Monday, October 12, 2009

Helping Students Evaluate Sources

Students balk when it comes to evaluating sources. Perhaps it is because they do not have a lot of experience doing it. Maybe they think it is just another irrelevant academic exercise, but it can really help them begin to develop their critical-thinking skills if they take it seriously.

In library instruction sessions I have given, I like to use "Evaluating Information--Applying the CRAAP Test." It has worked rather well. Introducing the concept with a reference to the first Spider-Man movie grabs students' attention at least for a few minutes. When Peter Parker takes his photographs into the big hot-shot editor at the newspaper, the editor calls each photo "crap" as he flips through them. Then he makes his offer to the young Peter Parker, but Peter knows that his work is worth more than this offer. I explain that Peter understands the criteria of a good photograph, because he has done his homework and legwork to make high-quality photos. He stands to leave. Then the editor makes a better offer, because Peter did not fall to his bluff.

Students can also become experts in understanding sources by applying the criteria for good sources.

  1. Currency
  2. Relevancy
  3. Authority
  4. Accuracy
  5. Purpose

Mary George's book The Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know writes about evaluating sources in her last chapter, "Insight, Evaluation, Argument, and Beyond." She sympathizes with the novice student researcher:
But how is a novice supposed to figure out anything other than how current a source is and whether it points to other sources? I think it is absurd--not to mention frustrating--for you to apply these criteria on your own. Instead, the wise way to evaluate sources when you are new to a field or topic is to relate each item you are considering to your research question, keeping in mind the types of relevant sources you imagined when you brainstormed. (134 emphasis included)

It seems like most students would do this automatically, but experience sometimes shows that they take the first source(s) available, since they are crunched for time.

George goes on to explain some of the basic evaluation criteria researchers can apply to their sources. These "factors" are:
1. Date of the source
2. Author's credentials
3. Sponsor's reputation and intent
4. Leads (134-36)

Using her paragraphs in a classroom setting might be useful for educators as well as students. Dividing a class into groups to discuss what she has written regarding the criteria could produce some good discussions. Groups could summarize, ask questions, think of examples, and report on their discussions to the class.

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