How do you know that?

I just finished up writing my pre-tenure review portfolio, and one of the things I wrote about in my “philosophy of librarianship” statement was asking students, repeatedly if necessary, “how do you know that?

It’s a fantastic question to ask, when you’re trying to get students to think critically about the sources of information they find.¬† You’re essentially asking them to provide credible evidence for their claims (those claims being, in this case, “this is a good source to use for my paper”) but in my experience, saying, “you need to provide credible evidence to support your claims” gets blank looks, while saying, “how do you know that?” really gets them thinking.

Here’s how it might play out:

Student: This web site is a good source for my paper.

Me: How do you know that?

Student: Well, the author of the site is a noted scholar on the topic.

Me: How do you know that?

Student: She’s written several books on the subject.

Me: How do you know those books are legitimate works of scholarship?

Student: Well, on the web page for the books, there are quotes from other people praising the books

Me: How do you know those people are scholars and not the author’s friends or disciples?

…and so on, at each stage of the process, continually challenging the student to justify her conclusions, dig deeper, and question her own assumptions.

I’m going to try to remember to ask this question more often when I’m teaching evaluative skills — or even basic navigational things, like “how do you know which article to select from a results list?” — this semester.

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