What do first-year students find reliable in online sources?

Silva, Green, Mendoza

Context and Discussion

The question of what students believe about what they read online intersects many fields, including information literacy (library studies), critical digital literacy (a subset of rhetoric and composition studies), and civic reasoning (social studies). While no discipline holds the corner on the market of source evaluation studies, looking at them together can create a better picture of student evaluative behaviors, and how composition instructors can confront these issues that affect source-based writing.

In this section, we review what previous research has shown about source evaluation trends, and how our student participants follow, complicate, or deviate from these trends. While we observed our students following several well-established tendencies like using shallow source evaluation techniques, and exhibiting strong moments of confirmation bias, they also complicated current research on how students consider authority. Interestingly, we noticed the extreme confusion on the part of students as to how to articulate whether something is authoritative or not within a given context. Nearly 20 years ago, Vicki Tolar Burton and Scott A. Chadwick (2000) called for "researchers in composition studies to turn some of our electronic and intellectual energy toward developing a theory of pedagogy of source evaluation that will help students across the disciplines embrace the idea that careful evaluation of research sources is vital to their construction of healthy arguments, healthy writing, and healthy academic lives" (p. 326). Our study is building off of research in this rapidly changing field where professionals from various disciplines have demonstrated interest in student research behaviors with the hope of preparing better digital citizens. In addition to analyzing student research behaviors that arose in this study, we also offer some pedagogical interventions implied by our findings in response to Burton and Chadwick's call.

Superficial Evaluation Behaviors

Librarians have studied the depth to which students evaluate source material and find that students use superficial source evaluation behaviors more often than not (Faix, 2014, p. 627). Such shallow or superficial behaviors include looking at the layout of a website, but not considering the authority of the venue which published or hosts the site. Lea Currie et al. (2010) corroborated this finding. In our study students struggled with the same issues but gave us a wider range of examples from which to extrapolate what superficial and deep behaviors might look like.

For instance, in the APR (NPR) example, many students noticed that there were several hyperlinks in the article. In fact, the NPR article was the most well-sourced article out of those we included in the test. However, fewer students actually clicked on the hyperlinks. To notice the hyperlink is not a bad impulse, but it is a novice one: the presence of hyperlinks tells an evaluator relatively little. Expert students who clicked on the hyperlinks were able to corroborate information, do research on individuals quoted in the article, and engage in deeper source evaluation behaviors. If students were just looking at hyperlinks to evaluate a source, they were easily duped by The Flame (The Blaze) source which also had hyperlinks to outside articles—but unlike the APR (NPR) article, these hyperlinks did not link back to original/primary source material. It takes deeper source evaluation work (actually clicking on the link) to discover this. As Miriam J. Metzger (2007) argued, students do not often take the time to complete evaluative tasks that are more time consuming and "that require effort to perform, even if the effort is fairly minimal" (p. 2080).

Another example of shallow behaviors comes from the Jefferson Post (Washington Post). Novices pointed out that the ads on the side of the page affected their opinion of the source without being able to articulate why they did so. Noticing ads is not a bad behavior. To some extent it is true that more obtrusive ads and pop-ups may suggest a lower-tier publication; however, many of these novice students stopped their evaluation there. They did not dig deeper or think about what the presence of ads or placement of ads suggested about the type of information they were consuming. Such behaviors show little awareness about how online publishing is funded and what that ultimately means about the value of information they are consuming.

Authority and Information Creation Trends

Students exhibit problematic understanding of authority. Media scholars have studied the somewhat contradictory way that students avoid traditionally authoritative source material, and yet are easily persuaded by problematic, non-authoritative information sources. In the words of Olivia Lee (2016), "While their search for truth is commendable, [their] actual media consumption habits may reveal a disconnect between their skepticism toward the mass media and their susceptibility to false media messages" (p. 4). Lee went on to describe the ways younger information consumers gravitated more towards crowd-sourced options (like Wikipedia and Reddit threads) and less toward mainstream news media that had been fact-checked before publication. While crowd-sourced information is not in and of itself bad (and Wikipedia is often viewed as an authoritative encyclopedic source), few students were able to truly break down what constitutes authority within a particular information context.

For instance, the student comments on the PuffyHost (Huffington Post) article showcase a disconnect between novice concepts of authority versus more thoughtful interactions with the source material. Novices relied on the out-of-date .com/.org differentiation as a marker of authority, whereas information experts realize that this differentiation is relatively meaningless in the current ecosystem of the web. Students who rely on the .com/.org distinction do not understand how information is created and how webpages are published. This misunderstanding puts them at a disadvantage when evaluating information online because they lack a basic awareness of how webpages come to be.

More expert students were able to see the PuffyHost (Huffington Post) article for what it was: an opinion editorial written by someone with significant authority on the subject. In other words, it is a piece of information that is highly contextual in its rhetorical situation and within its genre constraints. Experts were able to see the information for how it was created and for what purpose, while novices were more affected by their confusion over whether the Huffington Post was objectively a good venue or not. This confusion over venue quality is something that spanned over all five of our articles, with students struggling to differentiate between mainstream and fringe venues. An information expert would be able to pick out the mainstream venues (NPR, Huffington Post, and Washington Post) and would be more wary of the fringe sites (The Daily Kos and The Blaze). This expert behavior requires an understanding of how mainstream news media is produced, and what that means about publication standards. This also relates to a growing distrust in mainstream news media outlets by student researchers like this student who said:

Well, I'm on a rant. Just so we're clear, I'm not a huge fan of the media. I don't know if I've made that clear yet. Articles by the Washington Post, and things like that, I tend to stay away from because I don't really trust the writers, I don't really trust the direction they get because really the incentives that they have are, for writing articles is just about the money. I think they have a flawed view, they romanticize, they give too much importance to getting information out, they don't realize the harm they cause by getting bad information out, or even just getting information out that people don't need to hear. So in general, maybe I'm biased, but I don't like these sort of sources. But I would still use them, I just don't love them.

Such confusion over authority has been studied by digital literacy scholars like Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group (2016). Wineburg's group astutely observed that this difficulty is not something on which to blame students, but instead, a symptom of our current information environment: "Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated internet, all bets are off" (p. 4).

Finally, as Randall McClure and Kellian Clink (2009) suggested, "The evaluation of authority is ultimately subjective" (p. 121). However, what our study adds to the conversation is a landscape in which we see students demonstrating that authority is something they know they should consider while evaluating sources, but a criterion they struggle to unpack in different contexts and with different publication types.

Confirmation Bias

Novice and expert researchers alike are affected by confirmation bias; however, novice researchers are perhaps less aware of this bias, or at least, more likely to trust knee-jerk reactions. As Johan L. H. van Strien et al. (2016) summarized: "Prior attitudes can affect information processing and evaluation in profound ways. For instance, people are almost two times more likely to select information that supports their prior attitudes" (p. 246).

Our study corroborates such findings. The greatest example of where confirmation bias happened for students was in The Flame (The Blaze) article entitled "Global Warming Fail: Study Finds Melting Sea Ice Is Actually Helping Arctic Animals." This fringe website is using primary data, several times removed, to suggest that climate change is benefiting arctic animals—something the original article only points to in a very limited way for microscopic organisms, and one that is not substantiated for wider arctic ecosystems by other compelling evidence. The writing of the article is sloppy, riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, and the information is difficult to corroborate. Clearly, this is a biased source that should be treated with great suspicion; however, some novice students weren't worried about the content of the piece as it agreed with their beliefs.

We also noticed students having very biased reactions to other articles as well, namely the APR (NPR) article on birth control. Students at BYU tend to be highly religious and overall conservative. For many of them, an article claiming that birth control was safe for teens was synonymous with touting sexual promiscuity, a view many students found distasteful. Given their biases, they were unable to consume the information in the article fairly, and many of them rated it less reliable as a result. As one student exclaimed, "Oh gracious! I'm not sure about morality here."

Visual Rhetoric

Closely related to the discussion on superficial source evaluation, it was very apparent that students were seduced by the visual aspects of the webpages tested, specifically pictures, graphs, and videos.

In terms of previous research, Saskia Brand-Gruwel et al. (2017) suggested that "domain novices based their credibility evaluation mainly on Website design (e.g. colors, layout, pictures), while domain experts most often relied on author or publisher information, followed by credibility evaluations relating to references provided on the sites or based on perceived motives or biases" (p. 236).

In assessing our own student responses, the Jefferson Post (Washington Post) article was a fairly straightforward piece of news on a SpaceX launch. What really convinced students, though, was the video of the launch. Without any prompting on our part, 31% of students found the video very persuasive in establishing credibility. While the video is a functional part of the ethos of the piece to be sure, many of these students missed other markers of authority (perhaps the greatest marker being the publication venue, the reputable Washington Post). Many students stopped to watch the video while we were testing them, but fewer went on to triangulate areas of authority on the webpage. In an era of "deep fake" (the ability to fake videos for political or financial gain), the sincere trust many students put in these parts of the websites is disturbing.

Another example of students' misplaced trust in visual elements was the graph on The Flame (The Blaze) website. In the original website that claimed arctic animals were thriving due to global warming, the authors linked a graph from NASA as part of their publication. While the graph has been removed from the current iteration of The Blaze’s article (NASA updated their graphs since it was published), when we ran the study originally, the graph was a prominent part of the article. We link to the Wayback Machine's archived version of the website so that our readers can see what students would have seen when they evaluated the source. Thirty-nine percent of students commented on the graph as being something that established credibility for the source. The problem is this: The graph simply delineated that ice levels were declining. The graph did not support the article's main assertion that arctic animals were thriving due to climate change. Only 5% of our student participants noticed the disconnect, showing how very compelling students find the visual markers on online publications. The rest found the graph very convincing, as articulated by this student participant:

They have a graph in here. Graphs are amazing support for almost anything. Really benefits this. Especially if I'm like looking through, and then, I don’t really want to read the article because it takes too much time going through all these articles for research, so I kind of go through, look at what links they have, click on some of them, see how they look, and then especially this graph. This graph would make me want to stop and read it. Very important there.

In short, S. Shyam Sundar (2008) perhaps put it best: "if it’s cool, it’s credible" (p. 82). And for this generation of students, the visuals are definitely cool.

Inability to Articulate Why

Some readers considering our expert versus novice student comments may be surprised at how we, the researchers, differentiated the two. We note here that many behaviors we coded as novice might have been seen as more expert if only the student had been able to thoughtfully articulate why the issue they pinpointed made a source more or less reliable. Without this self-awareness, we were left coding these students’ behaviors as novice because they lacked metacognitive awareness. In Brand-Gruwel et al.'s (2017) study, they differentiated domain novices who "expressed more utterances on a superficial level" while experts "expressed more specific utterances" (p. 246).

Take, for instance, the Daily Post (Daily Kos) article. One major feature of this article was a pop-up at the beginning urging readers to sign a petition against Donald Trump, a clear indication as to the political leanings of the website. Many students noticed this, and said it made it less reliable for them, but few were able to articulate why the pop-up was a problem (aside from the fact that they found it annoying). The pop-up said something about the persuasive bent of the website, but few students noted the pop-up's political messaging.

Perhaps student difficulty explaining why a feature made the source more or less reliable to them comes from their (unearned, scholars might note) confidence in evaluating source material. Indeed, "students seem to trust their own judgement when determining the credibility of sources they found on the internet" (Dubicki, 2015, p. 676). This trend continues on the Daily Post (Daily Kos) article where novice students were dissuaded by word choice they did not understand, and more expert students recognized that word choice used in the article said something about the biased nature of the information therein. As Clark A. Chinn and Ronald W. Rinehart (2016) summarized, students often rely on source features to determine credibility, without understanding the underlying why these features matter. Instead, those that are able to articulate a source's authoritative and persuasive processes within a given context tend to be more expert evaluators (p. 1716).

In Sum

We live in confusing times for student evaluators. We lack traditional modes of assessing authority and traditional methods of vetting. We live, in short, in an online environment of container collapse: "The visual context and cues that print containers provide [that] used to help individuals identify a document's origins and measure its value [are harder to discern] . . . In digital format, a document is decanted from its original container and must be carefully examined to determine the journey it took to reach the individual" (Connaway, 2018). Students have a hard time finding productive modes and methods by which to evaluate online material precisely because online material is increasingly difficult to categorize. As the rules of digital citizenry rapidly change, how are instructors rising to the challenge of helping students become more thoughtful consumers and producers of information?