Students often overlook the quality of information online, study shows

For participating students, the problem was assessing — not accessing — information on the web.

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Students are still exhibiting problems with evaluating the quality of information online. A recent study conducted by the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and Goethe University Frankfurt reveals that most students failed to critically weigh the information they found over the web.

The study targeted pupils from multiple disciplines, including medicine and economics, to better understand how they approached information in an online test called the Critical Online Reasoning Assessment (CORA) exam. The results weren't so uplifting.

Assessment, not accessibility, was the problem — In a joint press release, JGU professor Olga Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia reported, "Unfortunately, it is becoming evident that a large proportion of students are tempted to use irrelevant and unreliable information from the Internet when solving the CORA tasks."

The study required participating students to carry out "short tasks" that depended on seeking information across the internet. They had full autonomy in selecting websites, sources, studies, papers, and more in their test. The students could browse the internet on their own within a time frame of ten minutes and then provide brief explanations to substantiate and bolster their answers.

Almost everyone scored poorly — According to the press release, Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia and researchers found that "on a scale of 0 to 2 points per task, the students scored only 0.75 points on average, with the results ranging from 0.50 to 1.38 points." Additionally, researchers noted that the majority of students leaned away from sourcing scientific information in their test. The only positive outcome that observers found was that students in higher semesters showed a tendency to perform "slightly better" in seeking and evaluating information.

Students deserve better training — After looking at longitudinal data like this, it would be easy to blame students for failing to score higher on the test. The truth of the matter, however, is that colleges and universities could do better with providing readily available courses and training sessions on online research.

Fluency in social media — a common trait among many students these days — is not directly proportional to being digitally savvy enough to navigate and carefully inspect the content one comes across on a daily basis. In this case, students need to be taught information and news literacy skills based on complex reasoning, credibility evaluation, source hunting, lateral reading, reverse inspections, and more.

Differentiating fact from fiction is a matter of trained perception. Instead of finger-wagging, JGU's research should encourage institutes to get more aggressive about imparting these skills.