Thing 3: Critical Assessment

Part A: Theory and Concepts

Learners critically examine the resources they are using, asking relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the current information need. They understand the importance of how authority, such as disciplinary expertise, is constructed and will determine the credibility of a source. They understand that the information they find is influenced by those who select and curate information, in addition to those who create it.”

CILN Framework

Critical assessment might be summarised as two overlapping activities: the ability to ask critical questions of any information you find, and the ability to understand what those critical questions might be and how they might develop. Sometimes critical assessment is based on criteria which is fixed, and sometimes on criteria which is in flux.

So, for example, students’ critical assessment often centres on whether or not they can trust a source they’ve found to use in an assignment or essay. This tends to focus on two things: authority and currency. Students will establish the authority of a source depending on things like where it was published, how ‘academic’ it is, and the author’s credentials, as well as whether they’ve used this journal, database or book series in the past. For currency, they’ll look at the date, and perhaps the references used. Exactly how this looks, and exactly the nature of these questions, depends on the subject, the depth required for the assignment, and the student’s level of experience. Some students in some subjects will begin to understand how authority is constructed, how that construction might be biased, and how problematic that might be.

As library staff, we might need to ask similarly big questions about the information we find. ‘Is this true?’ and ‘can I trust it?’ are absolutely valid when looking at news sites or social media. You might even want to take it a step further and ask yourself on what grounds you’ve decided something is true, or can be trusted, developing a self-awareness of how you engage with information online.

But the ability to assess information critically can also refer to everyday, even mundane, tasks – how might you tell, for example, that you’re about to search through the latest Alma manual? How do you judge the quality of a bib record you’re about to download, or attach holdings to? How do you assess whether the email you’ve just received is legitimate, or a scam? How might you assess whether the guidelines on a website you’re about to follow to make a document accessible are accurate? How might you assess whether the reference given to you by an academic to buy or scan or fetch is correct?

All of these tasks in some way require critical assessment of information, and in your job you will be consistently assessing information. You are judging the quality, accuracy, suitability and credibility of the information you have found, or have been presented with. However, the questions you might need to ask of the information will vary.

Part A: Reading

Tredinnick, L., & Laybats, C. (2017). Evaluating digital sources: Trust, truth and lies. Business Information Review, 34(4), 172–175.

In this article, the authors contend that our methods for evaluating digital sources are the same as for printed sources, and this is problematic, because the restrictions which applied to the publication and dissemination of printed sources (such as cost, or pre-publication review) don’t always apply to information online. Our digital culture is one where information and misinformation is blended, and this makes the ability to evaluate information both more important and more difficult. This is both a cognitive and an emotional process: we find it easy to recognise biases of others in information, but struggle to see our own.

Fister, Barbara, (2018). Are you kidding me? Inside HigherEd: Library BabelFish blog.

The author argues that evaluating information online has become significantly more complicated because what we consider to be information has diversified. We’re no longer dealing with sources which fall into either ‘popular’ or ‘scholarly’ categories, but opinion, satire, information which is recapped or repackaged. This has significant consequences for our strategies for engaging with information, but we need to develop them, especially so we can handle the forms of information that don’t yet exist.

Part A: Task

At the start of this blog post is the description of Critical Assessment given in the information literacy framework. Your task is to summarise this in no more than 40-50 words. Try to ensure that you’re capturing everything given in the fuller description.

Part B: Practical Applications

Having read through and considered the theory and concepts behind critical assessment, now try to identify two case-studies or stories about how you have critically assessed information. One should be from a personal context, and one from a professional context. In both instances, write a paragraph outlining what you did, the questions you asked of the information you used, and how successful you were at assessing it. The information does not have to have been searched for online, though clearly it can be! It could be something you looked up in a book, or asked a colleague for help with.

Once you’ve written your two stories, consider what themes emerge in both of them, and if and how they overlap. Do you feel more confident professionally or personally? Why might that be?

Next steps…

Blog about what you have written, or submit your work using the dedicated Thing 3 form.

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