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Author: Courtlann Thomas

Lesson in Critical Thinking
For the past few semesters, I have been using a critical thinking and information literacy activity in my College Success course for first-year students. Usually new college students begin the research process by executing a keyword search in Google. With those Google retrieves, students begin searching through Web page links for material they can use to complete their research assignments. Few are giving any critical thought to whether the information is timely, accurate, biased, or even relevant. Google searches aren't necessarily bad or inappropriate first steps. The problem is finding valid, authentic, and peer-reviewed information among the many links in Google. That search can cause frustration, discouragement, and ultimately a negative experience, not to mention a poor product, especially if the student doesn't know what valid and authentic information looks like. The College Success course taught at Polk State College introduces library resources and support services available to students. In this particular assignment, students are supposed to learn how to differentiate between a valid Web page and one that is questionable. They use problem-solving strategies to evaluate website validity. That process is guided by a rubric that helps them identify the credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, support, design, and technology of the website. I have students start the assignment in groups. After looking at a sample of popular magazines and journals, they brainstorm the similarities and differences between magazines and scholarly journals. We use the group lists to generate a comprehensive class list that includes elements of design, layout, and written content. The next step is to talk about the differences between printed resources and Internet resources. I invite a librarian to join this discussion. We focus on the similarities and differences between electronic resources, including Web pages and articles retrieved from subscription research databases. The librarian takes some time to teach students how to access electronic resources available through the college library. After this instruction, I assign the groups different websites (both valid and absurd ones) and provide a rubric they are to use when evaluating the sites. Here are some examples, first of absurd sites and then of valid ones.
Feline Reaction to Bearded Men This study suggests that cats were exposed to bearded men and their reactions were collected and analyzed. https://improbable.com/airchives/classical/cat/cat.html
Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus This is an informational site promoting advocacy to save the tree octopus http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/
Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanies This information discusses how to make the beanies and why it is so important to use them. http://zapatopi.net/afdb/
The Ova Prima Foundation This site discusses the support of the egg in answer to the controversial question “Which came first?” www.ovaprima.org/
Dihydrogen Monoxide Another scientific name for water, though the word “water” is never used in the website. Students will research this site for a week and often not realize it's talking about water. www.dhmo.org/

Chocolate and Fair Trade

Fair Trade gambit. (2006). Candy Industry, 171(9), 18-23.

Pythons in the Everglades

Raloff, J. (2012). Pythons squeeze out local species in South Florida. Science News, 181(4), 5-6.

Bariatric Surgery

Dajer, T. (2006). Why does her belly hurt? Discover, 27(3), 24-25.

Tattoo Removal

Poljac, B., and Burke, T. (2008). Erasing the past: Tattoo-removal programs for former gang members. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 77(8), 13-18.

Wellness Programs at Work

Bolch, M. (2012). Wellness works. Financial Executive, 28(6), 26-29.

Using the rubric, each group then presents an evaluation of its website to the rest of the class. The presentations generate both laughter and deep discussion. Discussing the absurd websites promotes critical thinking. Students recommend ways to improve both the appearance and content of their sites in order to increase their validity and authenticity. Reviewing the valid research articles reinforces the physical and cognitive considerations necessary to determine whether a source is valid. The main “aha” moment comes when students realize that they really cannot trust all websites on the Internet even though some look professional and present their content realistically. Furthermore, students realize that there is research material available beyond Google and that the library is much more than a place to study and store books. Contact Courtlann Thomas at cthomas@polk.edu.