Talk to any professor of undergraduate level classes and you’ll likely find similar issues regarding the way students use google to research their papers and projects. All universities have their house style, preferred referencing conventions and, of course, a well stocked online library of resources. But it is an uphill struggle to get students, particularly those fresh from high school, to use peer-reviewed studies, and to critically evaluate where their information is coming from.

Most will turn first to google, and Sam Wineburg’s research has finally proved what we all thought to be true: students are too trusting of what they find on the internet. Rarely advancing past the first hits on google, the information they find there often makes it’s way into their papers, presented as fact. This, as Wineburg says, is not just about “fake news”, but rather about learning the more subtle nuances of information, from loaded language and bias to outright fabrication.

Wineburg suggests that students employ certain simple strategies to confront this and, as educators, we can help by affirming and supporting these practices in our training sessions with new students. In short, he suggests that students learn to:

  1. Use the “talk” function on Wikipedia. As an open-source platform, we should be very wary of what information is presented there, especially as it’s often a first-stop shop for students when presented with a new topic. By clicking on the “talk” function, students can learn about any discussion surrounding the topic, including what has and has not been proved, and where any areas of controversy exist.
  2. Wait before clicking. What Wineburg calls showing “click restraint” is to check the information shown immediately after the link to see what it is about, who it is by, and whether there may be some other agenda behind it.
  3. Get off the site. It’s common practice to teach students certain tools and processes by which we can check and filter content for bias, but Wineburg suggests instead to check what others are saying about it.

Wineburg found a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in the fact that students were “easily duped” by false or skewed information, and this is clearly a matter of great concern for educators. When planning workshops in study skills or academic research and writing at school or university, this is an area which clearly needs our energy and attention.