For anyone doing research online, the abundance of information available can be overwhelming–and so can the task of sifting out unreliable information. Now, a pair of researchers hopes to give students a method for assessing the reliability of material they find on the internet, whether it’s in Wikipedia articles, YouTube videos, or blogs.

In a paper they recently presented at a teaching symposium, North Carolina State University English professor Susan Miller-Cochran and Rochelle Rodrigo, of Mesa Community College in Arizona, suggest that students be given a sort of checklist to explore as they consider online–and offline–texts.

The two main questions they encourage students to ask are: How does the information change over time–is it constantly updated and revised, or static? And, how has the information been reviewed?

Miller-Cochran stresses that just because something has been published in print does not make it a reliable source. Such doubts could arise about self-published books, for example. Conversely, online materials are not necessarily inherently unreliable.

The professors’ published guideline is formatted as a matrix of questions aimed at helping students decipher what should be used in a research project and what should be ignored.

The guide asks if sources are "continuously changeable through repeat performances or revisions," "reviewed by someone with authority or certification prior to publication," and "published and revised by the author." It also prompts students to question if the material was reviewed by other experts in the same profession.

Often, as in the case of Wikipedia, which has elements of peer review as well as self-publication, the answers can get murky. But Miller-Cochran says the end goal is for students to learn how to analyze texts without "pigeonholing the material based on where it was found."

Although today’s students are much more likely to begin their research online, Miller-Cochran said students still often perceive the articles, charts, and data found in books as more authoritative than online information.

"They tend to be trusting, perhaps even more so, of things they see in print," said Miller-Cochran, who has distributed the checklist research matrix to her students at North Carolina State. "We wanted [students] to be looking at all sources they were finding and asking more critical questions about the nature of what they have found."

She added: "We want them to think about other kinds of sources beyond just doing a Google search or Wikipedia search."

Rodrigo, who teaches writing and media studies courses, said the research guide has helped her students be more selective as they sift through dozens–sometimes hundreds–of documents during project research.

"Students need to be thinking continually of how to assess the validity of any piece of information they find," Rodrigo said. "They now have a tool that helps them defend why they’re using certain resources."

A study examining college students’ research habits released last year showed widespread use of computer-based class preparation and curriculum review. Fifty-nine percent of students surveyed said they use online study tools for course work and exam preparation, according to the study, which was conducted by educational publisher Houghton Mifflin. Nearly 900 students were included in the survey.

"We’re finding that students are increasingly using online study tools in tandem with their textbooks," said Katie Rose, who heads research and marketing for Houghton Mifflin’s college division.

Links:

Houghton Mifflin study

Research checklist matrix