A Low-Stakes, High-Impact Assessment for Source Evaluation

Allow me to tell you about a low-stakes, high-impact activity that develops news literacy in students while assessing their ability to think critically about online sources. I do this with my seventh graders every week at the beginning of our library class. The activity works great as a Do-Now or an Exit Ticket. It could also be adapted to classroom practice in almost any content area.

rachel carson
Rachel Carson conducts Marine Biology Research with Bob Hines — in the Atlantic (1952). By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Most school librarians use some type of evaluation mnemonic device to teach source evaluation. You’ve heard of them. You might RADAR, CRAAP, or even FART. I have always liked RADCAB, based on the wonderful work of Karen Christensson, but you can adapt this activity to your favorite evaluation acronym.

RADCAB stands for relevancy, appropriateness, detail, currency, authority, and bias. Over the years I have adapted some of Christensson’s definitions to hit on things I want older students to think about, but I remain true to the heart of RADCAB:

  • Relevancy – Is this information going to help you answer your question? It might contain all the right key words, but is the content helpful?
  • Appropriateness – Christensson’s definition is important to discuss, but I tell students I want them to consider reading level and text complexity here. Are you the intended audience? Are you reading an article that’s over (or under) your head?
  • Detail – Is there enough? What’s missing?
  • Currency – When was this published or produced? Is it current enough to answer the question?
  • Authority – Why should we trust this source? What makes them an expert?
  • Bias – Are you getting the whole picture?

We look at several websites together, discussing strengths and weaknesses. After we get  comfortable with RADCAB, I tell them I want them to understand bias, but I’m also very interested in considering a source’s perspective. Then I summarily change RADCAB’s B to P.

Enter RADCAP Warm Ups

When students enter class, they immediately pull up our class site and open two links. The first is a Google form with a research question and a RADCAP Rubric that has been modified to a simple Likert scale. The Likert scale stops short of perspective. I want students to describe a source’s perspective as best they can, then provide textual or visual evidence to support their claim. That calls for writing.

RADCAB_form
Students need to consider the research question to determine relevancy. In this example, the question is “Who is Rachel Carson and what is her legacy?”

 

The second link brings us to an article or website. For example:

http://www.rachelcarson.org/

Students investigate the website before submitting their responses through the Google form. They are encouraged to, in the words of the Stanford History Education Group, read laterally and open as many tabs as it takes to define unfamiliar words or perform background checks.¹ This requires some modeling. The rubric looks the same every week, but each time they analyze a different article or site.

The delightful twist is that students don’t see this rubric as a tool to measure their progress (which indeed it does), but as a tool they use to determine the quality of the article.

Here is where it gets really good. Display the Google sheet that is fed by your Google form (I project it on the wall). Tell students that their names will be displayed next to their answers. They will be contributing to a discussion happening both in person and online, and either way they are accountable for their answers.

RADCAB_Results

Tell them you that you will cold call students to defend their responses. This might seem intimidating at first, but it’s really just the start of a facilitated discussion that allows for debate and nuance. You can differentiate on the go while looking at the spreadsheet, calling on students you know will do well with certain filters – one might be great about looking at currency; another will be excited to check the author’s background – and everyone you don’t cold call will want to comment as well. Students can change their answers throughout the conversation. We don’t always agree in every category and that’s part of the fun. Everyone gets to participate several times in what turns into a rousing conversation around source evaluation. After a few practice rounds, the whole procedure can be performed in 10 to 15 minutes.

An Assessment You Can Feel Good About

You are now collecting formative data in real time, all while discussing a variety of information sources related to any number of topics. You can look back at the spreadsheet with student responses for a deeper analysis. If you want this to be an individual performance task, ask students to do a silent solo version of the same activity. Either way, this is one of the rare assessments that gives as much as it gets. Through regular practice and guided conversation, students internalize methods for evaluating sources while you observe their progress.

 

¹McGrew, Sarah, Teresa Ortega, Joel Breakstone, and Sam Wineburg. “The Challenge That’s Bigger Than Fake News: Teaching Students to Engage in Civic Online Reasoning.” American Educator Fall (2017): 6.

This article is a must-read. McGrew et al. don’t have a lot of nice things to say about checklists. However, they highly recommend modeling lateral reading for students (8). I like to think I use one in the service of the other.

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