I’ve been doing an evaluation exercise with many of my English 151 classes for the last couple of years. It works pretty well, and I’ve had several instructors request that I repeat it again for their future classes. Many of my colleagues have been asked about this exercise, so I thought I would put it down it writing.
First, a little background on our English 151 library sessions. We generally get to see each section of English 151 for a 2-3 hour period, usually during the middle of the 10-week quarter. We teach them how to use the online catalog, how to search for articles, a little about navigating our website, and usually a little about evaluation. The English classes are our best bet in getting most of the first-year students familiar with the library. Many students won’t ever have another library instruction session in their college career, but rather than try to teach them everything they could possibly know about the library, we try to address more general themes. One of those themes is evaluating sources, and we all tend to teach this a little differently. Here is one of the more successful exercises that I use to teach evaluation. If you have any questions or if anything isn’t clear, please post a comment and I’ll try to answer as best as I can.
1. I play the following YouTube video for the class. It takes about seven minutes.
2. While the video is playing, I take notes on a whiteboard at the front of the class. Basically I am writing down things the people say in the video that really stick out at me, things that I might want to question. If you listen to the video, you’ll get the idea of the type of things that might raise a flag.
3. After the video is over, I ask the class what they thought of the video, and this usually generates some conversation. If no one talks, I’ve got the notes on the whiteboard at the front of the class. I’ll mention things like the “Luke Skywalker meets…..” comment, or ask them about what things the panel may have said that may cause them to be less credible. I also ask them about the supposed “expert” on the panel, and ask what makes her credible.
4. With the expert, I like to point out that she had not played the game that she was criticizing at all. I also mention that the anchorwoman did not allow the real expert, the game journalist, to speak much at all. We then talk about all the other panelists, and discuss what gives them the authority to talk about the game. As an example, the anchorwoman “went on the internet” to do research, one panelist questioned “what happened to the days of Atari and PacMan” and that she felt “old”, and another panelist compared games to Playboy Magazine.
5. In examining the clip, I like to specifically focus on one of the expert’s points about game statistics. She alleges that teenagers are the majority of game players. However, if you check the Entertainment Software Association’s website, you’ll see that the average gamer is actually 35 years old. The expert also mentions a “new study out of the University of Maryland,” but I try to point out that there are numerous studies about video games, and nearly all of them contradict each other. If you want to find a study that says video games make you kill people, then you can find that pretty easily. If you want to find a study that says video games will make you smarter and a better team player, entire books have been written on those topics as well. The point is to look critically at these studies and find other information that strengthens and weakens the argument.
6. I then point to this blog post on Joystiq about the Fox News/Mass Effect controversy. I explain to them what happened in a nutshell. First, Fox News aired the video shown above, then someone (most likely an angry gamer) copied the video and uploaded it to YouTube. (FYI, more than one video was posted). Next, multiple gaming blogs embedded the video(s) on their pages, whereby millions of gamers saw the video and became enraged. Not content to just sit on their hands, many of these gamers went to Amazon.com and rated the expert’s book (which happened to be promoted during the video segment on Fox). Amazon actually removed over 400 negative reviews of the book, but most of them said something like <paraphrase>”after never actually reading the book, I can tell you that this book is an utter piece of garbage and the author has no idea what she is talking about.” I can say this because, since I haven’t read the book, I am still an authority on the subject.”</paraphrase> The expert later apologized publicly via the New York Times, but I don’t think Fox News ever ran a retraction of the story.
7. The entire exercise, including watching the video and discussion, generally takes no longer than 15 minutes. More than 15 minutes, and I find myself belaboring the point too much and their minds start to drift. If you use this, try to keep it fresh and lively, engage the students for a few minutes, then move on to the next thing on your agenda. I usually do the exercise after they we have had time for hands-on work and they have found a few articles or books. It’s a good way to bring the class focus back together after the hands-on individual activities.
So what’s the point?
The point of the exercise is to demonstrate to the students that evaluation of information goes beyond telling the difference between popular and scholarly articles. This exercise shows them that they should look at things critically, regardless of whether they are doing academic research, watching the news, buying a new camera, or trying to decide which movie to go see. Even in real life outside of academia, we are required to make choices about the information that we ingest and digest. Even when information is fed to us via Fox News, CNN, the New York Times, our professors, or our mothers, it’s important to understand and look for bias and misinformation. I get better with the exercise the more I do it, and by the conversation it starts with the students, I believe it really is effective at making my point.
I hope that this is useful to someone and that if people use it, they’ll make it better. If you try it and it works, please let me know. I’d love to hear what worked, what didn’t, and what changes you made to make the exercise better.
I’m also curious what other librarians and teachers are doing, as I’m always looking for new ways to be more effective in the classroom. Have you seen something that really worked, or have you tried something that really made the point of evaluation clear to the students? If so, I’d love to hear about it.