What does “trustworthy evidence” mean to students?

What Does “Trustworthy Evidence” Mean to Students?

“[W]hen explaining affirmative reasons for trusting an evidence type or finding an evidence type particularly persuasive, students often articulated a blind faith affirmation” (23).

Facebook. Instagram. 24-hour news. Twitter. Gossip. Newspapers. School. Television. Today students are bombarded with information about the world. As accessing information becomes easier, the task of determining the accuracy of information becomes increasingly difficult. What is fact? What is misleading? What is trustworthy evidence?

In their paper, “Thinking Deeply, Thinking Emotionally: How High School Students Make Sense of Evidence” authors Rebecca Jacobsen et al. explain that teachers are “increasingly being asked to prepare students to both evaluate information critically and use evidence to construct arguments” (2). These education requirements are set in national education standards, including Common Core for English Language Arts, History/Social Science, and Technical Subjects, as well as in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (2). The authors note that in the NGSS, students “engage in arguments from evidence” starting in kindergarten (2).

Jacobsen et al. remark that for these education standards, it is assumed that students know what evidence is and that all students accept and use evidence is similar ways. Previous studies have shown that this is not always the case, however. For instance, Epstein’s 1998 study found that White students trusted secondary historical sources more than Black students, who viewed those texts as “White people’s history” (6). Moreover, in the standards it is assumed that students can identify credible and non-credible evidence (4). Previous studies have again shown that this is not the case. The Stanford History Education Group, for example, has found that “even college students and professional historians often make faulty assumptions about the credibility of websites, especially compared to professional fact-checkers” (7).

“We argue that the process of investigating and analyzing evidence is more complex and nuanced that current curricular documents convey” (4).

For this paper, Jacobsen et al. investigate how students make judgements about the credibility of sources. In particular they look at the role of non-rational factors that lead students to believe that some evidence is persuasive while other evidence is not. The authors ask the following questions: (1) “What sources of evidence do students report they trust?” and (2) “What reasons do students provide for trusting or not trusting certain sources?” (8-9). Moreover, the authors examine how students’ evaluation of evidence changes depending on whether it is given in a context or in the abstract. They also examine the role that students’ sociocultural identities play in their evaluation of sources (8-9).

The study involved two evidence-sorting activities and follow-up interviews. (The sample group was chosen strategically from 3 high school classrooms in a Midwestern state.) The first sorting activity involved ranking types of evidence in the abstract, meaning there was no context provided. For this activity, students were given different cards, each listing a type of evidence and a description. These included “statistical data, research, expert judgment, personal experience, anecdote/secondhand experience, example, and law/policy” (12). The students were asked to take the cards and rank them according to their trustworthiness. The students were also asked to think out loud as they sorted the cards. This way the interviewers could record their thinking process (and ask the students questions about their thinking processes) to gain insight into how students evaluated the credibility of sources.

The second sorting activity presented evidence types in the context of the 1954 Supreme Court Case, Brown V. Board of Education. The descriptions on the cards reflected how this type of evidence connected to the court case. The authors note that in order to help students focus on source credibility, rather than on positions stated on the cards, all the types of evidence supported the same viewpoint—that segregated schools were not beneficial to students (13). After being interviewed about their knowledge of the case, students were again asked to rank the types of evidence according to trustworthiness, and interviewers again recorded their thinking processes.

The Findings

“[W]e found that the majority of students provided different rankings, suggesting that individual students did not hold one underlying construct for how to evaluate evidence” (18).

Rankings of Evidence in Abstract:

  • Students tended to rank research and data as most trustworthy and anecdotal/secondhand experience as the least trustworthy (18)
  • All evidence types except for “anecdotal/secondhand experience” were ranked as most trustworthy by at least one student (18)
  • Anecdotal/secondhand experience only ranked as high as 3 (out of 7)
  • Law and policy was the ranked fifth on average (22)

Rankings of Evidence in Context (of Brown v Board):

  • Students tended to rank law/policy and statistical data as most trustworthy
    • One third of students ranked statistical data as most trustworthy
  • Anecdotal/secondhand experience was again ranked lowest (19)
  • Law and policy was ranked first on average (21)

Rankings by Sociocultural Identity:

  • In context, male students ranked personal experience second; female students ranked it fourth
  • In context, male students ranked statistical evidence as fifth; female students ranked it first (20)
  • In both sorting activities, students of color (including Black, Asian, and Latino) students were more trusting of personal experiences
  • In context, students of color were less trusting of law/policy than White students
  • White students tended to rank law/policy in top three; about 1/3 of students of color ranked law/policy as least trustworthy (20)

“That students of color were sharply divided on the trustworthiness of law and policy evidence may also reflect important lived experiences for some students” (21).

Student Reasoning for Rankings:

  • Students were unsure how to explain how they determined their rankings
  • Jacobsen et al. remark that, “students were slightly more likely to point to reasons why they were less trusting of evidence than they were to offer reasons for trusting evidence” (23).

“[W]hen explaining affirmative reasons for trusting an evidence type or finding an evidence type particularly persuasive, students often articulated a blind faith affirmation” (23).

  • Students were skeptical about information provided by people (such as personal experiences), noting that such information could be manipulated, exaggerated, biased, or false (23)
  • “Blind faith” was the second most stated reason for ranking choices

“Students often referred to their own actions and experiences to justify their blind faith” (25).

  • Students tend to trust types of evidence that best match their own personal experiences
  • Students rarely referred to emotional/personal when ranking evidence in the abstract, but mentioned it often when ranking evidence in context (25)

“[E]motions were a critical factor in their ranking, leading them to view that evidence type as more persuasive or trustworthy” (26).

  • Nearly two-thirds of students referenced emotional/personal connection to evidence during the ranking process for contextualized evidence
  • The authors note that, “[W]hile emotion was particularly salient for the case of Brown, other topics or policy issues will also trigger an emotional response, though maybe to a greater or lesser extent” (27)

For Jacobsen et al., a main take-away of this study is that students do indeed think deeply about evidence; but they “need more learning opportunities to evaluate and use evidence” (27). The authors also explain that the role emotions play in students’ trusting of evidence cannot be ignored. Teachers can tap into students’ use of emotional reasoning to help students recognize when people falsely appeal to emotions of others. Moreover, the authors argue that, “if students are able to both listen to and recognize the power of emotions, they may then be more likely to consider perspectives that differ from their own” (28). This would not only be beneficial to classroom discussions and learning, but to social wellbeing and democracy (29).


Paper Title:  Thinking Deeply, Thinking Emotionally: How High School Students Make Sense of Evidence

Authors: Rebecca Jacobsen, Anne-Lise Halvorsen, Amanda Slaten Frasier, Adam Schmitt, Margaret Crocco, and Avner Segall (Michigan State University)

Full Paperhttps://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2018.1425170

Published: Theory and Research in Social Education, Pages 1-45, 2018

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