January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Caveat Lector: The Perils of Critical Thinking for Today’s Students

Posted: Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

by Kevin Raskoff and George I. Matsumoto

The world has changed remarkably for our students, with information more readily available, easier to find, and of increasingly poorer quality than at any time in history. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) topics are receiving more attention in the classroom and the new Next Generation Science Standards1 (NGSS) and Common Core State Standards2 (CC) focus on deeper understanding and application of concepts rather than memorization. Critical thinking and problem solving have been outlined as essential components of both NGSS and CC, and being able to demonstrate understanding by asking and answering questions is core to these new benchmarks.

In today’s fast-moving world of the internet and social media, the time spent in libraries researching material has disappeared except, perhaps, in the minds of educators. Textbooks are increasingly shifting to electronic versions and students are being flooded with information – but how do they learn to evaluate this information? Caveat lector is Latin for “let the reader beware.” Many students have learned to visit fact-checking websites like Snopes, Politifact, and Skeptical Science to learn if a rumor or story that they have read is based in fact. However, it is surprising to find how naive some students are in terms of believing what they read on the internet – especially given the finding that students (8-18 years) are spending enormous amounts of time with electronic media – averaging more than 7.5 hours a day3.

Despite this familiarity with media, students often are surprised to find that there are purposely disingenuous websites when they are asked to evaluate websites for veracity or bias4,5. Add to this the finding that more and more jobs, at all levels – not just science – require knowledge of STEM6,7. All of this points to a need to train students to critically evaluate what they are reading, to be able to find, identify, and understand primary literature, and realize that publicly edited resources, such as Wikipedia are not a valid primary reference (although they can be a good place to start for many STEM topics). In an electronic culture where gut feeling or “Truthiness8” reigns, what we need are students who will strive to question the sources of their information– especially for topics that are not clearly defined or understood, or are being “debated” due to some bias (political, economic, etc.). We would like students to be able to engage in a multi-step process to evaluate the merits of any information. Many similar recommendations can be found on academic websites worldwide9,10,11,12. Here is one proposed set of recommendations that can be easily modified by instructors at any level to fit the needs of their students.

The student should evaluate any source for:

Credibility– Who is providing the information, what are their credentials? Why should we believe them?

Bias– Is the information presented in a balanced way, or is there a strong point of view? Does the strong opinion presented match the evidence behind the claim? Identifying the biases inherent to any author or reader is crucial.

Audience– Who is the information written for? Is the goal to simply inform, or is it to sway, convince, or otherwise influence?

Accuracy– What is the valid (peer reviewed) evidence to support the information being given? Is it fringe or mainstream? Is the information cherry-picked and/or misrepresented?

Currency– Scientific understanding can change quickly, and references should be recent enough to present an accurate view of the current state of knowledge on a subject. A reference from 410AD might be adequate for a mathematics proof, but a six month old reference on climate change data may be too old.

Relevance– Does the source present information that is relevant to the topic? Does the source add to your understanding, or is it too peripheral to be of appropriate direct use?

An amusing and interactive training site for students that addresses many of these issues can be found at the Internet Detective13. Although primarily designed for college and university students, we encourage high school and even middle school students to try it out as well.

As educators in any field and at any level, helping our students become more accomplished critical thinkers should be at the forefront of our learning outcomes, whether explicitly stated or not. Our jobs in the classroom are getting harder in this endeavor as the sources and types of information streaming into our student’s heads is vast in quantity but of unknown quality. Whether trying to produce successful science students, or trying to produce successful citizens, our society’s need for a population that can critically evaluate sources of information has never been more urgent. As our state, country, and planet deal with increasingly challenging environmental, social, and economic issues, our best tool is a critically thinking mind. Starting in the formative primary grades and continuing through to the end of their university training, our students need to be trained in these important tools and they should be practiced often. The incredible flow of information in today’s age is a double-edged sword. The world is at our fingertips, often literally sitting in our pockets, but knowing how to process and filter that wondrous flow of information is a skillset all of us need to mindfully practice.

Kevin Raskoff is Department Chair for the Department of Biology at the Monterey Peninsula College; George I. Matsumoto is a Senior Education and Research Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. They were invited to write by CSTA member Valerie Joyner.

1Next Generation Science Standards (http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards) (accessed January 3, 2015).

2California Department of Education. Common Core State Standards (http://www.cde.ca.gov/re/cc) (accessed January 3, 2015).

3Generation M2. Media in the lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. January 2010.

4Bradley, P. (2012) Fake websites or spoof websites. Examples of false sites to aid in evaluating internet resources (http://www.philb.com/fakesites.htm) accessed December 26, 2014

5Rao, A. (2012) 11 Hilarious Hoax Sites to Test Website Evaluation. (http://teachbytes.com/2012/11/01/test-website-evaluation-with-10-hilarious-hoax-sites) accessed December 26, 2014.

6Lacey, T.A., and Wright, B. (2009). Occupational employment projections to 2018. Monthly Labor Review, 132(11), 82-123. Available at: http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2009/11/art5full.pdf

7National Research Council. (2011). Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Committee on Highly Successful Science Programs for K-12 Science Education. Board on Science Education and Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

8American Dialect Society. (2006). Truthiness Voted 2005 Word of the Year. (http://www.americandialect.org/truthiness_voted_2005_word_of_the_year) (accessed January 3, 2015) Truthiness- the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

9Kennesaw State University. (2014). Evaluating Websites: Helpful tips for evaluating websites. (http://libguides.kennesaw.edu/evaluatingwebsites) (accessed January 3, 2015)

10Cornell University Library. (2014). Evaluating Web Sites: Criteria and Tools (https://olinuris.library.cornell.edu/ref/research/webeval.html)(accessed January 3, 2015)

11The University of Edinburgh. (2015). How to evaluate website content. (http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/information-services/library-museum-gallery/finding-resources/library-databases/databases-overview/evaluating-websites) (accessed January 3, 2015)

12Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Evaluating internet information. (http://www.lib.vt.edu/instruct/evaluate) (accessed January 5, 2015)

13Place, E., Kendall, M., Hiom, D., Booth, H., Ayres, P., Manuel, A., Smith, P. (2006) “Internet Detective: Wise up to the Web”, 3rd edition, Intute Virtual Training Suite, [online]. Available from: http://www.vts.intute.ac.uk/detective/

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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