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Evaluating Strategies for Evaluating Sources

Many faculty members in the library and beyond strive to help students learn to evaluate the information sources they use, whether in print, or on websites, or presented as images, audio, or video. Evaluating sources is a core competency of information literacy, and is highlighted by the Association of College and Research Libraries in ACRL Information Literacy Standard 3:

The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.

I’ll be honest: Standard 3 has always been my favorite of the ACRL standards, and I spend lots of my instructional brainstorming time on ways to incorporate more discussion of evaluating sources into my teaching. One of the first things I read on the topic when I first became a librarian was Marc Meola’s article in portal: Libraries and the Academy called Chucking the Checklist. Meola suggests that librarians stop using checklists of evaluation criteria — often accuracy, expertise, currency, relevance, etc. — to teach students to evaluate websites. Instead, we can approach instruction on evaluating sources as an opportunity to discuss the library’s vetted resources like article databases, and to use comparison and corroboration to contrast websites and library resources.

I enjoy Meola’s article and agree that the checklist approach is simplistic, however, there’s often not enough time in our instructional sessions with students to delve as deeply into a discussion of the differences between information sources as Meola suggests. So I confess that I do use checklists, though I try to contextualize and discuss the criteria with students, either individually or as a group, while they search. I also like to frame this as source interrogation: what questions can students ask about the source, and what do the answers tell us?

At City Tech we started out (following the lead of many other academic libraries) by using a set of questions to ask about sources created by the Merriam Library at California State University, Chico. This list of questions is called the CRAAP Test — guaranteed to get a giggle out of even the sleepiest class — which stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. Each criteria includes several questions to ask about the source. It’s a long and thorough list, and it’s deservedly popular in academic libraries.

Last week I followed a Twitter link that led me to another set of criteria for evaluating sources, this one called the SMELL Test. This guide from PBS.org’s MediaShift website urges readers to consider the source, motivation, evidence, logic, and what was left out of the information they read about online. Since it’s presented in article form it’s not exactly a checklist per se, but I think the SMELL test would make an interesting article for students to read and discuss.

Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed this 13-minute TED Talk from journalist Markham Nolan on How to Separate Fact and Fiction Online. In it, Nolan details the tools and strategies that journalists use to check sources and verify information in images and video even as a news story is developing. For example, he discusses how photos of Hurricane Sandy were fact-checked. I think students often forget that they should evaluate their image, audio, and video sources as well as text-based sources, and I think this video can help us make that case.

Do you have strategies or materials that you use to help students learn to think critically about information sources? Share them in the comments if so!