Faculty Club / Assessment / Real vs. Fake News: How to Add Critical Thinking to Any Lesson Plan

Real vs. Fake News: How to Add Critical Thinking to Any Lesson Plan

Course Hero educator partners share how they demystify academic literature and foster critical thinking skills to help students avoid getting duped.

Course Hero educator partners share how they demystify academic literature and foster critical thinking skills to help students avoid getting duped.

real vs fake

Sad but true: A recent study by Northeastern University reported that nearly half of college students surveyed found it difficult to tell real news from fake news. Further, the very existence of fake news has made 36% of them distrust the credibility of all news. It is no wonder that many faculty see it as their mission to help students learn the difference between fact and opinion, credible and incredible, news and nonsense.

Being able to assess the credibility, accuracy, and context of information is key in any discipline. And with 3.8 million searches per minute being conducted on Google alone, these skills have become increasingly important for all students, not just those seeking careers in research.

Here, seven Course Hero educator partners share their strategies for teaching students to think critically and deeply about what they read—in the classroom and beyond. This scaffolded approach offers one way to move them from “who cares?” to “guess what I learned today?”

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Start by finding stories that catch their attention

Before you can get students to read something, it is helpful to get them to care. One way to show students that science is worth reading is to find stories that are relevant to their lives, says Stephanie Martin, MS, assistant professor of biology at Austin Community College. This is why she shares hot topics from aggregated news sites (such as ScienceDaily and Science-Based Medicine) or science podcasts (such as Radiotopia, Science Friday, and The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe).

Then she asks students to bring in articles that are of personal interest to them. Genetically altered babies, the HIV virus, and hair texture all have provided fodder for discussion. To keep the momentum going, Martin follows up with emails providing links to new articles on favorite topics.

Find fake news so you can introduce students to bias

Inspired by “fake news” surrounding the 2016 election, Daneryl Weber, PhD, associate professor of English at Sullivan County Community College, designed an assignment where students pit resources against each other. She calls it Spy vs. Spy, as it requires students to look at one topic from varying points of view.

“[Each student brings] in an article, video, web page, or any source they choose … and then we analyze [them],” she says. Weber also exposes students to sites on fact checking and bias, such as the Media Bias Chart, The Political Matrix, and The Political Compass. “On these sites, the sources are evaluated on political bias and how factual the reporting is,” Weber explains.

Teach them to read academic literature with a scaffolded approach

Sometimes students may gravitate to lower-quality sources of information because they feel intimidated by journal articles. “Reading primary literature is like going down a black diamond [steep and difficult ski slope],” says Catherine Kleier, PhD, professor of biology at Regis University. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be painful, and you might not want to do it again.”

To guide students through a research paper, Kleier uses a pedagogical tool called C.R.E.A.T.E., which stands for Consider, Read, Elucidate the hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data, and Think of the next Experiment. Simply put, students first engage with the literature on a surface level (familiarizing themselves with terms and concepts) and then gradually dig deeper (examining data and forming conclusions). A favorite step is Analyze, in which students draw a cartoon summarizing the paper’s information.

Christopher Shar, PhD, MSW, assistant professor of social work at Angelo State University, uses a less formal approach, explaining the structural features of a journal article one by one. For example, he will point to the title and say, “Sometimes titles are good, and sometimes titles won’t tell us anything.” This works well because academic papers can seem unwieldy at first glance—but as the old joke goes: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Have students investigate the origin of myths and fraud

Once students know how to read both academic literature and media stories, Brigitte Morin, MS, a senior lecturer of biology at Michigan Tech, has them do a side-by-side comparison of them.

In her semester-long Investigating Claims project, Morin’s students read a chapter from Altered Traits by best-selling authors Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, which discusses how health myths arise. Then students look at a rigorous study in a top-tier, peer-reviewed journal to learn the significance of sample size, replicability, and measurability in research. Finally, they compare peer-reviewed sources to the popular media reports that were written about them. “I want students to understand that you have to question everything,” she says.

Similarly, Hilary Gaudet, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry at Wheaton College, created a “phony-research podcast project” that teaches students about reliable studies by examining fraudulent ones. Gaudet reviews various contributors to fraud, including problems with research practices, research integrity, plagiarism, and data mismanagement. Finally, students create a podcast that details their findings.

“People can participate in research misconduct without even knowing it,” says Gaudet. “So it’s important to be aware of how to properly conduct research [and] how to report research.”

Require students to listen to (and challenge) the experts

Sometimes the best way to get students thinking about information quality is to have them go straight to the experts, says Fred Rosenberg, PhD, adjunct professor of biology at California Lutheran University. That is why he requires students to talk with professionals at a local hospital for a unit in his Medical Microbiology course.

“We sit down with the infection-control physician and an infection-control nurse, as well as the CEO of the hospital,” he says. “They discuss what they do, how they control the spread of disease, and then they open up [the floor] to questions.”

Rosenberg also encourages students to voice any concerns or objections they may have regarding the procedures. By encouraging students to question everything—including experts and the status quo—he hopes to prepare them to solve the problems of the future.

“So many courses say, ‘Here’s the material, here’s the exam, and you’re done,’” he says. “I don’t want students to be ‘done’ with it. I want them to think.”

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