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Teaching Strategies About Source Credibility

Jordan Catapano

Today’s digital era allows students access to an incredible wealth of resources. However, even though an impressive extent of collective human knowledge is available at our fingertips, we have to admit there’s a lot of junk out there. As educators, one of the most critical teaching strategies we can use is how to evaluate the credibility of a resource. Terms like “Fake news” and “Alternative facts” have recently floated across our public discourse. Many people feel like if they don’t read the news, they’re under-informed, but if they do read the news then they’re misinformed. Perhaps Aldous Huxley’s fears from “Brave New World” are coming true, that important information is easily drowned out in a sea of irrelevance. That may become possible, unless we commit to using teaching strategies to help students block out the trash and tune into information that comes from a credible source.

Students aren’t born knowing how to evaluate the credibility of sources. Someone needs to teach them, or else they run the risk of putting their trust in sources of a questionable origin.

Teaching Strategies: Four Broad Categories for Credibility

When I teach students to do assess a source’s credibility, there are four overall categories I draw their attention to:

1. Author. This is the most critical area, and I’ll go into more depth about it below. Basically I try to get students to think about WHO is giving them their information. Normally we want to receive our information from someone who is an expert on the topic in some way. This means they have extensive education regarding the topic, they have extensive personal experience regarding the topic, or both. Overall, there needs to be a good reason why we believe the person/people giving us the information.

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2. Date. WHEN the information we’re looking at came out matters. It matters in different ways for different topics, but it is an important component we ought to consider. Scientific studies, for example, are generally more reliable the more recent they are, as science has a way of updating its information as new research and technology develop. Older resources might be more pertinent if we’re looking for primary sources or historical accounts. The date allows us to understand the context in which that information arose.

3. Location/Medium. WHERE the information is found also has importance. If it’s found on a random individual’s blog, a university textbook, or an accredited research journal, these are factors that should be taken into consideration. We want to know who and how many people worked on and approved the information before it became available to others’ eyes. We want to know for whom the information was meant. We also want to know which organizations and institutions are affiliated with the information.

4. Validity. The WHAT of the information is also important. The author, date, and location all tell us about the context of the information, but the validity asks us to assess the information itself, looking at its coherence, consistency, and accuracy. With this, you look for the information to have support and evidence, citations and references, clarity and progression, purpose and logic.

Learning how to assess the credibility of various sources is like exercising a muscle: It takes practice and repetition to grow. We wants students to be able to quickly and effectively come to accurate conclusions about how to understand the credibility of information they see, and drawing their attention to these four broad categories helps them to begin that process.

Questions Students Can Learn to Ask

As students hone their skills in assessing authorship, date, medium, and validity, they can learn to ask important questions to help them ascertain the extent to which they want to trust a given source.

Here is a short series of questions to teach students to ask when evaluating the credibility of sources:

  • Who wrote this? Who is the person giving this information to me? Why should I trust them?
  • In what way is the author or authors associated with this topic?
  • Does this represent the author’s opinion or fact?
  • What expertise or experience does the author possess?
  • What perspectives does the author represent?
  • What does the author use to support their perspective?
  • What biases might the author have regarding this topic? How does this impact what is being said?
  • What institutions is this author associated with?
  • Have other credible people/sources referenced this author/source?
  • When was it written, and why does that date matter?
  • Has anything changed in this field of study since the publication date?
  • What is the intent of the information?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Where and how was this published?
  • Is what I’m looking at where this was originally published, or did it originate elsewhere?
  • What are the publisher’s/organization’s objectives? How might this impact content or bias?
  • Does this source contain citations? Who else is cited within the content, and are those sources themselves credible?

It’s difficult to ask students to answer each and every question from this list for every source they come across. But we do want to help train students’ minds to come to accurate conclusions about how much they should trust a given source. We can help students strengthen their credibility evaluation skills by focusing on modeling, repetition, and conversation.

When we model evaluation skills, we can simply walk our classes through our own process of determining a source’s credibility. When we display websites, articles, books, or other resources, we can talk to students about what elements our attention is drawn toward and how we use these to evaluate it as a source. This models for students some of the methods of observation and thinking.

Repetition is also an important component of this training. For students to truly exercise their “Credibility-evaluating muscle,” they need to have the opportunity to practice over and over again. This repetition helps their minds more automatically process through the elements and questions necessary for determining a source’s trustworthiness.

Finally, modeling and repetition are blended together when we have a chance to talk personally to students about the credibility of sources. Instead of us lecturing or students practicing, we can engage students in a meaningful one-on-one or small-group discussion about the conclusions they’ve drawn regarding a source’s credibility. This will help us guide them through the process and more likely to reach the most helpful conclusions about a resource.

Overall, we cannot understate the importance of learning how to assess a source’s credibility. Often it turns out that no single factor about a source qualifies or disqualifies it as legitimate, but ultimately helps us come to a stronger conclusion about what the information is that we’re looking at and how we might best be able to understand and apply it. In a world overloaded with information, equipping students with the ability to critically analyze a source’s context and origin will go a long way toward ensuring they build their knowledge on a solid foundation of credible sources.

What do you find helpful from this article’s list of questions? What else would you add? Leave a comment below to tell us the teaching strategies YOU use to help students evaluate a source’s credibility!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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