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

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? 🙂