Middle School Students Are Smarter Online Readers After Receiving Civic Online Reasoning Instruction

A recent study with middle schoolers suggests that even a short curricular intervention can improve students’ ability to evaluate the credibility of unfamiliar information on the web. 

Building on the Stanford History Education Group's research with fact checkers, Angela Kohnen, Gillian Mertens, and Shelby Boehm of the University of Florida designed a one-day, ninety-minute curricular intervention for a group of eighth graders that taught a few strategies for assessing credibility. These strategies included lateral reading (opening new tabs to investigate an unfamiliar source), corroborating information across sources, consulting Wikipedia articles, and "understanding the financial ties of a source.” After the students participated in the intervention, the researchers assessed the students’ skills at evaluating a set of live websites.

Were students able to apply the skills that they were taught during the intervention? 

While students continued to rely on novice strategies, they showed an increased ability to use expert strategies, like lateral reading: leaving a website to search for information about it from trusted sources on the web. The authors note that when faced with unfamiliar websites during the posttest, “students were more likely to open a new tab and Google the name of the website during the posttest than they were in the pretest.” Students were also “more likely to skim the search engine results, rather than clicking on the first one or two links," a strategy known as click restraint.

The increase in instances of students looking for information outside of the presented website suggested to the authors that “students were beginning to realize that credibility is best determined by looking beyond the webpage itself.”

While eighth graders may need a deeper understanding about the different types of internet sources to use expert strategies more efficiently, this study suggests that even a short curriculum intervention can “teach students to read laterally to investigate a source.”