Monday, December 19, 2011

Evaluating Websites

Each Friday, I spend time at the media center of a local high school making myself available to teachers who may need tech help. About a month ago, I was speaking with the school’s librarian and learned that their media center only has one set of encyclopedias available to students. She explained that over the last few years, more and more students have been turning to the Internet for their research needs; very few use the library as a resource for this purpose.  As a “techie,” this was no surprise to me, however, I can’t help but wonder how many teachers take the time to help their students learn how to identify a credible Internet source vs. a biased or hoax site. 

Coincidentally, several weeks after my conversation with the librarian, my teammate and I were visiting a middle school in the district and were recruited to teach a lesson on website evaluation. We learned that many teachers are not comfortable with this topic and often don’t consciously know what tactics they use to evaluate a website themselves. So, in the hopes that you may find the lesson useful as well, below is the lesson plan, complete with resources, that we created on this topic!

This lesson is designed to be taught in about 1.5 hours. If you only have 1 hour, you can do it if you just teach steps 1-4. If you use Blackboard with your classes, be sure to check out the Blackboard Unit which contains all the resources you need.


EQ - How do you evaluate the validity of information?  Why is it important to evaluate the source and validity of information?    

EU - Students will understand how to evaluate and collect information from a variety of sources. Students understand that the accuracy, relevance, appropriateness, comprehensiveness, and bias of electronic information sources can not always be trusted.

Step 1 (10 minutes)
Pre-assessment - Determine what students already know about evaluating websites. We created a simple Smartboard activity for this.  (The Smartboard activity also has information/slides for the activities below.) Students spent about 5 minutes discussing in small groups what makes a good or a bad website. Volunteers are then selected to write one idea each on the Smartboard and explain their thinking.

Step 2 (10 minutes)
Rumor activity – The purpose if this activity is to help students understand the importance of knowing the source of information they receive. Students are given a scenario in which they hear 3 different, conflicting rumors circulating around their school: 1) Winter break will be two days longer than planned. 2) Winter break will be two days shorter. 3) Winter break will remain unchanged.

We then ask students to decide which rumor they would believe if they had heard all three but did not know anything else about the rumors. Students are asked to move to an assigned corner of the room to show which rumor they believe. (i.e. corner 1 believes rumor 1, etc.) Most will believe that it's unchanged. Ask a few students why they believe one rumor over another.

Students are then given additional information about the rumors. They learn that one rumor came from the principal, one from another student, and the third from an adult in the building they don’t know personally. They are then asked again which rumor they believe. At this point, most students choose to believe the rumor originating from the principal. (This works best if the rumor about winter break being unchanged originated with a student, as this is usually the rumor students believe in the first part of the activity.) This leads to a brief discussion about why you would believe the principal over the other two in this situation and how the source of the information is an important consideration.

Step 3 (15-20 minutes)
Checklist – Distribute a checklist to students that students will use when evaluating websites. As a class, use the checklist to evaluate a website on Earthquakes so that students understand how to use the checklist and the terminology. (This can be a bit dull, but without this step, students don’t tend to understand the items on the checklist.)

Step 4 (25 minutes)
Group Evaluation – Assign students in groups of 2 or 3 to look at one of two websites on dog vacation care options (Dog Island & DogResort).  Students use the checklist and their common sense to determine whether the website they are looking at is real and reliable, or not. 

What students discover is that some websites are very well designed, but are unreliable nonetheless. They learn that it’s important to really read the website content and really think about whether the information being provided makes sense. In this case, the Dog Island website looks very real and meets most of the criteria on the checklist, but is in fact a hoax site. Students realize this only if they’ve read through content on the website, such as the FAQs, where many ludicrous statements are made.This activity is helpful, as many students evaluate websites based on looks alone. They think that if a website looks professional, it must be reliable.

Give students about 15 minutes to look at the website, then spend 10 minutes discussing each website with the class. If you have the time, you can have students complete  a quick survey before sharing with the class to show whether they think the website is real or not. This can help you get a quick pulse on the class to see how many are successful.

Step 5 (25 minutes)
Evaluation 2 – Once again, students evaluate an assigned website using the checklist. Depending on your class, you may choose to have them work in small groups again or independently this time. Students will be evaluating one of 3 websites on unusual animals (Blobfish, Tarsier, TreeOctopus). This time, the “Tree Octopus” website is completely fake. The Blobfish website has some good information, but the source is indeterminate. Before students begin, discuss the importance of double checking facts on other websites, even if the site they are using seems legit. (This will often come up in the discussion following step 4)

Again, if there’s time, have students complete a quick survey to show which website they think is real vs. fake. Take 15 minutes to look at the websites and use the checklist, 10 minutes to discuss.

Step 6 (optional)
Great Fakes - If you have time to spare, look at a few more websites with students as a class (RYT, Water). These websites are great examples of very realistic or convincing websites that are actually not reliable. There are also many websites that show bias, but they tend to be very negative (i.e. MLK website). There's even a great website that walks you through how to determine that this site is biased. Many biased sites may be more suitable to use with HS students as content and language are often borderline.

Step 7 (optional)
Assessment/Homework - The final activity serves as a quick assessment to determine whether or not students now understand the importance of evaluating websites and what aspects of a website should be considered. 

Journal Activity – Students answer the following two questions, independently.
1. Why is it important to evaluate the source and validity of information?
2. Which of the questions in the checklist do you think are most important when making research decisions? Why? Be sure to support your answer.

This lesson was compiled and adapted from many different websites. The largest contributor was Kathy Schrock, who has many great lesson ideas & activities. The cartoon is from bLaugh.


  1. Excellent article, actually very interesting pack of articles!I think that this is very helpful advice to keep in mind.Lesson Evaluation Form

  2. This is great, Anna. Maybe even more important than teaching how to evaluate a web site, this instills basic critical thinking skills. Even people who have learned such skills often forget to use them, so any and all practice has gotta be a good thing!

  3. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. This is really helpful. Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is really helpful. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yes indeed, it is great. Would you like to see more evaluation websites like; Evaluation Templates

  6. Great article, but I do think students need experience working with subject oriented web sites. If every subject specialist walked students through the vetting of two or three websites, students may come to understand the importance of authority. Checklists and hoax sites aren't enough.

    1. I agree! This lesson was created as a single exposure experience back when I was being invited to teach the topic to students in a class period or two. Ideally, it should be embedded in classroom instruction, and absolutely involve content area websites!

      Have you found good content area sites for this purpose? I'd love to check out any you know of!