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When in Doubt, Check it Out!

Check_mark_on_chalkboard_l2 With the Presidential election a little over 2 weeks away, many of our High School Social Studies classes are discussing the candidates and their platforms.  There's a wealth of information out there on the issues and where each candidate stands.  However, after watching the debates, reading the articles and viewing the advertisements, how does a student know which facts are true and which are exaggerations?

Filtering and judging information for accuracy is a tough skill to learn. With the amount of information out there on the web, it's important to help students come up with a method for determining whether a website is truthful or a hoax.  I've found that the political campaigns make it a perfect time to teach web evaluation skills.  In our Computer Applications course, we teach a lesson on evaluating web sites. This year we also had students visit each presidential candidate's website to determine whether they were a reliable source of information.  As students listened to the political ads and watched the debates, we've added to our discussions of how to determine whether a statement is fact or fiction.

So what are the best ways to check the reliability of a specific site or the truthfulness of a candidate's claim?  Here are three...

1.  Go straight to the source. 
The best way to decide what a candidate stands for is to go to their official website.  You can check out both Barack Obama and John McCain's websites to get the most reliable information on their campaigns.  When evaluating other sites, have students brainstorm to determine the most reliable source for information on the topic.  For example, a question about health and fitness issues might best be answered at the government site Healthfinder while questions about a certain product or company would probably lead you directly to their official website.

2.  Check the facts
Many of the claims in both Obama's and McCain's commercials have been disputed by the opposition.  Sometimes, it helps to find an independent source that can look objectively at both sides of the issue to determine what is true.  Two of my favorite political fact checking sites are Politifact and FactCheckEd.  Politifact is a joint project of the St. Petersburg Times and the Congressional Quarterly whose goal is to independently analyze the truthfulness of each campaign.  FactCheckEd is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and is specifically geared toward educational use. For other non-political fact-checking topics, I like to use the website Snopes.  It's a simple, but complete site with information on hundreds of web hoaxes that are in circulation. (You did know that the email promising you a $50 check if you just forwarded it to 10 friends was a hoax, didn't you?)

3.  Look at the links
Sometimes, the quickest way to determine if a site is truthful or a hoax is to look at who links to the site.  In a Google search, you can simply type link: in front of any web address to return a list of sites that link to that web page. It's often an easy way to see if others think the information is reliable enough to link to.  If the links lead to questionable sites, then the information probably isn't reliable.

Think about using these techniques to help students evaluate information they find on the web. If you're watching the debates with students, have them research the claims made by each candidate to determine if they are truthful.  By teaching students to think and check what they see and hear, we'll be creating citizens that are ready for a future in an data-rich world.


Gayle Berthiaume

I also tell the students to go to reliable sites for information. Scholastic.com has a wonderful Election 2008 site. http://teacher.scholastic.com/scholasticnews/indepth/election2008.htm

Kobus van Wyk

Thank you for these tips - they are most valuable, and simple to teach. I believe that we often are very irresponsible in letting learners loose on the web without giving them proper guidance.

Michelle Bourgeois

Agreed, Kobus! Just as we used to teach students how to correctly use a card catalog and a periodicals index, we should also teach them the correct way to search for and evaluate information on the web. By scaffolding these skills into everyday lessons, we can slowly build our students into strong consumers of information.

In my school, we encourage our teachers to give students a starting point for their research either by brainstorming for keywords together as a class or by providing a list of initial websites for them to use. The amount of assistance we give in research starting points is lessened as students progress from their freshman to their senior year, so that when they leave us, they should have strong skills in both finding and evaluating sources of information.

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