Learning how to evaluate the reliability of online sources

Profile Image

Dr Lynette Pretorius

Contact details

Dr Lynette Pretorius is an award-winning educator and researcher in the fields of academic language, literacy, research skills, and research methodologies. 

This post is based on an article I recently published.

It is commonly thought that contemporary students are digital natives who are naturally able to use sophisticated digital literacy in their daily practices because they have been immersed in the digital age their entire lives. Research, though, shows that the concept of being a digital native is a myth. For example, studies have shown that students born in the digital age use technology frequently, but that this often requires only basic technology knowledge (e.g., how to type a search into an internet browser or how to send and receive emails or instant messages).

It is clear from the research that students require significant support to learn how to use specific technologies for learning. Students entering university are not necessarily familiar with the skills needed to access information at a university level. For example, many have never had to search for or read academic journal articles before. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to teach students how to find this type of information on the internet, while also assessing the reliability of the information they obtain.

There is clear evidence that, while students are able to use technology to find information (i.e., search engines), little attention is given to evaluating the quality of information. As educators, we need to help students learn how to effectively evaluate information for relevance, accuracy, or authority so that they can enter the online information landscape and resolve conflicts between online media and scholarly content.

I explicitly teach students how to evaluate the reliability of sources during my orientation workshops each semester. This is done in a two-hour workshop focused on how to read academic sources effectively. A key component of this workshop is an online interactive tutorial which I developed several years ago. I have recently made the tutorial freely available for other educators to use in their classrooms.

The tutorial incorporates case-based learning and self-discovery to encourage learning through experience. After completing each case, the students are provided with an expert evaluation of the reliability of the source. There are five cases, as outlined below:

  • Blog Post
    • Students are presented with a blog post discussing the science of salt lamps and how it can be used to treat asthma. Students are asked to decide whether the source is reliable or unreliable for use in their assignment. Students are also asked to provide a reason for their evaluation. After submitting their answers for each question, students are provided with a video explaining how to evaluate the reliability of sources.
  • Wikipedia
    • Students are presented with a Wikipedia entry for the Opium War. Students are asked whether they think Wikipedia is an appropriate first step in research. They are given three options from which to choose:
      • Yes, you should research a topic on Wikipedia first, as it gives you a broad understanding of the ideas important to the topic.
      • Sometimes, as you can gain some useful information and Wikipedia can provide links to other resources such as journal articles, books, and academic websites.
      • No, as Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, the reliability of the information is suspect.
  • History Website
    • Students are presented with a history website discussing the Opium War. Students are asked to select items they think make the source reliable from the following list: the author is a historian, the author has written several articles on the website, the article uses historical dates and Chinese names, the author lived and worked in Asia, and the article is easy to understand. Students are also asked to select items they think make the source unreliable from the following list: there are no references, the article does not indicate to which institution the author is affiliated, the website sounds unreliable, and the links to further information redirects to other pages on the same website. Students are then asked to provide an overall evaluation of the source’s reliability.
  • Newspaper Article
    • Students are presented with a newspaper article discussing a new medical treatment for heart disease. Students are asked whether this source can be used in an assignment by choosing from one of the following options:
      • Yes. This article clearly describes a new pharmaceutical treatment for heart disease, quotes a respected professor in the field, and highlights the key research findings.
      • Sometimes. These types of articles can be useful as they provide information in an easy to understand language, and can provide the links to the original research.
      • No. You should never use these types of articles in an academic assignment
  • Journal Article
    • Students are presented with a journal article presenting qualitative data from an educational research paper about self-discovery learning at university. Students are asked to select items they think make the source reliable from the following list: the article is published in an international education journal, the authors work at an academic institution and have qualifications in the field, the article describes original research, the authors use data to support their claims, and the article uses technical terms. Students are also asked to provide an overall evaluation of the source’s reliability and to provide a reason for their evaluation.

In my research paper, I evaluated my teaching strategy and found that this approach can effectively teach students how to discern the reliability of sources. It helps students deepen their personal understanding of what makes sources reliable or not. By analysing the responses students provided to the blog post, I discovered that students had not previously considered that evaluating the reliability of a source would be an important consideration for writing assignments. I also found that students’ evaluations of sources were dependent on their personal opinions about the topic, rather than any verifiable evidence provided in the source. Then, as they moved through the tutorial, students started to discover which aspects were most important in establishing the credibility and reliability of research. By the time they reached the final source, they were much more cautious when assessing the research, often asking for further details about the source.

Through my research, I was able to demonstrate that the students in my study had changed their way of looking at online information. They had crossed a threshold in understanding which permanently transformed their way of thinking. This demonstrates the value of explicit instruction through self-discovery learning as a pedagogical tool for teachers.

Questions to ponder

How do you personally evaluate the credibility of information you find online? What specific criteria or strategies do you use, and how do these align with or differ from the methods outlined in the tutorial described in the study?

How has the skill of evaluating digital sources impacted your academic work or research? Can you recall a situation where discerning the reliability of a source significantly influenced the outcome of your project or research? How did this experience shape your approach to digital literacy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *