Too often, when upper elementary students are allowed to search the Internet during the research process, they find unreliable sources made by students who researched the same topic or they find information that they do not truly understand. The alternative may be to hand students every source they will use, but this leaves the critical skill of selecting a source out of the research process.
Walking students through methods to evaluate a single site has been a commonly suggested solution. I struggle with those methods though. Sometimes elementary students' research skills are not sophisticated enough to determine something like accuracy. Other times it is difficult to dig layers deep into a web page to find the author of the piece and what authority they have on the topic. As I look at any of the acronyms that make the process look simple, I find that four or five checkpoints are broken down into a laundry list of questions that no fourth grader is suited to tackle. This can result in a frustrated teacher as he or she walks students through the process or in the teacher's bypassing the evaluation of a site altogether.
Of course, part of the solution is for the school librarian to collaborate with the classroom teacher to help students learn to search effectively by coming up with key search terms, evaluating search results before clicking through to a site, and simplifying evaluation methods to make them achievable by an elementary student. One part of this process that has become more important to me in the last few years is teaching students to corroborate information they find from multiple sources.
I first learned of the idea of corroborating information, looking at how information from one source supports that from another, from the Stanford History Education Group (https://sheg.stanford.edu/). Corroborating information asks students to examine their notes to see what information is found across multiple sources.
As students look at where sources agree and disagree, benefits begin to surface.
- Information that is corroborated over multiple sources stands out over other information. Students often elevate that information and the sources that the information comes from.
- Information from a source that is unsupported by other sources can lead students to begin questioning the source itself.
- As students compare one piece of information to another, they may notice how that information is presented and varying perspectives begin to reveal themselves.
- As they piece together information from multiple sources, students begin to form ideas in their own words instead of taking the exact words from a source.
- A source with little or no corroborated information receives less attention from the students.
A great example of how this can work is found in Deborah B. Stanley's book Practical Steps to Digital Research. She describes a student being able to "triangulate note sources" as a key skill to verify note information (160). Her suggestions also encourage students to use multiple types of sources and she gives excellent examples of how students can organize their thinking when taking notes during research.
The Librarian's Role
Teachers and librarians can adapt these skills to the age of the student and their past research experiences. The elementary school librarian has a unique perspective. You likely have a vertical understanding of research, inquiry, and information literacy skills within the elementary school, positioning you to be a powerful resource for teachers. Working with teachers from multiple grade levels, you can play a critical role in shaping lessons that build toward corroborating or triangulating information. You can also adapt note-taking forms like those in Stanley's book, customizing them to support younger elementary students and guide older elementary students toward independence as they gain the benefits from learning how to research effectively.
Stanley, Deborah B. Practical Steps to Digital Research: Strategies and Skills for School Libraries. Libraries Unlimited, 2018.