A website is open in one tab. A journal article is open in another. A newspaper article from a database is open in another one. And, just for good measure, there’s an encyclopedia entry open in yet another tab. Is it any wonder my students have a hard time discerning what type of source they’re looking at?
I assume my students are not alone in struggling to figure out what type of source they’re looking at. This leads to questions when creating citations, of course, but it also creates challenges much earlier in the process. Knowing what type of source you’re looking at is an important part of evaluating sources, especially when it comes to determining if your source is relevant to your information need.
I started the year working with some of our Senior English classes on research questions inspired by their summer reading book, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As I worked with the teachers to plan this project we decided this would be a great time to work with students on learning more about different types of sources. We knew we wanted them to look at different types of sources for their research, and be able to talk about why the sources they picked were best suited for their information need. We were also helping that this work with source types would help us lay some groundwork for later assignments.
I wanted to give students a chance to explore the characteristics of different source types before they started their research. In the past, I’ve tried giving students example sources, but I often found that students either had a hard time moving past the content to look at the qualities of the sources or generalizing what they’d learned to other sources they found. So I decided to take specific sources out of the equation, and give students some time exploring the qualities of different source types.
I created card sorts with some of the different source types we expected students to use for this project. The source types were in blue, and there were 2-4 descriptors printed on red paper. Given the specifics of the assignment, we wanted to focus on exploring different types of news sources. I gave the collections of source types and descriptors to small groups of students, and then they worked together to assign descriptors to source types. This led to great questions as students sorted the sources and descriptions. And since this was my first time trying this out with students, I of course discovered that some of the descriptors I’d chosen fit with multiple source types. This led to great discussions about what sources have in common in addition to what makes them unique.
As we hoped, this lesson also helped us lay the groundwork for future research. Several classes are now working on a literary analysis of Hamlet, using academic journals to support their arguments. As we introduced the research project, we were able to talk with students about the qualities of academic sources in a more nuanced way, and students had a better understanding of why academic journals were particularly suited to their research task.
My hope is to start doing some of this source exploration with younger students, so we can build on those understandings as students move through their academic careers, as well as developing their own definitions and descriptions of source types.