source credibility can be an ongoing conversation in class — here are some points you can bring up with your students when working on this topic.

1. Check the website

This alone isn’t enough to verify a source, but it’s a good start. Encourage students to get into the habit of checking the domain in the URL. While you won’t be able to recognize a credible source by domain name alone, certain extensions such as .edu and .gov are linked to education and government institutions and are more likely to be reliable. 

And how about the website itself? Is the content easy to navigate? Does it link to sources for its claims? Is it clear who is publishing this information? Providing younger students with models of reputable online websites can help them become more familiar with what they feel like.

2. Consider the timeliness of content

Outdated information may no longer be suitable, even from credible sources! Situations can evolve quickly and what was true last year or even last week may not be true today. 

Checking the date of publication is an important step, as is reading widely and being aware of more current developments on the topic. Of course, the date of publication may be more relevant to some topics than others! You can get students thinking about this by brainstorming topics where timeliness would definitely be essential. Check out possible debate topics in our Topic library for inspiration.

3. Check author credentials

Determining who is responsible for the information is vital. Do the author’s credentials make them an authority on the subject at hand? And, is their point of view and how they arrived at it clearly laid out and backed up?

Something to consider is that the best credentials in the world won’t make up for a questionable motive. In short, if a scientist writes an article criticizing renewable energy, yet works for an oil company, that’s probably something to bear in mind!

While that may be an extreme example, conflicts of interest do exist and can impact an author’s credibility. Why not challenge your older students to research examples that illustrate this?

If an author can’t be identified, their publication may help determine whether the information is trustworthy. Reputable newspapers, for example, generally employ an editorial process, differentiate between news and opinion articles, correct errors, and engage in fact-checking. They may get it wrong on occasion, but at least they can be held accountable for it.

4. Be wary of bias

Bias can be difficult to spot, and not just for students! It’s often subtle and can appear in lots of different ways, from the way images are used to the specific language chosen. More biased agendas may cherry-pick information or ignore conflicting evidence. Less biased media may still present information in a certain light or take a political slant. Either way, you probably aren’t getting the full picture.

Encourage students to look at what media outlet is publishing the information. Can you spot an agenda there? Do they present a balanced view of the topic? Is the headline or title neutral? Do the language choices carry connotations? That’s just for starters! 

Ultimately, cross-checking information and reading widely from multiple sources can help us see past bias.

5. Look for emotive language

If a writer wants to influence their reader towards a desired way of thinking, they may use certain language choices to evoke an emotional response. As a persuasive strategy, it can be pretty effective and is employed by many writers and speakers.

Encourage students to reflect on how they feel after reading an article. Are they absolutely furious? That may well be rightfully so, but it might also be worth taking another look at how the content is presented. Help students recognize when their emotions are being manipulated by showing them how to differentiate between language which is neutral and informative, and language which provokes a reaction.

How to identify good sources on social media

Social media is rich ground for information gathering, and it’s important for teachers to recognize that. Students can stay up to date with news and developments in their areas of interest, even connecting and interacting with experts on sites like Twitter.

Not only that, they can quickly find educational and informative videos to supplement class content. Social media can be a good jumping-off point for more research or to help with getting to grips with concepts before diving into further investigation. 

But all that potential is mixed in with the challenges in using social media. So, how can we help our students navigate social media as critical consumers? Helpfully, many of the same principles discussed above carry over, but these platforms have some of their own particular traits.

You could start by ensuring students understand how social media platforms prioritize popular and trending information, even if it is not always true. Remind students to be wary of highly polarizing content shared by recently created accounts with few followers. Make students aware of phenomena like the illusory-truth effect and echo chambers, both of which significantly impact our ability to judge whether information is accurate. 

Most importantly, suggest taking a moment to pause before accepting an article at face value and cross-checking information to avoid the potential pitfalls of using social media content as a primary information source. If you have younger students, you can use our lesson plan or discussion template to explore the pros and cons of using and having social media.

However you choose to approach this topic with your students, spending time on media literacy skills is always worthwhile. Kialo Edu discussions are designed to help here, so let us know at or on social media how you can use our Sources feature in your lessons.

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