Teasing Out the Truth: Teaching Students to Closely Examine Information

By Barbara Theirl

“Where is the best place to find the most accurate information for your research topic?” I asked my eighth graders who were on the cusp of their third Big Six research project.
Waving his hand wildly in the back of the room was Johnny. Smiling broadly he said, “Google it.”
After countless discussions of the disadvantages and advantages of “Googling,” and the attributes of using our vetted databases, I wanted to plunge my iPad into the nearest Makey Makey, just to see what it would do-you know, just in the interest of a makerspace discovery.
But this scenario is really about a broader issue-how do students make sense of what is “fake” and what is “real” information online?
The Danger of Information Snacking
Even as far back as 2008, columnist Rollo Romig described in his weekly Page-Turner column in The New Yorker what he called an information “snacker.” Romig asserts that online or off, readers no longer read for depth or content.
He argues that it is in the interest of commercial business to get the public to have a quick “snack” on as many sites and information as possible by skimming, scanning, and browsing so buying behaviors of the public are revealed. Today information “snacking” carries greater consequences than just exposing buying behaviors. What’s an educator to do when many of today’s “snacks” are misinformation meant to deceive and feed unhealthy flames of prejudice and bias?
Using RADCAB to Examine Information
With every problem comes opportunity. You can guide students in processes and projects that examine the RADCAB of information, a long-established acronym created by Karen M. Christensson that students can use to evaluate information. Christensson reminds students to “test” information using each of the letters of her acronym.

R: Relevancy
Is the information applicable for the task required? What is it that one needs or wants to know?
A: Appropriateness
Is the information written for grade school students or doctoral students
D: Details
Details are examined when students stop to consider the depth of the information. Is the information more than a superficial “snack?” Has the website’s organization or individual used a headline so salacious that it is meant to grab you with the hope you don’t read further, but just pass the fake information on?
C: Currency
Currency means looking for the online publishing date and most recent updates. Students need to learn to carefully consider the rate that information changes. Information on the laws regulating drones could be “so last year” even if it was just written six months ago.
A: Authority and Accuracy
Authority and accuracy take students more time and a bit of research to discern the fake from the real. Often this is the area that students object to the most and teachers will get the cliché, “If it’s on the Internet, it must be true.” Fact-checking and reviewing the URL suffix is a solid skill that, along with misspellings, using all capital letters, grammatical errors, and strange domain names, can tip off student investigators to check further.
Who is the author of the information? What are their credentials? Is the author using citations, references, and links? For accuracy, I make my students find at least two more reliable places online that essentially have the same information. I call it triangulation, and use my hands to form that shape to help them remember to do it.
B: Bias
Students must ask, is a source persuading, informing, or selling me something? When it comes to teasing out the truth, students need to be discriminating users of information. Like the story of the lad who cried wolf, the consequences of not discerning the truth from the fake will be an information landscape of distrust that fails from lack of credibility.
Barbara Theirl recently retired after teaching information literacy and technology for 27 years. She has served in various educational leadership positions and as an assistant professor and teacher supervisor at two universities. Theirl, a former copresident of the Information Technology Educators of Minnesota was appointed to the Minnesota State Library Advisory Council and served as chair for two terms. She has been a keynote speaker, invited presenter for statewide conferences on information literacy and technology, and has served on advisory councils for several college of education departments. Theirl has traveled to numerous states and Thailand promoting information literacy, technology, and a love of reading. You can contact Barbara by email at bhtheirl@gmail.com.

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