Assigning your learners a research project for your course? Here’s how to help them find good sources.

I feel fortunate to have grown up with the Internet. I don’t mean having grown up with the Internet as we know it today, but having grown up alongside the Internet as it emerged and developed. As a result, I grew up learning how to find information the traditional way—in books, magazines, and even microfilm newspapers. But I also learned how to find information on the Internet, and how to measure the credibility of a source early on.

I also got to see rules about citing Internet sources change first-hand. When I first started writing essays for school, the rule we were given was “no online sources allowed.” Later, we were told “you can use online sources, but not Wikipedia.” And later still, we were told “you can use Wikipedia not as a source itself, but as a source for other sources, and by the way, here are the MLA guidelines for how to site them in your term paper.”

Of course, as an educator, the duty to help your learners find good sources now falls on you. And since you’re teaching an online course, it should be a given that your learners will be searching for resources online. Here’s a few critical thinking questions your learners can use to find high-quality sources.

1. What can you learn about the authorship of the sources?

Some credible sources are not credited to an individual author, such as many reports on polling data from the Pew Research Center, statements published by an organization, or more general resources from an educational institution.

However, outside of a these few specific cases, credible sources will have an author clearly visible on the article page. Online publications also usually link the author byline to a profile page about the author that lists their qualifications. The more an online article is based on opinion or original research, the more important it is to have an author.

2. When was the source written, and is it still relevant?

Imagine trying to write a guide for citing online sources in 1997, the year before Google was founded? Or in 2005, before Facebook became open to the public? Or in 2006, before the iPhone ushered in the smartphone era?

Even trustworthy sources become outdated over time. Teach your learners to look to the publication date, and use it to evaluate whether their source is still relevant.

3. Is the source widely known and respected?

Many online sources have a well-established reputation, both generally and within their own fields. Academic articles off JSTOR, medical information from the Mayo Clinic, and poll research from Pew are all examples of credible sources.

Prominent publications, such as news websites and journals, can also be reliable, but learners should take extra steps to consider how biased an author or publication may be, and if possible, should look at the lengths they go to fact check their articles and how transparent they are in printing corrections or retractions. A newspaper that scrupulously accounts for every typo is more credible than one that never admits error.

4. Does the source URL end in .gov or .edu?

Most of us are aware that domain extensions mean different things. The .com extension was initially intended for commercial use, but has since become the generic extension for US-based websites.

While anyone can buy a domain name ending in .com, .org, or .net, domains ending in .gov or .edu are restricted to governmental organizations or accredited higher education institutions respectively.

5. Is the source making a disputed or unsupported claim?

Not every statement requires a source to back it up. If I am writing a paper, I can say that Russia is the largest country in the world without having to provide a source. However, if I am providing a statistic or a piece of information that is not considered common knowledge for my audience, then sources are required.

In many cases, learners are looking for straightforward sources to back up fact-based information. For instance, statistics for college attendance by various demographics are usually pretty easy to find and are usually non-controversial. But if a learner finds a source stating something that seems wildly improbable, they should treat that source with skepticism and either examine that source’s information more carefully (see below), or look for more credible sources that support that claim.

6. How does the source cite support for their claim?

A reliable source doesn’t make unfounded claims and is transparent in providing supporting research. For instance, part of what makes Pew a reliable source is that they are open about their methods. This means if someone suspected their results were flawed, they could look at how the study was conducted to try to find a vulnerability.

If someone is claiming that a certain percentage of respondents answered a certain way on their survey, but they don’t give any information about who those respondents were or how their question was phrased, it should raise red flags.

7. Can you check the source’s citations?

Many people get as far as seeing that someone has left citations without checking those citations for themselves. Have your learners go that extra step to track information to its source.

This can be helpful for learners if they find an interesting statistic on someone’s private blog. A personal blog is not a great source, but if the blogger links to a more reliable source, then the learner can reference the original study instead.

8. What information can you find about the publication source?

We talked earlier about the importance of checking an author’s credentials, but the same is true of a publication. If your learners are citing an unfamiliar publication, have them research that publication’s credentials. They can start by looking for an “about” page on the website, where the publication should list their mission statement and give background about their organizational purpose.

Learners can also google the name of the publication to see if it has a reputation for quality source material. Some unreliable websites intentionally choose respectable-sounding names to try to blend in, but some further research might help learners discover more about their background and history.

9. Does the source have an agenda?

Few—if any—sources are perfectly objective. But most reliable sources will do their best to examine their topic from all angles and will avoid supposition and conjecture. Learners can cite sources that have a strong perspective, but they should take that perspective into account as they evaluate its credibility.

Similarly, learners should know to differentiate between native content and paid or sponsored content. These articles can often blend in with other web content, which can be misleading—intentionally or otherwise. Train your learners to look for a “sponsored” or “paid content” tag when looking for sources.

10. How professional is the source’s website?

Finally, while unreliable sources can disguise themselves as reliable ones, it’s very rare that a respected, credible source has a website covered in ads and riddled with typos. If the source website looks questionable, that should raise suspicions.

Since we’re talking about sources, here are mine.

Want some more resources to share with your learners to help them develop critical thinking about the information they find online? Well, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are a few other guides that you can share with your learners to help them as they look for information online:

In fact, you could even create a whole lesson around evaluating information sources. Offer up some examples of varying quality and have your learners analyze them. See if they can pick up on problems in a source, and whether they can identify the good from the bad! It’s a life skill that will help the well beyond their time in your classroom.

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