Critical Analysis and Information Literacy

How can we teach students to obtain trustworthy information and think critically?
Published in Neuroscience
Critical Analysis and Information Literacy

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This is the fourth article in a five-part weekly series about executive brain functions. 


In today's globalized information age, an ever-increasing proportion of misinformation accompanies the burgeoning wealth of new and changing information. As students are bombarded with social and news media that blur lines between fact and opinion, they need guided experiences to build their critical analysis of information validity and value.

My previous posts in this series described strategies to build students' executive functions of organizing, prioritizing, and judgment. This post will suggest ways to activate your students' developing neural networks of skillsets for critical analysis. These skillsets include information literacy to evaluate what needs to be gathered, what characterizes fact versus opinion, and where to find the most current and useful information.

With these understandings, students will be prepared to form opinions based on facts instead of social media or biased reporting. They can learn to apply the accuracy standards to a school assignment while modeling for documents and reports in their future careers. They will be prepared to evaluate methods of applying new information for present problem solving or innovation beyond the status quo.

Building the Skillsets

Students should be taught explicitly and provided opportunities to practice finding the most applicable information, assess media for validity, and document their own work appropriately.

1. Analyzing which information is best for their goals

  • Before students gather information for a report or discussion, have them evaluate what resources are most needed and relevant to their assignment and learning goal.
  • Personalize the experience with initial topics of personal relevance before focusing on the resources that they'll need for an academic assignment. (Examples provide a more memorable and lasting structure.)
  • Invite sharing through class lists of where different types of resources can be found. For example, they can locate primary sources through the Library of Congress or start with those available in 6 Free Online Resources for Primary Source Documents by Monica Burns.

2. Analyzing validity

If students are to form opinions based on facts rather than social media, biased reporting, and unsupported claims, they need opportunities to evaluate information validity. Here are some suggestions for helping them recognize the difference between theory and research or between fact and opinion:

  • Learn scientific method and use it to critique research.
  • Evaluate data to understand that correlation does not equal causation. The Spurious Correlations website provides intriguing graphs to help students recognize that just because movements of two variables track each other closely over time doesn't mean that one causes the other. An example is a graph of data that shows a 99 percent correlation between divorce rate and per capita margarine consumption in Maine between 2000 and 2009, although there is absolutely no support that margarine use is a cause of divorce.

Here are some suggestions for multimedia evaluation.

  • Students analyze information about a topic, event, or person using a variety of sources: visual images, graphs, charts, maps, cartoons, photographs, artwork, eyewitness accounts, etc. Then, they discuss or write their analysis of discrepancies, evidence types used to support claims, and the clues that guided them to decide whether information was opinion, interpretation, or fact.
  • Engage interest in this skill of information literacy building by starting with opportunities to analyze validity in topics of interest or past personal experiences. For example, evaluate historical characters popularized in literature or media, such as Pocahontas in the Disney films compared with a portrait of Pocahontas created during her life as well as written descriptions of her appearance and actions.
  • Compare accounts of historical events from different sources to increase awareness of conflicting perspectives.

The next and in some ways most important step is building students' personal rubrics for source validity. Critical analysis of websites can guide the development of their understanding.

  • Students begin a research project (or for this first experience, they select a topic of personal interest to investigate via websites) by finding examples comprising the extremes of websites about the same topic.
  • They select one or more sites that they believe are highly objective and authenticated, and one or more that they think misrepresent facts or try to disguise opinion as fact.
  • After making their selections, they review and evaluate what criteria they used in forming their assessments of valid and invalid sites. These are shared in class discussion. Then students create a whole-class rubric demonstrating potential criteria to evaluate website validity and misrepresentations.
  • Students continue to build and refine their skills by applying the criteria that they found most useful when evaluating subsequent websites and information sources for future assignments. They can then continue to refine the class rubric and their personal rubrics to help them assess source validity going forward.

3. Support their opinions

Ask students to support their opinions with both their reasons and valid references. As an example, have them create timelines of events in history, progress in a field of scientific knowledge, or major events in a novel. Beyond the usual timeline assignment, they should include specific quotes or texts that support the items they've selected for the timeline.

Your Guidance

Your guidance in this critical analysis will become evident as your students become stronger information analysts who can distinguish fact from opinion, weigh information validity, and evaluate its worth in relation to their goals. You'll encourage the birth of dendrites and synapses in their brains, giving them the executive function boost needed to achieve their highest potentials, successes, and satisfaction in their future careers.

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