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March 3, 2021

4 Tips for Assessing Digital Literacy in Your Classroom

Can your students contend with the disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda that floods their phones, tablets, and laptops?

Since the 2016 presidential election, there’s been intense concern about whether people can make sense of digital information. Our work at the Stanford History Education Group may have contributed to the unease. Over the past several years, we have designed short assessments of civic online reasoning — the ability to effectively search for and evaluate social and political information online — and in November 2016 we released a research report that indicated that students from middle school to college struggle to evaluate online content. Our assessments revealed that students had difficulty distinguishing ads from the news, imposters from verified social media accounts, and lobbyists from independent researchers.

So what can teachers do to tackle this problem?

One place to start is with our short assessments. Below, we detail four ways to integrate one of our assessments into instruction.

Three Core Competencies

Our research revealed that professional fact checkers practice three core competencies. When presented with an unfamiliar source, fact checkers ask themselves:

  1. Who’s behind the information?
  2. What’s the evidence?
  3. What do other sources say?

When students encounter an unfamiliar source, it’s crucial that they first consider who created it. Unfortunately, our work with students shows that too often they neglect to ask who’s behind a source. Students don’t recognize the pivotal relationship between a source’s creator and the information it provides.

In one of our assessments, students watch a short YouTube video and respond to the question,

“What is one reason why this video might NOT be a reliable
source about the coal industry in the U.S.?”

The video was posted by America’s Power (also known as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity), a political advocacy group that represents coal producers. Ideally, students will investigate this organization, identify it as a coal industry front group, and explain how its vested interest in the video’s topic is problematic. However, after asking hundreds of high school students to complete this task, we’ve seen students base their evaluations on less relevant features, like the video’s content, when it was posted, or the number of likes the video has garnered.

Here are four ideas for using this assessment in the classroom:

  • As a hook for a lesson. Ask students to complete the task. Then, ask them to share their responses. As part of this discussion, make sure to surface the fact that the video was produced by an organization that represents coal producers. If students haven’t realized this fact about the video (our piloting suggests most students won’t), they might be surprised or even a little taken aback. This is an opportunity to introduce students to the importance of asking, “Who’s behind this information?” whenever they encounter unfamiliar digital content.
  • As content for modeling. After students complete the task, you could model your own reasoning as you evaluate the video. In just a few minutes of carefully planned modeling, you can show students why and how you prioritize investigating the source of the video. After you model, ask students to reflect on what you did and why it was a powerful strategy for evaluating the video. They could then practice evaluating another video or source.
  • As fodder for group practice. Students could work in groups to watch the video and brainstorm all the possible factors that make the video a questionable source of information. You could then ask students to discuss and select the most important reason why this might not be a reliable source. As you discuss students’ responses, you can help them understand why the video should be judged primarily based on who produced it and why that matters more than other features of the video.
  • As an exit slip. Ask students to complete the task independently at the end of a class in which you’ve discussed how to evaluate sources (digital or not). After class, review students’ responses and choose a few to share with the class the next day. In addition to a strong response, select a few that make common mistakes in reasoning. Share the responses with your class the next day, using it as an opportunity to discuss why prioritizing the source of information is so important.

In these four ways, and countless others, you can use our assessments to introduce students to questions and strategies for evaluating online information. Our tasks allow students to practice these crucial skills and give you opportunities to provide targeted feedback to students.

We hope our assessments make teaching online reasoning more manageable for you, and more effective for your students.

More than 20 assessments with rubrics and sample student responses are available at the Stanford History Education Group website.

For more on the fight against “fake news,” check out this Tch Talks Podcast: How to Combat Fake News. And visit Teaching Channel‘s Educating for Democracy Deep Dive for more resources to help you prepare your students to be thoughtful and active participants in our democracy.

Stanford History Education Group

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