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Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information

by Sam Wineburg & Sarah McGrew - 2019

Background/Context: The Internet has democratized access to information but in so doing has opened the floodgates to misinformation, fake news, and rank propaganda masquerading as dispassionate analysis. Despite mounting attention to the problem of online misinformation and growing agreement that digital literacy efforts are important, prior research offers few concrete ideas about what skilled evaluations look like.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Our purpose in this study was to seek out those who are skilled in online evaluations in order to understand how their strategies and approaches to evaluating digital content might inform educational efforts. We sampled 45 experienced users of the Internet: 10 Ph.D. historians, 10 professional fact checkers, and 25 Stanford University undergraduates. Analysis focused on the strategies participants used to evaluate online information and arrive at judgments of credibility.

Research Design: In this expert/novice study, participants thought aloud as they evaluated live websites and searched for information on social and political issues such as bullying, minimum wage, and teacher tenure. We analyze and present findings from three of the tasks participants completed.

Findings/Results: Historians and students often fell victim to easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names. They read vertically, staying within a website to evaluate its reliability. In contrast, fact checkers read laterally, leaving a site after a quick scan and opening up new browser tabs in order to judge the credibility of the original site. Compared to the other groups, fact checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We draw on insights gleaned from the fact checkers’ practices to examine current curricular approaches to teaching web credibility as well as to suggest alternatives.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 11, 2019, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22806, Date Accessed: 9/25/2021 9:27:55 AM

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About the Author
  • Sam Wineburg
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    SAM WINEBURG is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History at Stanford University. His latest book is Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) published by the University of Chicago Press.
  • Sarah McGrew
    University of Maryland
    E-mail Author
    SARAH MCGREW is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. She studies how young people reason about online information and how teachers can support students to thoughtfully engage with digital content. Her recent publications include “Can Students Evaluate Online Sources? Learning from Assessments of Civic Online Reasoning” in Theory & Research in Social Education.
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