Move Over Automatic Generators; Students’ Critical Insight is Fostered by Building Citations

Jacquelyn Whiting

Jacquelyn is a veteran public school educator certified in both social studies and library media. She is a Google Certified Innovator and Local Activator for Future Design School. Media literacy and a design thinking mindset are two essential elements she uses to personalize curricula for all learners. You can follow her on Twitter @MsJWhiting and Beyond the Stacks.

Living in a hyperlinked world means each of us now owns our reading experience. We choose our path by following links from our primary reading to ancillary media with just a click. While this reading experience empowers all of us, students included, to read according to our interest and curiosity, it also contributes to our students’ perception that a hyperlink can suffice as a citation. It can’t. Right-click, copy, right-click, paste is easy but inadequate. Websites move or are unpublished so the link no longer works thus information about a source disappears. And bad content can masquerade as a slick, even professional website. If students don’t closely examine a source, they are easily duped, misled, and misinformed.

In fact, critical source analysis can also be impede students’ over-reliance on databases which insulates them from bad sources. Even a poorly constructed database search will return quality results. Inquiry breaks down when students do not have savvy search strategies, or when they are search savvy yet don’t know how to apply those skills to the World Wide Web.

We found that many students rely on mediocre sources for research. For example, a typical Google search for “British imperialism in Egypt” (which is pretty much how the general public builds their Internet searches) returns the following results:


We would not want students to use any of the top five sources at all, and a student who builds his/her/their own citation will quickly realize why. When it comes to source credibility, we assert that the best way to evaluate a source of information is to build a citation for that source. MLA 8 citation protocols require that as a reader you examine authorship and ownership. The first question is: who created this content?

Now, look at the first source the student cited. She would not have had to look far to find that the author lacks any expertise on the topic of British imperialism anywhere. The author of the web content is a college graduate who traveled to Egypt in 2012. Period. Not convinced? Keep looking. The author cites Britannica as her source of information. And the site asserts it is a classroom for college preparation. Are any of the embedded ads targeted at you?

The other questions an MLA 8 citation prompts researchers to ask are: Who published or made this content available for public consumption and when? (Which should lead a critical reader to also wonder why it was published.) And, where does it live? How can I find it again or direct someone else to it? A thorough consideration of those aspects of a resource can reveal a lot about the source’s currency, reliability, accuracy, authority and even purpose. And if any of this information about a source is unavailable, undisclosed, or hidden by generic euphemisms, then be suspicious! And, for better Googling, try Google’s Advanced Search.

Here is the challenge. Take a look at the rest of the sources in the search results for “British imperialism in Egypt.” Can you tell why we would not want our students to select any of them at all? And, do you have search savvy tips and tricks to share? Tweet them out and be sure to tag us: @MsJWhiting and @mluhtala.

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