I recently attended the Sloan C ALN Conference and watched an engaging plenary talk given by Howard Rheingold who discussed his idea that mastering “Crap Detection 101” is a necessary skill for students (or anyone) to have. This is always a relevant topic, but it was especially timely given that Howard was discussed in an article I read around the same time- a column titled “Why Johnny Can’t Search” from Wired Magazine (Thompson, 2011).
In addition to mentioning Crap Detection 101, Thompson mentions two interesting studies, including one by Professor Pan at the College of Charleston, where Pan measured how skilled students were at internet searching by using Google to answer a series of questions. Not surprisingly, Pan found that students relied on the top hits in Google, even when Pan had artificially changed the search results so lower results showed up first. Students were not verifying the quality of the search results they found, they were relying on Google to do this for them. Another study mentioned was conducted at Northwestern, where of the 102 undergraduates studied, none checked the authors’ credentials on internet sources they used (Thompson, 2011). My personal teaching experience aligns with these findings.
So why are researchers (and teachers like myself) finding these trends? Thompson suggests that schools aren’t teaching how to conduct intelligent internet searches, and more importantly, aren’t teaching students how to critically evaluate sources once they find them. It’s possible that a K-12 curriculum focused on prepping students for exams doesn’t include time for this type of instruction on information literacy, but then university instructors assume that students already know this information and so don’t focus on it in their classes. As Thompson comments, “this situation is surpassingly ironic, because not only is intelligent search a key to everyday problem-solving, it also offers a golden opportunity to train kids in critical thinking.”
Fortunately, there are plentiful online resources that help teach these skills (assuming you know how to find them in a search, ha ha), including lesson plans and sample activities. A useful method to use for website evaluation is the CRAAP test: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose (originally developed by Meriam Library CSU Chico). Another fun way to approach this is to use spoof websites to help students learn that simply finding something on a website doesn’t make it truthful or reliable; a list of sites, including the online pregnancy test and save the tree octopus, can be found here. And finally, another valuable website (not just for students!) is Snopes.com which helps you identify the truth behind urban legends and misinformation (such as those email chains that go around- no, if you forward this to 50 people in the next five minutes, you will not receive a free computer). So let’s get started teaching students how to search!
– Gail E. Krovitz, Ph.D. –
Director of Academic Training & Consulting
Thompson, C. November 2011. Why Johnny Can’t Search. Wired Magazine. Available online at: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/11/st_thompson_searchresults/