Information Overload

I’m off this semester on maternity leave and currently hanging out with a very cute one week old so this post will be short and sweet.  Even before the recent public debates over fake news, I’ve been worrying about my students’ ability to read and evaluate internet sources.

One activity I have used in the survey course is to have class in a computer lab and make them engage with a variety of sources.  Like other assignments I give my survey class, the assignment is for them to create thesis statements using these source sets.  Survey classes at my institution require a lengthy research paper and so I spend a lot of time teaching them research skills—and creating an argument is foremost among those skills.

For this in-class assignment, I often use the historical New York Times database, a scholarly blog like the Junto or Common-Place, a non-scholarly site like Vox or Buzzfeed, and a visual primary source like a map or political cartoon.  The students need to use the secondary sources to explain the visual source.  In addition, they list which sources they are using to make their argument and how reliable the source is and how they assessed its reliability.

If we have time, I usually take the last 10 to 15 minutes of class to give them another “research question” and free use of the internet.  We talk about how their search practices differ from the exercise we just completed and why their searching is problematic. (They are usually willing to admit that laziness plays a part in their search choices.) What I have found most fascinating is that my students have almost no strategies for evaluating a website.  It isn’t just that they are lazy.  It is that they are lazy and feel inundated with information with few strategies for filtering through that overload.

Historians are well positioned to help students learn how to filter information; it is one of the hallmarks of our discipline.  How do you help students learn to assess sources of information?

One thought on “Information Overload

  1. Congratulations on your new little!

    I’m in that “cool” space where not only am I one of the history instructors but I’m also a librarian, so I spend a portion of my class doing a good old fashioned library instruction session. My students appreciate it and are often able to help their classmates when other instructors bring them to the library for sessions.

    Usually, what I do is ask them a question like “Do you think the zombie apocalypse could really happen?” I have them do a couple of searches using whatever terms they like and they can use whatever websites they like, after we’ve discussed what they’ve found, I direct them to and then we talk about evaluating sources. I ask the standard questions about who created the page, why was it created, dates, etc. The students do learn from this but I have to admit, the topic is losing its connection because I think I’m the only fan of The Walking Dead still around and most students don’t watch “regular” tv.

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