Teaching Information Literacy Skills Through Fake News, Bias, and Self-Reflection

During the course of the Fall 2017 semester, I was asked by a few faculty members to teach a class on how to spot fake news. After teaching a few straight forward instructional sessions, I connected with a faculty member who wanted a slightly different approach. I took this as an opportunity to use the concept of fake news as an entry point (instead of being the focal point) to introduce students to some information literacy skills. (I apologize in advance for the length of this post.)

I decided to begin the class with an icebreaker game called “Telephone”. Some of you may be familiar with this game, or know it under a different name. In brief, one person says a word or phrase that is then whispered from person to person around the room until it ends with the last person saying what they heard. The word or phrase is usually unrecognizable to the original at this point in time. True to form, the phrase I had used was completely different than the phrase that was finally uttered. This game illustrated to students how easily and quickly information gets spread and corrupted. I explained that when we only read headlines, or when we use a quoted quote from an article, we are only hearing what is essentially “whispered” to us. To better understand information, it is always best to go back to the original source.

Besides the “Telephone” game being a perfect illustration of the spread of misinformation, it also served as a way to loosen students up and get them chatting more freely. I then had students silently reflect on their own biases by completing a worksheet where they had to quickly write down a word or phrase in ten identity statements. I started out simple with statements like “Librarians are _______________”, and moved into more complex statements such as “I identify as_______________”. The purpose of having students complete this self-reflective identity piece is to have them begin to examine their own biases. I shared some of my answers with students and how it makes me biased in one way or another. Since how we identify is how we perceive the world around us, it is important to understand our own biases and how that might interfere. Understanding our own biases also helps us to be able to more readily spot other peoples’ biases as well. This understanding is not only helpful in reading news articles, but in reading scholarly or historical research as well, which is important to point out to students. In the interest of privacy, I did not have any students share the answers to their identifying statements. The purpose of this activity was self-reflection.

After the students reflected on their identity statements, I moved into defining what is a fact, an opinion, and bias. We discussed how, especially in newspaper articles, one sentence can contain all three, and that makes it difficult to parse out what exactly is fact and what is opinion. To illustrate this point, and to serve as a warm-up to a more complex activity, I had students read five sentences and determine whether they were a fact or an opinion. Out of the five sentences, one was a trick and contained both facts and opinions.

The day before the class, I selected several different newspaper articles. They all focused on the same story, but were from varying perspectives. I included such organizations as FOX News, CNN, Bloomberg, The Hill, and The National Review. Since we were limited on time, I chose articles that were short and could easily be read in only a few minutes. The students broke up into small groups and each group was given a different article. They were told to read the article and then work together to indicate which parts were facts, opinions, and biases.

As a whole class, I had students share the facts, opinions, and biases they pulled from the articles. I wrote them on the board so we could see how each article tended to report on the same fact or two, but how that fact was interpreted varied widely. We discussed how this not only happens in newspaper articles, but other types of writing as well. There was also a brief discussion on how our biases bias us against different interpretations. I shared how my self-identification as a liberal made me biased towards the conservative interpretations of the facts. I explained that knowing this piece of information about myself allowed me to move past my initial negative reaction to particular articles, and re-read them with a more open mind.

After students identified the facts, opinions, and biases, I explained that the other important piece to this evaluation is learning about the source of the information. Since we were limited on time, I provided each group with background information (taken from Wikipedia and the organization’s website) about the organization their newspaper article came from. I used this moment to discuss with students the importance of using quality sources within their own papers. Using the CRAAP test as an evaluation tool, the students worked in the same groups and used the information provided to determine whether or not the information in their article was of good quality or poor quality. In a whole class discussion, we highlighted how the background information of the organization tended to align with the biases we saw in the writing of the newspaper articles.

The class ended with a brief discussion on how the students could apply what they learned in class to their own academic lives and how they could get further help from the library.

Overall, the class went well and the students enjoyed the hands on activities. Informal assessments throughout the instructional session allowed me to monitor how the students seemed to be grasping the concepts. Upon reflection after the class, I was satisfied with the initial results but would slightly alter the lesson plan for future sessions. The main component that I would change would be to allow more time for discussion after each activity; I believe the students would benefit even more from elongating the time to speak in certain sections. While I was limited to only one classroom computer and a one-shot class, it would be beneficial to make this a two-part library instruction class and have computers available to each student. Having a computer would allow students to look up the background information of the articles on their own, which is a valuable skill to learn.

All students received a handout that we used to work through the different sections of class. In addition, I provided them with a link to a guide I created that supplemented what was taught during class.  In response to the faculty’s interest on this topic, I also created a guide (Teaching in the Age of Alternative Facts) with information on the topic of fake news. It contains some great lesson plans from other libraries.

Chewing on The Oatmeal: Using a Web Comic for Discussion of Fake News, Confirmation Bias and Information Evaluation

When I first read The Oatmeal comic, You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you, with its effective and concise dissection of how and why we interact with all the news and information surrounding us, I knew immediately I wanted to use it in the live, online, hands-on research workshops (using Blackboard Collaborate) I offer to students. If you’re unfamiliar with The Oatmeal, it’s a comic (along with a dozen or so books and several card games) that has been around for many years and is worth checking out for any fans of irreverent humor. My series of four workshops attempt to equip students with a combination of practical knowledge (how to navigate the library, etc.) and critical thinking competencies (such as why you need to cite your sources, and developing a critical habit of mind when interacting with information sources – those skills that are often referred to as “soft skills” by employers).1  These workshops are not tied to any specific courses or curricula and rely on periodical promotion, word of mouth, an expanding group of faculty from across the college who assign or recommend it, and the self-motivation of adult learners who hear about it for attendance.  

I was already touching on confirmation bias in my workshop on starting the research process and had an entire workshop devoted to evaluating sources. However, I was having a hard time connecting students to these concepts in a way that would stick with them. This part of those workshops needed more ‘pop’ and this comic seemed to offer that. The fact that this comic strip is funny and informative in a highly visual way, actually provides links to multiple sources for each fact the author states, and has a classroom-friendly version (his comics often include swear words) got me excited to more effectively get students thinking about these difficult topics.

Integrating this resource into existing lesson plans took some doing but as a result I’ve removed discussion of confirmation bias from the start of the first workshop on formulating a research question and instead folded it into a later one on evaluating sources (which is titled “Fighting Fake News and Choosing the Best Sources”). How I use the comic is straightforward. I launch the browser share function in Collaborate to show the comic. Then I give verbal attribution and launch right into reading and showing select parts of the comic. I leave out some portions, mostly due to time constraints, and I also add some commentary around discussion of the backfire effect, tying in a brief description of confirmation bias when doing research. Overall this portion takes about 6-8 minutes to go through (the workshops are 60 minutes in length).

The results of this change have been positive. Chat discussions generated by the use the comic have been lively in some cases and a couple of students mentioned the comic in their post-workshop evaluation form as being helpful in framing the issues. It’s my hope to get direct permission from the author to download and make some minor alterations to the comic images to make the presentation and discussion flow more smoothly with the overall lesson plan, but he is a hard person to get a hold of and I’ve not had any luck on that front yet.

  1. Cyphert, D. & Lyle, S.P. (2016) Employer expectations of information literacy: Identifying the skills gap. In D’Angelo, B. J., Jamieson, S., Maid, B., & Walker, J. R. (Eds.). Information literacy: Research and collaboration across disciplines. Perspectives on writing (chapter 3). Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/books/infolit/chapter3.pdf

A Not Quiet, Not Little Old Lady, Not Whispering Hush: Thesis Development, Library Research, and Citation Through the Use of Goodnight Moon

This past semester I was invited to teach a session of ENG 100 that was being taught at our Dansville campus center.  Students in ENG 100 are learning how to construct a research paper but will not be asked to write one, so I don’t treat the class like a standard research skills session.  When I visit these classes I usually present a fun introduction to library resources through the tried and true method of the scavenger/treasure hunt.  My class tagline is that the students will learn a little about a lot about the library.  The students break up into groups, answer four questions about the library’s collections and services that are unique to each group, create their own Interlibrary Loan account, and then as a group they present both their answers and how they found them to the rest of the class.  It’s a very active session, and there’s much peer learning, as well as a smattering of presentation skills, which generally makes for a great class.  Several instructors of this course also then require their students to write a paper describing what they learned from the session which further reinforces what we explored.

However, this instructor presented me with a new wish list for the session.  He wanted me to cover paraphrasing, accessing library databases, refining a thesis, writing an introduction, and MLA style for both parenthetical citation and the Works Cited page, through the use of a topic which may reflect a student’s major.  This list is a mix of items that are both in my wheelhouse and outside of the usual scope of my expertise and I pondered how to bring it all together into a coherent narrative that would keep the active group work I prize from my regular session.  So I turned to my favorite source of late, our children’s picture book collection.

The books in our collection are primarily Caldecott winners used with our LIT 203 Children’s Literature class and I have turned to them in the past for use in my plagiarism workshops.  This time it occurred to me that I could use one of the books, Goodnight Moon, as a springboard for several aspects of the class.  For class handouts, I gave out our MLA Stylesheet and Plagiarism worksheet (which I adapted for this class by skipping The Hobbit portion).

At the start of class I began by reviewing what students could find through the library and on the web for help writing thesis statements.  I showed them the Research Toolkit located inside Opposing Viewpoints in Context, which has several other useful tools besides their “How to Write a Thesis Statement” worksheet.  Then I demoed a Google search for “how to write a thesis statement” and we took a look at the guide put together by Harvard (aim high!).  This portion of the class was certainly skewed more towards lecture, but I did engage in some question and answer with the students as to problems they’ve faced coming up with a thesis or writing introductory paragraphs in the past.  We also briefly discussed topic choice and using the aspects of their major that appeal to them to direct their brainstorming.  I informed them that as a a former English major I liked literature, so my demo topic choice was related to children’s books.

Next I had everyone gather around the front of the classroom and I then proceeded to read Goodnight Moon to the class.  Many students, but not all, were familiar with the book and this was a pretty enjoyable and lively part of the session.  After I finished reading, I had the students brainstorm for themes or ideas they saw in the story.  The students mentioned the repetition of key phrases, and the muted colors and simple illustrations and as a group they created the following thesis, “The book, Goodnight Moon, uses repetition and soothing imagery to help children get ready for bed.”  We discussed how it was only possible to create such a statement after having read the book, much the same way they would not have been able to create a thesis for a paper on the Silk Road without knowing many things about the Silk Road, or without brainstorming for aspects of the Silk Road that stood out for them.  We also discussed the flexibility needed with a thesis if it’s harder than you originally thought to find supporting information.

At this point, I broke the class up into several smaller groups.  I asked each group to come up with a single sentence summary of Goodnight Moon.  We compared how different and similar the three sentences were, and we talked about incorporating citation into each sentence, either directly into the sentence or parenthetically, with the creation of correct MLA in-text citation for the book.  While we did this, I displayed all three sentences they had created with correct citation on the screen at the front of the room.  Then I asked them to paraphrase the story, which was a bit more difficult as it allowed for more details from the book, but we also incorporated correct citation there as well and discussed when summarizing was called for compared to paraphrasing.  Then, as a group I had them walk me through the creation of a Works Cited entry for Goodnight Moon.

For the last portion of the class, I demonstrated the EDS search tool to find an article about Goodnight Moon.  We were short on time at this point in the class (an hour and twenty minute class can go by in a flash sometimes!), so we briefly reviewed an article from the Daily Beast, “We’ve Been Saying Goodnight to that Moon for 70 Years,” and found a great sentence from it, “Toward the end of the story, the bunny is content to look out the window and say, ‘Goodnight stars / Goodnight air,’ but after these goodnights, he acknowledges his own willingness to sleep by saying, ‘Goodnight noises everywhere,’” which we added to our mock paper with correct citation, and finally we added the article to our Works Cited page.

From start to finish, this class was engaged and lively.  The positive feedback I received from both the students and the instructor further convinced me that for understanding how to avoid plagiarism, children’s books are the perfect source material.  They’re extremely accessible to even the weakest reader, and they can hold their own as a stand-in for the peer reviewed journal articles I know are waiting down the road for these students.  Alternately working as an entire class and as smaller groups kept this class flowing, despite several momentary distractions of random activity occurring on a gazebo outside the classroom window, for who among us has not had to compete for the attention of college students with any number of potentially unexpected things during the course of an instruction session? 🙂

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