As Carie Windham’s remarks suggest, the majority of today’s students are “digital natives,” who cannot remember a time before computers and who instinctively turn to digital media for answers to a wide range of questions. To say that today’s students are comfortable using the Web seems both self-evident and an understatement. Likely, you’ve found, as I have, that students increasingly interject information found on the Internet into classroom discussions or as sources for their independent research projects. U.Va. students, like Windham, often turn to the Web “as the starting point for serious academic research,” expecting to learn and to conduct research using digitized information.
Their reliance on technology can have very positive outcomes—students can easily satisfy their own curiosity to find out more about a class topic or author, and they can enrich class discussion by sharing this with their peers. The problem arises when students, who appear quite savvy at locating information, don’t after all know how to find reliable sources or how to evaluate the sources they do find on the Internet. Once memorized, misinformation can be difficult to erase.
Listening to my students relate what they have gleaned from the Web for class or for a paper made me wonder: Just how adept are today’s students at finding the best information or at evaluating the reliability of the information they find? Do they primarily “google” the topic, or do they take the time to visit scholarly databases or archives that will point them to academic journals?
Recent research on information literacy suggests that undergraduates are not as “net savvy” as you might anticipate, given their reliance on computers. When searching for information, students typically rely on general search engines (Google, Altavista), search directories (Yahoo!) or meta-search engines (Dogpile, Metacrawler), which perform paradoxically extensive yet superficial web searches. Moreover, studies of web-searching patterns show that typical web users tend to type in only a small number of terms per query (between two and three on average), to select from the first page or two of results, and to end the search after one or two attempts to find relevant information.1 The preliminary findings of a recent Educational Testing Service (ETS) survey suggests that over half of the students were able to identify “reasonably relevant materials” when searching a database of journal articles, but that students were “generally poor at identifying biased Web content” (Foster 2006).
Clearly, at issue is not whether students will continue to use the Web but how they use it. Without a supporting instructional framework, my stipulations produced compliance rather than any real understanding of what constitutes a good primary or secondary source in my discipline (they also served to convince the students that I matriculated during the Dark Ages). To remedy this, I changed my approach and developed two assignments to help students more effectively search, retrieve, and critically engage with information they find on the Web.
How I responded
Another benefit of the log is that it can foster classroom conversations about how and where to locate research materials in my discipline and how to determine whether a primary or secondary source is reliable or significant. These conversations provide a clear transition to the next assignment, which prompts students to carefully evaluate the sources they find. For it, I ask students to analyze at least two of the web-based sources they are considering for their research papers by answering the questions located in the table below. Then we spend part of the next class period talking generally about what they discovered. You could combine the homework assignment and discussion to dissect specific examples of good and bad websites together as a class. Personally, I like for the students to use the assignment to critique sources they are considering for their bibliographies. The follow-up discussion allows us to share insights that might seem evident, but aren’t always to my students—for example, that seemingly reliable websites may perpetuate common myths or subtle bias, that even reputable sources or professional websites can provide dated information, or that the best source might not be available as an on-line pdf document but might require a trip to the library.
As I’ve assigned the log and the critique with greater regularity, my opinion of students’ web use has changed. Rather than trying to thwart students’ deeply engrained custom of turning to the Web as the source for all answers, I’ve instead started trying to help them ask the right questions and to think critically about what they find there. Assuming that undergraduates do depend on computers for “nearly every aspect of [their] daily lives,” I hope to encourage them to do so more thoughtfully and more deliberately so as to enrich rather than stifle their own scholarship.
Foster, Andrea. “Students Fall Short on ‘Information Literacy,’ Educational Testing
Hirsh, Katherine and Melissa Kalpin Prescott. “Savvy Web Searching: Helping
Lampert, L.D. “Where Will They Find History? The Challenges of Information Literacy
Lorenzo, George and Charles Dziuban. “Ensuring the Net Generation is Net Savvy.”
Windham, Carie. “Getting Past Google: Perspectives on Information Literacy from the