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Example of a selected response item from the PISA 2009 digital reading assessment.

Evaluating information online

A study of students’ ability to evaluate digital texts has revealed that teenagers find it particularly difficult to determine the credibility and trustworthiness of material on the internet.

There is sometimes an assumption that young people who have been brought up in digital environments are able to use online information effectively. Operating successfully in the digital environment requires the ability to evaluate the usefulness and trustworthiness of information. Faced with large amounts of information and limited time, readers must continually make immediate evaluations of different sources, in terms not only of relevance but also of trustworthiness. 

Students’ ability to evaluate digital texts available online is significant because such content is in many cases not subjected to the traditional mechanisms that in print publishing exert some control over its authority, reliability, credibility and trustworthiness.

A number of tasks in the PISA digital reading assessment examined 15-yearold students’ capacity to deal with potentially unreliable or contradictory information on the internet. Some tasks required students to make predictive judgements, using only the information available in a set of search results. Other tasks presented students with information on web pages and asked them to make reflective judgements, describing the criteria they used to evaluate, for example, the authority of information or sources.

Results from the digital reading assessment revealed that, internationally, tasks requiring students simply to identify contradictory information appeared to be easier than tasks requiring evaluation. The latter kinds of tasks are relatively challenging for 15-year olds, and those demanding the critical appraisal of texts for credibility or trustworthiness are particularly difficult.

Tasks requiring only recognition of contradictory information, or information that was potentially reliable or unreliable, were answered successfully by between a third and half of students. Once students were required to articulate an evaluation of the material’s reliability, referring to the likely authority of the source, the proportion able to successfully respond fell to about a quarter of students.

These results should concern teachers and policy makers, as they suggest that most 15-year-old students do not know how to begin evaluating material they encounter on the internet. The majority of students consider information online first in terms of relevance or interest, rather than looking at the reliability of its source. In order to make judgements about the reliability, credibility and trustworthiness of online content, however, students need to have criteria for evaluating information, and need to be taught how to make evaluations. ■

Read the full report:
How well do young people deal with contradictory and unreliable information online? What the PISA digital reading assessment tells us, by Dr Tom Lumley and Juliette Mendelovits, is available from

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