How to Teach Students to Perform a Credible Sources Check in 7 Easy Steps

Our students need to learn how to perform a credible sources check because there is so much information in the world that is often false.  All-day long we are bombarded with information from news, radio, social media, and peers.  Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true.  When our students practice credible sources and check for a paper they are actually practicing a vital life skill.

The Credible Sources Check I Use Daily

Whenever I scroll through my social media feeds I see all sorts of news stories, and some of them are fascinating, as I talk with my husband about this “news” I will often say “because if it’s on social media it must be true.  As adults, we have learned to be skeptical of the information we come in contact with.  We wonder if it is true or biased.  We ask ourselves who said it and if they can be trusted.

Credible Sources Check is a Life Skill in a Fake News World

Fake news has roots as a literary device and the genre of satire.  Satire is when we use humor, exaggeration, irony, and ridicule or teasing. Satire is used to criticize people’s lack of common sense or vices.  It’s often focused on politics, but not always.  There are entire websites that are devoted to satirical news such as The Onion.

There is also fake news.  I like to think of fake news as more of a rumor mill, but the mill is all on social media and the internet.  One person says something that sounds true and it quickly gets repeated and shared across social media, spreading like wildfire.  The scary thing is that people don’t question it.

Clickbait is another online trap that can be filled with fake news.  Website creators can get paid per click on their site.  If they create articles that sound good then people will click, read, and believe.  It could be all fake news, but it’s getting them paid.

If you need some examples of fake sites check out these with your students.

What are Credible Sources?

Credible sources are written by an expert in their field of study and are free from errors and bias.  A credible source includes evidence and the sources of that evidence. There are five points of criteria that make a source credible.  We will dive into a detailed explanation later.

  • Authority 
  • Currency
  • Content
  • Accuracy
  • Bias

There are three types of sources.

  • Primary Sources – a first-hand account of someone who has experienced or witnessed the event.  There is no outside interpretation.  It is an original unpublished document.
  • Secondary Sources – a second-hand account of the events.  The author examines, interprets, and draws conclusions about the event based on a primary source.
  • Tertiary Sources – led the researcher to secondary sources through catalogs, indexes, and bibliographies.

More Helpful Articles About Performing a Credible Sources Check

Credible Sources and How to Spot Them

How Do I Know If My Souces are Credible/Reliable?

How to Tell If a Website is Credible

Why it’s Important to Teach Students How to Perform a Credible Sources Check

Of course, students need to be able to identify credible sources for academic writing.  Identifying credible sources is a skill that will last them far beyond their academic careers. 

Students haven’t yet developed a sense of skepticism that causes them to question the information they research and come into contact with daily.  We are flooded with information each day and we have to determine if the information is real and accurate or not.  

There is more fake news out in the world than ever before and it’s become extremely easy to spread it.  Our students need to know and understand that not all information they see is true and they will have to determine what is real or not.

Students may also struggle to accept reliable and accurate information that is new to them.  The information may contradict something they already thought and believed, which is challenging for them to let of for new information.  This means we have to teach them to have an open, but skeptical mind.

  • They will need to recognize and evaluate ideas they would usually ignore.
  • They will need to determine if the information is useful and reliable to prove or disprove their previous ideas.
  • They will need to be open to accepting that their original thinking can be proven inaccurate based on the credible source’s information.

7 Tips for a Credible Sources Check

There are seven simple ways that we can determine quickly that a source should be credible.  I’ve added two additional ones to the list I shared earlier.  These are simple to teach students to look at.

  1. Keywords

Keywords are what you type into a search engine to find the information you want.  Being able to use the right keywords well will help your students find credible sources.  So often I have to walk students through the search process because what they want to do is type the whole question into the search engine rather than a few keywords.

  1. Generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs )

gTLDs look crazy weird, but it is really just how a website address ends.  Most of these endings had been originally intended for a specific use, but over time that has changed.  Understanding these addresses can help your students find more accurate information.  Here are the Generic Top-Level Domains. 

  • .com (commercial): This gTLD is the most common and was originally intended for commercial purposes or businesses.  However, now many websites use .com so students must critically consider site credibility. 
  • .net (network): This gTLD was originally intended for network sites such as internet providers and infrastructure companies.  However, now anyone can have a .net and it is fairly common.  Students need to carefully evaluate the credibility of .net sites. 
  • .gov (government): This gTLD is restricted for government use only.  It is not a public domain that anyone can purchase, which is why (.gov) sites are considered a reliable source and often where students can find statistics. 
  • .org (organization): Originally this gTLD was intended for non-profit organizations, but anyone can purchase this domain and people have.  Students must carefully check the credibility of these sites.
  • .edu (education): This gTLD is usually used by universities and schools.  Generally, .edu sites are considered credible sources since they are from universities and schools.  Often researchers will publish their papers and findings through their university’s site.  Students should still check to make sure that a .edu site is part of a real educational institution.
  1. Currency

Information can be out of date.  The more we learn as a society the quicker information expires.  When your students search online they should make sure the sites are current and updated regularly.  They should make sure that statistics are the most recent ones they can find unless they are looking for historical data.

  1. Content 

The content of the page is hopefully what made your students want to use the information from the website they are on.  Here are some things your students should consider about the information on a website or its content.

  1. Is it relevant to their topic?
  2. Is it age-appropriate for them?
  3. Is it written in an academic or scholarly language?
  4. How valuable is this site’s information for the topic they are researching?
  1. Authority

This is an extremely important question when considering if a source is credible. Students need to know who wrote the article or website they are looking at and if that person is an expert in their field of study and the topic they are writing about.  They need to know about the author’s publishing and citing background.  If the author has been cited by other authors or books then the article is more likely to be credible.  It’s also important to know if the author has written other articles and books about the topic in their field of study.  And finally, students should know who the publisher is.

  1. Accuracy 

What good is a source if the information is inaccurate?  Students need to learn to dig deeper into their topics to make sure that the information is accurate and credible. Does the author explain the evidence that leads them to the information?  Can the information be cross-checked against other sources to make sure it’s accurate?  If they look at the bibliography then they should recognize the other authors or publishers or look into them.  If the sources of information for their article are inaccurate then their article is definitely inaccurate. Does the article say it was peer-reviewed, meaning that other people in that field of study read, considered, and researched information about that topic as well to make sure it was accurate?

  1. Bias

Every author is biased in some ways.  It’s impossible to not have opinions and life experiences that impact the way we think.  As researchers, we are asked to put our biases aside and focus on the information.  Students need to be sure their credible sources are also working to put their bias to the side and focus on the information.  Here are a few questions they can consider.

  1. Is it sponsored, meaning someone paid money for it to exist?
  2. Is the author trying to sell anything?
  3. Do other experts agree with the author?  If your students look at 10 sources and only one person states the “facts” they are looking at using they should rethink using that information as a credible source.

Modeling, Checklists, and Prompts for a Credible Sources Check

If you just tell your students the information above and tell them to make sure their sources are credible they will likely fail.  Students need more support to successfully learn how to perform a credible sources check.  

Model a Credible Sources Check

Model a credible sources check for your students.  Take time to walk your students through a credible sources check on some credible sites and some not credible sites to show your students how to do it.  Want some ideas of things to show your students on these sites?

How to Verify or Refute Information

Show your students how to cross-check a fact that may seem inaccurate.  Show them how to look on another site to determine if the information is true

Investigate Who the Author is

Show your students how to look on a website for the about the author information or go back to the search engine and look the author up.  Students should be able to quickly see if the author is an expert in their field of study.  

Determine Bias 

Students need to be able to spot biased information.  Is the author able to remain unbiased as they write about the topic?  Since they just looked up the author they should know the answer to that question.  They should also consider the questions we looked at earlier.

  1. Is it sponsored, meaning someone paid money for it to exist?
  2. Is the author trying to sell anything?
  3. Do other experts agree with the author?  If your students look at 10 sources and only one person states the “facts” they are looking at using they should rethink using that information as a credible source.
Credible Sources Check of Differing Perspectives

Sometimes we come across sources that have split information on a topic.  There are two or more groups of people who believe their information is correct and is backed up by other authors.  Students need to be able to navigate this information to determine which is the most accurate. Cross-checking information isn’t always enough to determine credibility.  It takes good judgment and practice to determine who to trust, and we aren’t always right.

There is another perspective challenge for students.  Students will often find perspectives that don’t match their own.  This can be a real challenge for them to find information that goes against what they always believed.  

Credible Source Check Checklists 

Checklists are a great tool for students to determine if a source is credible.  As they read the site they simply check off what they think for each item.  Some checklists follow a score method which means that if the source gets so many points it’s considered more or less credible.

If you’d like a credible source to check the checklist you can find mine here.

Prompts for a Credible Sources Check

Some teachers find that checklists are too complex and messy.  They prefer to help their students use question prompts for a credible sources check.  Prompts can help students think more critically about their sources rather than just check off a few questions.

If you’d like prompts for a credible sources to check then you can grab yours here.

I feel that both checklists and prompts are useful in the classroom.  Depending on the grade level or even the class of students each year you might feel one works better than the other.  However, every student is different and so they may need different tools to get their writing done.  I have bundled these two resources together for you in case you’d like both.

Talking About Plagiarism After Teaching Credible Sources Check

After you have talked to your students about credible sources it’s a good time to talk about plagiarism.  We cannot assume that our students know what plagiarism is.

Plagiarism uses someone else’s ideas, words, or information without giving them credit for their work.  

Students can easily plagiarize by mistake. I once had a student who was a poor writer that would copy whole paragraphs from the textbook.  They included the correct answers, but it was literally word for word from the text.  He didn’t even realize that it was wrong to copy from the textbook like this.

On top of teaching students what plagiarism is, we need to teach them how to use the information they are gathering.  Some of the ways they may use the information are

  • Quotes giving proper credit to the author.
  • Rephrasing or paraphrasing writing while giving proper credit to the author.
  • Extracting information from multiple sources and combining it to create an original thought or idea.  They should still give proper credit to the authors.

Extracting information to create an original thought supported by quotes and paraphrasing is what we really want our students to be doing.  It will take time and practice for them to learn how.

Credible Source Check Activities

Credible source check activities are short activities that help students practice the skills we’ve talked about.  

  1. Fact or Fiction

Give students a list of websites to examine and have them determine which sites are fact and which are fiction.  Feel free to award points to teams of students, or make it a race to see who can identify the site first with evidence supporting their fact or fiction claim.   You can challenge students to find the most pieces of evidence proving the site is fact or fiction.

  1. Credibility Ranker

Have students rank sites by credibility.  This would work great with the credibility checklist.  Students can determine how credible they think the site is.  The best part of this activity is that it relies on student judgment.  Different students will judge each site differently, which leads to great conversations about credibility.

  1. Bias Buster

We have talked about how the author’s bias can destroy an article’s credibility and a student’s bias can make them trust or distrust a site too quickly.  Pick a topic students are passionate about like longer school days or shorter school weeks and have students look at 5 sites for and 5 sites against the topic.  Students will have to look past their own bias at the facts presented to determine if the sites are credible and how credible they are.

  1. Fact Checker

Give students “facts” from celebrities, politicians, or regular people and have the students fact-check the information.  They can see if the facts are real or if the politicians and celebrities actually said what you alleged.  They will practice cross-checking facts and maybe debate with some classmates.

  1. Busting Lies

Your students will love this activity because they get to try to trick their classmates.  It’s similar to the dictionary game where everyone comes up with a fake definition for a word and one person tries to guess the real definition.  In this game, students will slip fake information into a paragraph or speech to share with the class and the class has to bust the liar.

Credible Source Check and Citing

Once your students have evaluated their sources and decided to use those sources in their work we have to teach them how to cite their sources.  There are many styles that can be used to cite a source.  The citation style is what information to include from a source and what order to put that information in. Here are some of the most common citation styles.

  • APA (American Psychology Association)
  • MLA (Modern Languages Association)
  • Harvard
  • Chicago

It doesn’t matter which one you choose, but if you want to help your students in the future then talk to the middle school and high school teachers to see what citation style they teach.

Likely your students are just learning how to cite a source.  As you start teaching citing sources it’s okay to have them use the title and author for their first paper, and then add more requirements for the next paper.

One final recommendation when it comes to citing sources.  Have you heard of the website easybib?  Easybib allows students to type in the source information and then it orders that information in the correct format for your students.

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