With a seemingly infinite supply of information available via smartphones, tablets and laptops, it can be difficult for students to know what to trust. A new study from a University of Maryland researcher reveals one effective solution: using the same strategies as professional fact-checkers. 

Sarah McGrew, assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership, found that once they learned the tactics of the pros, 11th-grade students showed greater ability to investigate a website’s source, critique evidence and locate other, reliable sources for marking personal, community and political decisions. Her findings were published this month by Computers and Education.

“If we’re turning to the internet for that information, we have to be able to evaluate it,” McGrew said. 

Based on McGrew’s dissertation research at Stanford University, the new publication expanded on her earlier study with education Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford that compared how well professional fact-checkers, university history professors and university freshmen evaluated the accuracy of digital content. The fact-checkers outperformed the other groups; one main difference was that the fact-checkers read laterally, meaning that when they encountered an unfamiliar website, they would immediately leave the site to research it using outside sources.

“The fact-checkers had a distinct approach to evaluating information and a set of strategies to very efficiently and effectively find sources that they trusted online,” McGrew said. 

McGrew worked with a teacher at a California high school to give eight fact-checking lessons to 68 AP history students over the course of a semester. The students were challenged to evaluate online content, including social media posts and websites, in tests before and after the intervention.

For instance, the social media task involved pre-test evaluation of an image claiming that the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused abnormalities in nearby flower populations and a post-test evaluation of whether another image of an art installation provided strong evidence about the conditions for children in Syria. 

Another more complex task required the students to evaluate contemporary claims about historical figures. In pre-testing, the students evaluated claims that Cesar Chavez—the United Farm Workers co-founder—opposed Mexican immigration to the United States, and in post-testing, claims that Margaret Sanger—the Planned Parenthood founder—supported euthanasia.

Compared with the pre-tests, students’ scores improved in the majority of post-tests, showing an increase in using fact-checking strategies. On the historical claim research, for instance, 71% of students provided a relevant explanation about the trustworthiness of a source they used to inform why they agreed or disagreed with the claims, compared with only 25% in pre-testing.

“It’s our responsibility to help students learn to judge digital content so they can take advantage of the strengths of having access to so much information,” McGrew said.