Consumers of knowledge or just gullible?

No one wants to be called gullible. However, in this information age, we are all vulnerable to information, not just too much information, but also of uncertainties around the credibility of this information. If a defining feature of research is ‘searching again’ then researching requires also ‘checking again’. Maybe information seems relevant, appropriate and trustworthy the first time, but what about during a second look?

I work with academics across all disciplines. The number one complaint I hear is about a lack of awareness, on the part of students, that they need to draw on an evidence base, citing, for example credible sources, rather than a search engine like Google.  However, I also find that skills of evaluation are rarely directly modelled or taught, and only indirectly assessed.

The third cognitive facet of the Research Skill Development (RSD) framework is that students evaluate information and data and reflect on the process to find or generate these. If evaluation or reflection is done in a manner that is gullible, accepting of all, then the processes students use produces no credible information. Therefore, in desiring students who can evaluate effectively, the affective side of this facet is:

Discerning: the drive to sniff out and find the best stuff


Where being discerning is both a driver and a product of researching.

Einstein said of himself

‘I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.’

A willingness to let go of that which is at hand or in mind is core to discernment.

Being discerning involves students not settling for others’ information or data that they themselves generate that compromise deeper understanding or real-world answers. This is where they begin to appreciate the indiscriminate use of information or data causes such real-world phenomena as patient deaths, buildings that fall down, poor understandings of society and other counterproductive elements.

Students engaging in research is a great way for them to learn to be discerning users of information. And being discerning users of information will enable them to be great researchers.

Author: johnwillison

Senior Leturer, Discipline of Higher Education, School of Education, University of Adelaide.

4 thoughts on “Consumers of knowledge or just gullible?”

  1. You have raised a lot of points with resonate with this lecturer – I think one of the greatest barriers is for us to get our students to feel validated to be called researchers. We need to de-mystify the term as many consider it to be the realm of pipe smoking, houndstooth jacket wearing grey haired academics – not humble undegrads….

    1. I wonder if some academics prefer ‘Research’ to be like a mysterious black box, where only those in the know are aware of what is inside. To explicitly teach the skills associated with research lets others realise that curiosity, determination and discernment are important, and attainable elements of research processes.

  2. This is such a huge issue, and I agree with the comment that students don’t think of themselves as researchers.
    I’m sure you have seen the recent article “What students don’t know” published in Inside Higher Ed

    After reading this article I decided to teach a group of international bridging students about boolean logic, something I did 30 years ago at library school. I was fully prepared for the class to bomb, however, to my surprise, the students ‘got it’. They were having fun drawing Venn diagrams on the white board – the topic was ‘hooning’ behaviours’ (donuts, skids, burnouts etc). We linked this activity to their own essay topics on dangerous driving and most students were then able to identify and map their search concepts more easily than I had seen previously.

    No one had ever taught them this before. I also linked the concepts to Google Scholar’s Advanced Scholar Search, and explained what each of the search boxes actually meant. I guess this takes us right back to being explicit about what they are learning and why.

    Jenny Casey
    Monash University Library

    1. Hi Jenny

      thanks for the link- I hadn’t seen it!

      From the student angle “Many students described experiences of anxiety and confusion when looking for resources — an observation that seems to be widespread among students at the five institutions involved in this study,”

      This certainly highlights the affective (emotional) side of this cognitive activity of finding and evaluating. I think that if students understand that becoming increasingly ‘discerning’ is a big part of the research process, they may be more likely to buy into it.

      Last night, all the contacts in a friend’s email account received the same email. A ‘trojan’ had gained access, created a new account using their, and sent an email message with friend’s name IN the text. It said they were overseas, had lost passport/cards and to ring this number to organise to send money. Many people emailed back (to the correct address) or rang Australian numbers, saying ‘is this you?’ or ‘do you need money’. But some rang the number in text ( a mobile number in the UK, probably prepaid) to ‘help’.

      Being discerning not matter the kind of information at hand is useful for our daily lives well as for researching.

      Nice work with providing strategies to help students search. I bet they felt more comfortable when they went off to find things by themselves.

      John W

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