As crocuses emerge from the frozen ground, I too reappear in mid-February after a month and a half of focused freshmen research. The freshmen research project is a keystone of 9th grade, the Western Civ teacher and I co-teach every day and every step, four classes a day Monday through Friday. The research is broken into daily tasks, and success in each task is valued as much as success in the final paper.
Website evaluation is one of these tasks. In 9th grade, students are confident in their web searching abilities. They are also, perhaps, overconfident in their ability to evaluate their sites as worthy of inclusion in their research. Thus, the dreaded ‘web evaluation checklist.’ We have adapted the checklist used by the University of Maryland Libraries: http://www.lib.umd.edu/binaries/content/assets/public/usereducation/evaluating-web-sites-checklist-form.pdf
We first spend a class searching for topics together and reflecting on what we find. We go over authority, accuracy, currency, bias, and coverage. Students are taught to “think about clues that will let them know if a website is good to cite in an academic research paper.” We try to frame our discussion using that specific vocabulary and students get that different levels of evaluation are needed for different purposes.
A pdf means it’s true.
Thus, the web evaluation checklists. There’s no sugar-coating this. The kids hate the checklists. The only selling point is that their completion leads to a A on one of their daily assignments. However, the following year, when teachers are stricter about citing websites, students frequently return to the library to say that they are relieved that they know what they need to evaluate on the page before they begin to take notes.
The sheet can be completed by a diligent student in about two minutes, it’s mainly checkmarks, and the format forces students to click out of their specific page. Sections include: authority and accuracy; purpose and content; currency; and design, organization, and ease of use. Students finish with a one-sentence analysis stating why they think the site is good for research.
While it may seem surprising, we have purposely reverted to paper for the checklists. This serves three purposes. It keeps websites from being the easiest research option since they now involve an extra step that subscription databases do not. It also makes students consider the url and all relevant information because they have to rewrite it, which is more time intensive than copying and pasting. Finally, it gives us a visual for students who like to Google individually for each piece of information that they need. There are always a few students who search for single pieces of evidence, find one source for each, and ultimately end up with 15 sources for a 1700 word paper. When they hand in a stack of sheets, we have a conversation about actually saving time by finding three to five quality sources that will meet almost all of their information needs.
Reading student analysis of websites help me notice what students value most and what I need to address when teaching website evaluation. The most common weakness is found when I see this answer or one of its variants.
Just because information is needed does not mean it is accurate or authoritative or credible. Sometimes, students are surprisingly honest in their answers as they reconcile their need for a particular piece of information and their distrust of a particular site.
There’s a lot on the web, and the sites that often show up first on results pages are not always the ones that are best for research purposes. We teach better search strategies, and in grade 9, we also force web evaluation. It’s a strategy that meets our needs by requiring students to stop and reflect. It’s one part of our digital citizenship curriculum in middle and upper school. Now I’m curious to hear from you. What lessons have worked well in teaching students about using websites for academic purposes? How do you keep students from limiting themselves to the commercial sites that populate the first page of search results?