Evaluating Sources for Research

By Caitlin Duffy

Lesson Plan

Grade Levels: 9–12
  • Students will gain skills evaluating the reliability of various types of resources.
  • Students will gain confidence explaining the reasoning behind their evaluation of any given source.
  • Students will learn what information is important to look for when evaluating a source.
Total Estimated Class Time

A single class period (approx. 45 mins.)

Sequence of Activities

Warm-Up Activity  (10–15 mins.)

Students independently respond to a Do Now prompt, such as one of the following, written on the board (or on a worksheet if needed):

1. Can you tell the difference between reliable and unreliable sources? Organize the sources below into two columns, one for reliable sources and the other for unreliable sources. If you finish early, choose one of the sources and explain how you organized it by writing down your thought process.

  •  a history textbook published in 1960
  •  a Web site that has plenty of articles but no authors listed
  •  Entertainment Weekly magazine
  •  a peer-reviewed journal published by a university
  • an electronic version of Hamlet that clearly displays its printed source material and the name of its editor
  • a copy of the Declaration of Independence published by the National Archives

2. Write down your answers to the following questions about conducting research:

  • What are the resources you use when conducting research for an essay or class project?
  • How do you know when you’ve found a source that you can use in an essay or project for school?

3. Reflect on your past experiences with research:

  • Draw a picture of how conducting research for a school project makes you feel.
  • In one sentence, explain why conducting research for school makes you feel this way.

After providing the students suitable time to reflect and write down their answers, the teacher should have students share what they wrote with a partner or partners sitting nearby. (Tip: If students are shy or hesitant to share, select a neutral criterion for who goes first—for example, tell them the person born later in the year or the person whose first name begins earlier in the alphabet should share first.)

Following this turn-and-talk, the teacher should call on a few students to share their answers with the class.

“I Do” Activity (1015 mins.)

After briefly explaining to students the importance of differentiating between reliable and unreliable sources during the research process, the teacher should hand out the checklist and source #1 worksheet.

If it is possible to do so, the teacher should project the images of the source and checklist onto the board so that students can watch the process of annotating a source.

The teacher should go through the checklist, explaining each step to the students and answering questions as needed. Students should annotate and mark their checklists and source worksheets with the teacher, highlighting or circling parts of the source or writing down clarifying definitions as needed.

Once the checklist is complete, the teacher can tally up the checks and show how these checks can help to determine the reliability of a source.

The teacher should model how students ought to respond to the question at the bottom. If needed, the teacher can provide sentence starters, vocabulary words for students to use, or both.

“We Do” Activity (10 mins.)

Students are either paired up or put into groups.

Students are provided the source #2 worksheet.

In their pairs or groups, the students determine the reliability of source #2 using the checklist. Students should also work together to answer the questions on the source #2 worksheets.

The teacher should walk around the classroom, helping and encouraging students as needed.

If students finish early, they can look back at their answers from the Do Now and discuss with their partner or group whether or not their answers have changed and why.

Final Reflection and Class Discussion (5–10 mins.)

The teacher should call on a few groups to share whether they felt source #2 was reliable and to explain their reasoning (they can use their answer to question #2 from the source #2 worksheet to help with this).

If there is time, the teacher could ask students to look back at their answers from the Do Now and call on students to share and explain whether or not their answers have changed. Alternatively, the teacher could ask students how they feel about finding resources for future research projects: Do they feel more confident after today’s class? Do they still have questions? Do they have more questions?

Homework: “You Do” Activity

For homework, the students should complete the source #3 worksheet using the checklist.

Possible Follow-Up Activities

The teacher can provide another source and checklist worksheet for a Do Now or class activity if students need extra practice.

If a research paper assignment follows this activity, the teacher should have students complete a checklist for each source they plan to cite in their essay. This can be used as a checkpoint assignment for the teacher to check in with students and make sure they are making progress with their research papers.

Possible Alterations

Teachers are encouraged to use or create different sources for the three source worksheets. Teachers should select or create sources that fit with the skills and content they’d like their students to learn from this lesson.

The sources below are organized in the following manner: the first source is a Web site that is very reliable; the second source is a Web site that is not very reliable; the third source is a Web site that is in the middle of the spectrum, leaning more toward being unreliable. The third source was purposefully chosen to be a bit more difficult so that students’ mastery of the skill of evaluating sources could be effectively assessed. An answer key is provided for each worksheet.

Lesson Materials

Checklist for Evaluating Sources

Sentence Starters

Source 1 Worksheet

Source 2 Worksheet

Source 3 Worksheet

Source 1 Worksheet Answer Key

Source 2 Worksheet Answer Key

Source 3 Worksheet Answer Key


Published 1 November 2018

5 comments on “Evaluating Sources for Research”

  1. This checklist guides students into asking many useful questions about sources, but I’m surprised at how it prompts them to consider the results of those questions.

    Even though evaluating sources is more an art than a science, I’d hope that anything seeking to quantify its answers would do so in a more rigorous way (in spite of the necessary wiggle room of the “most likely reliable” categorization).

    For example, the list features four main questions regarding publishers (or sponsoring organizations): 1. Can you find the publisher’s name? 2. Is the publisher reputable? 3. Does the publisher apply some means of quality control? 4. Does the publisher list contact information?

    Although being able to find the name is a necessary precursor to determining reputability, do the two questions truly merit the same weight? Fifty percent of the publisher’s credibility is invested in simply providing a name and contact information (or 40%, if we add the “mission” question to this group)? My goodness.

    The situation is worse for questions asked about an author, even though each individual question is not without value.

    Perhaps that’s an issue of quantitative thinking, but perhaps a more humanities-friendly way of looking at it is to consider a question like “Does the author demonstrate sufficient credentials?” to be analogous to a topic sentence, from which would ensue a series of questions designed to support this main question.

    That kind of deductive organization or hierarchy of questions is one aspect I thought the checklist was offering at one point, but I was dismayed to find it untrue: Three questions appear (in formatting) to be subordinated to another, as might seem appropriate, given the nature of their respective (and intertwined) topics. Yet each counts, like all the others, for 1/18 of the total. Note that if a source attempts to provide information objectively, it merits a check, and it then receives earns another one for refraining from offering up opinions.

    Here’s another angle on these issues: It’s fairly easy to locate thousands or millions of sources online missing three key criteria but fulfilling nearly all of the others:

    — author lacks credentials in the field
    — the publisher is not reputable
    — there is little or no review process

    A source like this could miss on two others and still be deemed “most likely reliable.” Again, my goodness.

    Although the list remains riddled with similar shortcomings, as I noted, there are many useful categories of analysis here; they’re bolstered by the solid lesson plan and some good aspects of the examples. It just seems that these better features would shine through more clearly with much better algorithm design.

    Does it undermine my point to acknowledge that a credentialed author created this checklist and the MLA chose to post it? I’ll pause to contemplate that . . . .

    • Thanks for your response to this lesson plan.

      I think that the mechanics of the point accrual are, by their nature, limited. Knowing that it was impossible to perfectly quantify the work of determining reliability, I purposefully included the “most likely reliable” label.

      My hope for this lesson is that it would be the start of larger conversations in the classroom, especially if some sources don’t make sense where they land. Whenever I teach my students about determining a source’s reliability, I try to emphasize the fact that this work is never black and white. Many students find the lack of a clear answer challenging, so providing them with some sort of quantity-based method to at least frame their thinking is a great starting point.

      • Thank you very much for the reply. I hope I was at least somewhat clear in acknowledging that any type of guidance will be imperfect and that quantitative measures would be inherently limited.

        Indeed, prior to reading your reply, I’d have seen value in “providing [students] with some sort of quantity-based method to at least frame their thinking.” After reading it, I continue to have respect for your attention to your students’ needs.

        My key point remains, though: There are innumerable options for “some sort of quantity-based method.” Given the opportunity, one would — I’d expect — select a sort that better reflects the kind of thinking students should engage in.

  2. It would be nice, since you are encouraging teachers to use different sources, to make the worksheets editable so that we can easily do that.
    Thank you.

  3. Dear Caitlin,

    Thanks a lot for this resource. I plan to use it with my undergraduates. I have one qualm, however, with the question, “Does the work avoid offering an opinion or attempts to persuade?” Given that the intention of academic argument is to persuade one’s audience, perhaps this could be reworded along these lines (?): “Does the work avoid offering an unsupported opinion or manipulative or biased attempts to persuade?”

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