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Students’ intellectual development hinders their ability to critically assess information.
Students’ levels of intellectual development impacts their performance, especially when it comes to critical thinking. Students at earlier stages of intellectual development, particularly common among freshmen and sophomores, tend to see the world in right-wrong dichotomies. This implies that they view knowledge as a collection of facts, and authorities as the ones who hold the right knowledge. Interestingly, they rely on external cues to establish authority: a professor’s degree or appointment, or the fact that the information is in print or on the Internet. Their role is to receive the knowledge, memorize it and give it back when asked. Because there is an implicit trust in the authorities, students at this stage do not see the need to evaluate sources, therefore we need to help them acquire the skills to analyzes and evaluate information.
While you can’t force intellectual development, you can certainly help students realize that not all sources are equally valid. For instance, you can share with students sample bad sources. Show students examples of overt bias, hoaxes, out-of-date materials, and outright incompetence. The Internet is famous for those, but bad sources can include books and journals as well. Also, show students two scholarly articles that reach opposite conclusions. Building on such examples, make the point that students are in charge of evaluating information for themselves.
Provide students with a process or a set of questions they should ask themselves in order to critique sources. For instance, very general criteria include date of publication, author’s credentials, the domain of web sources (e.g., .edu, .com, .org, .gov). Also tell students about discipline-specific criteria of evaluation. Liaison librarians are available to create web pages about source evaluation in the context of your course or to address this issue in library instruction classes for your students.
If uncritical memorization is not what you want from your students, articulate the level of analysis you expect. For instance, one history professor explicitly tells students that the way they have been taught history through high school (a collection of the right and important facts to remember) is very far from the way historians think. She adds that she wants them to question their sources, compare them against each other, and evaluate them on the basis of evidence. Later in the course, if she sees students slip into right-wrong mode, she reminds them of the way she expects them to think through the content.
If critical evaluation of research materials is part of your learning objectives, it should be reflected in the grading scheme. For instance, in a course on sexuality where the students will have to make a presentation at the end of the semester, the instructor has several preparatory assignments where he asks them to analyze a research article to determine whether students agree with its conclusion. Among other things, students are required to include as part of their analysis information about the author and his/her affiliations, a statement of the exact research question, a paragraph about whether the methodology was appropriate to answer the research question, alternative explanations for the observed results, possible sources of bias that might have occurred in the study, and the author’s own stated limitations of the study.
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