Cultivating Critical Thinking in the Information Age
By Katherine Jones, Undergraduate Services Librarian for Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus Library
Fig. 1. "DSCN0397" (by Sindra41, released by Creative Commons licensure)
Thanks to the advent of the Internet and advanced digital sharing technologies, it is easier than ever to create, disseminate, and acquire vast amounts of information on any imaginable subject. The days of spending hours in the reference section of a library pouring over indexes has passed; whatever a student may wish to find, they will do so.
The problem, of course, is just that: How can we ensure that students are utilizing accurate, credible information? How do we build skills in our student populations to support them in their quest for not only what they seek but also what is true, most relevant, and most useful to their research needs?
Teaching our students the basics of information literacy may not be enough. With the advent of “fake news” running rampant in professional journalism, “deep fakes”—doctored videos using existing audio and visual materials—giving voice to any creed from the mouths of any recognizable face, and academic peer review processes progressively losing their integrity, it is no longer prudent to simply assume that the puzzle of authenticity can be solved with nothing more than a quick authorial background check and a glance at the material’s publication date.
A more complex, integral skillset must be utilized to help students build a healthy sense of skepticism and give them the tools required to recognize and solve whatever problem they encounter with viable, trustworthy information. Good researchers must be well-versed in the core concepts of critical thinking.
How are Information Literacy and Critical Thinking Connected?
Fig. 2. "Jigsaw Hand Cut" (by Charles W. Hamm, released through CC Attribution 3.0)
To be an information-literate individual, you must have the abilities—and have learned the skills—necessary to easily find, evaluate, and use information.
Stripped to its most basic foundations, strong critical thinkers are able to understand, analyze, and apply information. Often, they must use these skills to solve specific types of problems.
To make the most of a student’s ability to think critically and engage with information wisely, these two skill sets can be used in tandem to enhance one’s research abilities. One way to approach this conceptual overlap is by pulling up two common schemas: the Information Literacy Big 6 and the six core steps of critical thinking.
The first is the Information Literacy Big 6. This popular schema is most often used at the primary education level, and can be adapted to suit students in higher education. The Big 6 provides researchers with a series of guidelines to follow to find, evaluate, and use information. These are the following: Define the task (determine the research focus), seek the information (determine keywords and possible databases), locate and access the resources (gather the items), use the information (apply the article to the research topic), synthesize what you have learned (put it all together into the final project), and evaluate the final result.
While there are many ways to approach critical thinking as a concept, it can also be boiled down to six specific steps. These steps are defined as the following:
- Knowledge (self-accessing the situation and determining what needs to be known and why)
- Analysis (the process of pulling together the information known and the information not known together)
- Comprehension (the process of looking at individual pieces of the puzzle and breaking them down into their base elements, looking for points of comparison and contrast)
- Application (the process of applying those information pieces to the problem at hand).
Next, we see direct and undeniable overlap occur between the two schemas.
- Synthesis (the process in critical thinking of putting all the puzzle pieces into one metaphorical image) is used in this schema as well as in the Big 6. Finally, as in information literacy, one evaluates the result.
Laying the schemas out thus shows how information literacy and critical thinking are connected to and can be used to influence each other.
Teaching Critical Thinking and Information Literacy in Tandem via Problem-Based Research
Fig. 3. "Skill Development" (Kurmianju, July 31, 2015, and released under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)
Now that the connection is established, how can educators teach these concepts together in a way that students find accessible and engaging? Here are some suggestions to lead students toward a better grasp of these processes:
- Explain the Consequences: There are plenty pieces of evidence to support the need for caution and care when doing research. It isn’t difficult to find useful examples of bad facts and the spread of viral information flow just by looking at current news being published in your city, state, and the country as a whole. Doing a quick Google search for “examples of fake research” or “viral satire” or “misleading information online” leads to many examples.
- Encourage Skepticism: In the classroom, the instructor can define the various types of “bad information” that exist. There are many, but the easiest categories to determine are the following: Information, misinformation, and disinformation. Information is self-explanatory. Its information that is credible, and it can be trusted. Misinformation is not viable or credible, but it has not been constructed or published for the malicious purpose of spreading inaccuracies—misinformation will include resources with facts that are not clearly stated or statistics that are not entirely complete. Misinformation gives researchers the “wrong idea.” Misinformation may also include news reports that are being made in real time, as the facts are coming in and aren’t entirely developed. Finally, disinformation is information that is not credible and has been constructed and published with the intention of spreading inaccuracies for some specific purpose. So-called “fake news” and biased resources have this intention.
- Present Research Like a Puzzle: Once students know why constant diligence is an important element of research, and they have started to develop the skills they need to evaluate and analyze the information they find and wish to use, direct application is the next step. The status quo in education—especially in higher education—is to present research as an infrequent skill used to write research papers or develop oral presentations often delivered at the end of the semester. The common means of teaching research are static and staid.
Instead of tasking students with a topic and having students write about it, couch research assignments in the form of a puzzle to be solved. In puzzle and strategy games, we see some important elements that apply easily to in-classroom, problem-based research projects. These are the following:
- Provide Many Paths to Success: There may be only one answer or solution to the question or problem presented. However, there are many paths to lead students there, and it is up to them to discover what path works best for them as individuals. This creates immediate student buy in via personalization of content.
- Capitalize on Personal Skillsets: Sometimes, specific skills or a set of skills are needed to solve a puzzle. To conduct research, students need to know how to find, evaluate, and use information resources effectively. However, in problem-based learning, they also need to pull from individualized abilities to find the solution they need to succeed—those skillsets will vary depending on the student and the type of question they must answer.
- Be Flexible: Puzzles come in all types. Supporting a wide variety of learning styles and skill types with problem-based assignments will help every student feel included and valued despite possessing differing levels of inherent competency and different inherent strengths.
By laying down the groundwork of the importance of high-quality research, encouraging students to not believe every piece of information they find, and presenting research education with a clear purpose and direct application, educators can provide students with a more holistic and complex understanding of how to be responsible information creators and users in all areas of their lives.
Information literacy abilities can be bolstered by including critical thinking skills when teaching students to be more cautious and competent researchers. These skills can be presented and utilized in the classroom simply by couching research topics in the form of problem-based questions and scenarios. Treating potential research queries as puzzles to be solved promotes student buy-in and allows students to practice critical thinking skills in a hands-on manner, leading to more thorough understanding of how to apply the practice throughout their academic and professional lives.
Reichenbach, B. (2000). Six steps of critical thinking. An introduction to critical thinking. New York City: McGraw-Hill.
The Big 6. (2017). Information and technology skills for student success. Retrieved from http://big6.com/
About the Author
Katherine Jones is the Undergraduate Services Librarian and an Assistant Professor for Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus. In addition to providing personalized research assistance to individual students, she conducts embedded information literacy instruction in a variety of disciplines, most of them STEM based. Katherine’s objectives as an educator are to make information literacy easily accessible and to encourage students to continue thinking critically about information long after their academic careers have passed.
Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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