Fact or Fiction: Can Students Tell the Difference?

A recent article from NPR (http://tinyurl.com/fakenewsnpr) describes some startling new research about students’ inability to discern “fake news” from “real news”. It is really interesting how little awareness students seem to have – and not just younger students – all the way through college about finding valid and reliable information.

You probably see the connection coming already . . . this is yet another example of why it is so critical that we teach the skill of accessing valid and reliable information. Not only for their health but also for their roles as citizens! We cannot underestimate the importance of helping our students become informed consumers of information – all kinds of information.

Interestingly, I just completed an assignment with my undergraduate students in which I asked them to do research and advocate for their position on the ballot question of legalizing marijuana (it was timely as we did this the week before we voted on this ballot question in Massachusetts).  They chose their side and did their “research”. I noticed a few things from this activity:

  • • Their “research” involved finding things on news sites or other potentially biased websites
  • • They freely used “facts” that they found – whether or not they could verify those facts as actual truth or just “spin”
  • • There is a LOT of engaging, eye catching, funny, easy-to-read, easy-to-find information that is essentially someone’s opinion or version of truth and my students didn’t worry too much about using it

To be fair . . . in this case I was asking them to focus more on the advocacy side of things than the accessing valid and reliable information side of things . . . but still.

Then, I read one student’s reflection about the activity. Their rationale used the argument that when you try to advocate for something you say whatever you think your audience wants to hear in order to prove your point.

Huh . . .

This isn’t really wrong . . . but this also wasn’t the take away I was hoping for. I hoped it would help them see how easy it is to find information that confirms our own ideas, that sometimes “facts” aren’t facts, and that it can be hard to find actual truth as opposed to just versions of the truth spun to meet an agenda. We all should CARE that it is this hard to be informed consumers who are making choices informed by truth not versions of it.

In another interesting connection to this article, I use an activity in which I have students Google a health related question and  examine and evaluate the websites that come up on the Google search.

One of the criteria is “Accuracy” in which students have to justify why the information from the source is accurate. Do you know what almost 100% of them said was their justification?

Prior knowledge or hearing the information before.

Yes, it was that they heard that information before or it aligns with prior knowledge/learning so that must be a reason to believe it. Now, in some cases, this may be OK. If you are a college student taking (hopefully) courses that are providing the most current, evidence-based content then maybe, maybe, this is an appropriate justification. But is it? If we can only judge accuracy based on our own prior knowledge – is this really accurate? Are we really taking an opportunity to find the truth? Or just the truth as we know it?

And of course, we could go into a whole dialogue about what “truth” even means . . . but lets move on to Facebook – if that isn’t truth what is?

Within a week of the advocacy activity I did with my undergraduate students, the NPR article showed up on Facebook (seriously  . . . how does Facebook do that?) and in some ways I felt validated. These students DO need more support in developing skills around finding truth in an era where “information” is all around. We DO need to ensure that our students are thoughtful, engaged consumers who do not just stop when they find things that confirm what they already know, who go the next step to verify and search out facts, not just information.

Teaching the skill of accessing valid and reliable information IS important, I would argue, critical for our students. We have a duty to our students to help them become active, engaged, thoughtful, discerning, critical consumers of all information.

Take a look at other support for the work you are doing! Be sure to check out the resources at the end of the NPR article. Here are some others if you haven’t seen them:

How do you teach the skill of accessing valid and reliable information? Share your stories about the need to develop this skill and any other resources to justify just how important this skill is!

2 thoughts on “Fact or Fiction: Can Students Tell the Difference?

  1. lovehpe

    Hi Sarah, I actually heard this interview (most of it) and wrote to NPR to confirm that we are teaching this in health ed! Looking forward to a response from them!

  2. Susan Cowell

    Whoa, really interesting! Thinking about it now, I’m sure I have believed something more the 2nd time I heard it than I did the first time I heard it.


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