6 Ways to Help Students Spot Fake News

Is the Information Accurate, Relevant, Reliable, Valid, Timely, and Complete?

Student on laptop
Hero Images / Getty Images

A recent study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, pronounced the nation's students' ability to research as "dismal" or "bleak."

In the executive summary, released on November 22, 2016, the researchers stated:

"When thousands of students respond to dozens of tasks there are endless variations. That was certainly the case in our experience. However, at each level—middle school, high school, and college—these variations paled in comparison to a stunning and dismaying consistency. Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak."

To complicate these findings, the recent proliferation of fake news and phony websites is making research for short-term or long-term projects in any academic discipline much more difficult. Educators should be concerned about fake news and phony websites and should develop plans to keep this misinformation from spreading into student research.

The executive summary of the report by SHEG concluded:

"For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off."

Even if the internet gets better at shutting down fake news or inaccurate information, there will always be some bogus websites that will survive. There are ways, however, to make students more information savvy using relevance, reliability, and validity. Preparing students to look for qualities in gathering information by asking questions can help them better determine what information they should use.

Because many students are not prepared to distinguish accurate from inaccurate accounts or decide when a statement is relevant or irrelevant to a given point, they need to be trained to look for these qualities. Because many students are unable to identify inconsistent positions as well as consistent ones or distinguish well-evidenced accounts from those unsupported by reasons and evidence, students need to recognize the qualities of validity, timeliness, and completeness.

In short, educators need to prepare secondary and post-secondary students to be able to tell good evidence or information from bad.

Is the Information Accurate?

Students can determine the accuracy of information by asking:

  • Where does the information originate? (About page)
  • Is the information from an established organization?
  • Has the information been reviewed by others to insure accuracy?
  • Is this website a primary source or secondary source of information?
  • Are original sources clear and documented?
  • Is there a bibliography provided that cites the sources used?

Accuracy is related to timeliness, and students should note dates (on the document, on the website) or the lack of dates in determining the accuracy of information.

Students should be aware of information that does not acknowledge opposing views or respond to them. Another red-flag for accuracy that students should keep in mind is the website's or source's material assertions that are vague or that lack detail.

Is the Information Relevant?

The key component for research information quality is whether the information addresses the ideas in a student's thesis or argument. If not, the student will find the information inadequate or inappropriate regardless of how well the information rates along other quality indicators (listed here).

  • Does the information contain the breadth and depth needed?
  • Is the information written in a form that is usable (i.e. reading level, technical level)?
  • Is the information in a form that is useful such as words, pictures, charts, sounds, or video?
  • Do the facts contribute to your research something new or add to your knowledge of the subject?
  • Will this information be useful to your research? 

Students should understand that irrelevant information is not necessarily "poor quality" and, under different circumstances, could be used to support a different thesis or argument.

Is the Information Reliable?

Reliability refers to the repeatability of findings.

Students can best understand reliability as it applies to individual measures, like a vocabulary test. For example, when two students take a vocabulary test two times, their scores on the two occasions should be very similar. If so, the test is more likely to be described as reliable.

Questions students might ask:

  • Are the sources trustworthy?
  • What's the purpose of the information resource: to inform, instruct, persuade, or sell?
  • Does the information reflect bias?
  • Is there a balance of perspectives in the information?
  • Is the information full of facts or are there opinions?

Is the Information Timely?

By definition, timely information means that new information replaces the old, and students should look for timely information when researching. Students should always check the publication date of a story or article on the internet. In addition, students should perform quick web searches to corroborate or fact check when the information about an event was released or when an event happened.

Students should be aware that timely information is updated on multiple platforms constantly because of changes in technology and a competitive news cycle.

  • Does the page provide information about timeliness such as specific dates of information?
  • How current are the sources or links?
  • When was the information produced?
  • When was the information updated?
  • How up-to-date are the links?
  • Are there dead links?
  • Is the page content outdated?

Information timeliness must also go hand in hand with information accuracy.

Students also need to be aware that old news stories are repackaged and reposted to gain ​clicks, and they get spread around social media in a flash. While old news is not necessarily fake news, the reposting of old news may remove information from its context, which can turn it into accidental misinformation.

Timely information must also be accessible on a consistent basis.

Is the Information Valid?

Validity refers to the credibility or believability of the information. Students need to determine if the findings (data) are genuine. On occasion, students may mistake information as a parody or satire. This is particularly challenging when so many get their news from satire such as The Onion or other comedic sources.

  • Is the information gained by the (internal validity) measure an accurate assessment?
  • Can the information be compared with the same results with other measures, or data that may be available?
  • Is the author an expert in the field?
  • Is there a reputable organization behind the information?  
  • Are the sources of information stated? Can you verify the information?
  • Can the author be contacted for clarification?

Furthermore, there are ways to test for validity, as these examples show:

  • Is hand strength a valid measure of intelligence? No, not valid.
  • Is score on the SAT a valid predictor of GPA during the first year of college? The answer depends on the amount of research support for such a relationship; could be valid.

Students should know that there are two aspects to validity:

Internal validity - The instruments or procedures used in the research measured what they were supposed to measure.

External validity - The results can be generalized beyond one study. It should also apply to people beyond the sample in the study.

Is the Information Complete?

Students can find information on the internet by using strategies to conduct a digital information search. Students should try to make their searches complete or thorough. The information they find must not be divided, compromised, or modified in order to prove or disprove a position.

Students can research for completeness by using specific terms (called hyponyms) to narrow a search or more general terms (called hypernyms) to broaden a search.

Incomplete information can lead students astray in making an argument. However, complete information for one student's topic may be incomplete information for another. Depending on the topic, a student may require different levels of information detail.

Information completeness is not only in the quality of the information itself, but also in how it can be combined with other information.

Too much information can also be a problem for students. Information may also be too complete. The danger in research is that without targeted searches using hyponyms or hypernyms, they could generate so much information that they may not be able to process it all in a timely fashion.

Additional Research Resources for Secondary Teachers

Lesson Plans:

 CRITICAL EVALUATION OF A WEB SITE SECONDARY SCHOOL LEVEL ©1996-2014. Kathleen Schrock (kathy@kathyschrock.net) 

Fact checking websites for current news:

Recommended Academic Web Search Engines for Students 

Research Image Tip:

  1. Have students make a screenshot of the photo, cropping out everything but the image itself.
  2. Open up Google Images in the browser.
  3. Drag the screenshot into the Google Images search field to identify the source of the image.