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

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

  1. The backfire effect is somewhat controversial, so I tend not to focus as much on that as on confirmation bias in the context of interacting with information, but both help to generate discussion about how and why we need to evaluate sources.

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