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From: Beckie Supiano
Subject: One Way to Fight Fake News
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We Read It on the Internet
Anyone who views college as an inoculation against fake news will find a new study from the Stanford History Education Group pretty disheartening. The study, by Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, builds on the group’s previous work, which found that students in middle school, high school, and college were “easily duped” online.
The new study tested three kinds of “experts”: historians, professional fact-checkers, and Stanford undergraduates. The fact-checkers performed well, but the students and the historians “often fell victim to easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names,” the report says.
One test required the experts to evaluate information about bullying from two websites, those of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has 64,000 members and publishes the field’s main journal, and of the American College of Pediatricians, a much smaller organization that has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its positions on LGBTQ rights. All of the fact-checkers determined — correctly — that the American Academy of Pediatrics was the more reliable source. But only half of the historians and 20 percent of the students did, with the rest finding the American College of Pediatricians more reliable, or the two groups equally so.
Why did the fact-checkers prevail where students at a top college and historians — who, as the report notes, “evaluate sources for a living — stumbled? They read differently. The students and historians tended to read “vertically,” the report notes, delving deeply into a website in their efforts to determine its credibility. That, the researchers point out, is more or less the approach laid out in many checklists designed to help students use the internet well, which tend to suggest looking at particular features of a website to evaluate its trustworthiness.
The fact checkers, in contrast, read “laterally,” turning to sources beyond the website in question — and not treating them all as being equally reliable, either. They succeeded, the report says, “not because they followed the advice we give to students. They succeeded because they didn’t.”
The researchers add that the fact checkers brought skepticism to their task — including skepticism of their own knowledge.
Perhaps, then, what students need to navigate the internet successfully is an orientation, not a checklist. One place that orientation might be cultivated: freshman composition courses. Ellen Wayland-Smith argued in a commentary piece for The Chronicle earlier this year that such courses have become the place where students learn “how to think critically about topics and how to evaluate sources.”
In her composition classes, Ms. Wayland-Smith writes, “I teach students how to distinguish between news and propaganda. I teach them about blogs and anecdotal evidence and sponsored content and peer-reviewed articles, and I help them see that not all the links they click on are equally valid sources of information.” That sounds like the kind of thinking the fact-checkers in the Stanford study brought to the table.
Information literacy is a pressing concern for colleges. Where do students on your campus learn these skills? How do you encourage students to bring a critical eye to what they read online? Could the concept of “lateral reading” help students in your classes? Share your thoughts with me at email@example.com and they may appear in a future Teaching newsletter.
- What assignments do you remember from your undergraduate days? Which were the most meaningful? Those questions are at the heart of a book, The Meaningful Writing Project, which James Lang wrote about recently in The Chronicle. The book features an analysis of survey results from more than 700 undergraduates at three different institutions who were given two prompts: to describe a writing project from their undergraduate education that was meaningful to them, and to explain why it was meaningful. One of the main takeaways for Mr. Lang revolves around the concept of transfer, which has been described as the holy grail of teaching and learning. In this context it means that students should be able to take some insight they gain from an assignment and apply it elsewhere. And, as we explored a few years ago, composition instructors have been at the forefront of efforts to help students transfer their skills and knowledge.
- John Zubizarreta, who appeared in our recent package of teaching innovators, is a devotee of metacognition. Like transfer, it’s a term that often pops up in conversations about teaching, and it’s usually given the shorthand, “thinking about thinking.” A student of Mr. Zubizarreta’s at Columbia College, a women’s college in South Carolina, puts it another way. “He regularly pushes us to reflect on how we learn, how learning in one class connects to learning in other classes and to our personal lives, and why our learning is important in the first place,” she said.
- When researchers try to study public understanding of science, they often conflate two things — knowledge and understanding — Tania Lombrozo, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote for NPR. Knowledge might mean simply the ability to recite or recognize a scientific fact. Understanding, however, describes a person’s ability to make informed decisions about science. “That means,” she wrote, “being able to work with information to draw new inferences and make good judgments, not just ‘knowing’ key claims.”
Tailored Office Hours
Phil Simon, a lecturer in Arizona State University’s business school, encourages his students to schedule brief appointments with him early in the semester so they can get to know each other. Mr. Simon, who wrote in response to our recent question about how you’ve made office hours more effective, adds that he realizes “one size does not fit all.” So he’s also available to connect with students through a number of technologies, including screen-sharing, a conference call app, and Slack.
Jordan Trachtenberg, a lecturer in the writing and communication program at Rice University, puts a similar emphasis on individual conversations. Ms. Trachtenberg requires students to meet her for individual conferences to discuss drafts of their first two major papers. And, she writes, students “are free to sign up whenever they need help and use Google calendar appointments to book my time individually in 20-min slots.” One advantage of this system, she adds, is “I can really tailor the meeting to their needs at the moment and encourage them to continue to come back.”
Meeting with individual students is time-consuming, of course, and harder to do if you teach very large classes. Have you found a way to connect with students one on one? If so, does it change the dynamics during class? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and your comments may be included in a future newsletter.
—Beckie and Dan