Teaching healthy skepticism

In my work with classes this semester, my lesson plans have been designed in response to questions from students that I received in advance. The most common concern I heard from those students — by far — was a variation of, “How do I know which sources I can trust?”

As a librarian, my teaching is informed by threshold concepts found in the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. I don’t tell students to use only peer-reviewed sources; I explain to them the role of peer review in the scholarly publication process. I don’t tell them that they should use only subscription resources through the library; I explain that, as students at a research university, they have access to information sources that are not freely available on the open web. I share strategies for detecting unacknowledged bias in sources, but I also share examples of situations in which a biased source may still be valuable. In short, I try to shift the conversation away from which sources they’re allowed to use and recenter it on how information from the various sources they encounter can contribute to their understanding and their writing. I want to empower students to make better judgments for themselves.

This week I’m attending ACRL 2021, and a presentation titled “Trust, Criticality, & the Open Web: Three Approaches to Teaching Lateral Reading” has provided me with a few more thoughts and resources I would like to share with you. First, teaching healthy skepticism rather than cynicism toward sources means providing guidance for both how to be critical and how to trust. Second, you may need to debunk ineffective source evaluation strategies that your students have learned in the past (e.g., judging by domain extensions such as .gov, .edu, and .com), as relying on these can inhibit their development of healthy skepticism. Third, here are a few brief, effective videos that can help your students become more discerning about the information they consume and share:

You may see some of these same strategies and values in the Library’s newly updated research guide on Busting Fake News: Evaluating Online Information. Let us know if you have favorite strategies for encouraging healthy skepticism in your students!