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.


  1. Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    This is great! I am definitely going to use this in my course I’m teaching to first-year students this fall. I just hope I don’t get too giddy with excitement prodding students’ with the question more than is advisable (NB I was a pesty older brother who liked to needle his younger sister to get a rise out of her).

  2. Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Stephen! I think one of the things that’s so effective about it is when you do keep prodding, questioning every piece of what the student is saying. (I mean, do it nicely, of course, but don’t cave in.) It really communicates the way that we want students to interrogate everything — even peer-reviewed articles.

  3. Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Your phrase “interrogate everything” makes me wonder if telling them they should “give every source the third degree” will resonate with them.

  4. Posted August 26, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of the mathematical technique of interpolation, or going back to fill in data points stemming from a given set of known data points.

    Makes me wish I was still teaching because it would be a good alternative to the dreaded scavenger hunt: 1st three resources, then pick one resource and interpolate “how do you know that”.

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  1. By Philosophy of Librarianship – Spurious Tuples on September 1, 2011 at 10:38 am

    […] had to do with continually asking students “how do you know that,” which I’ve already written about here. The other part is essentially this: If I can get students to consistently ask, and vigorously […]