Activity: Choose the Best Source of the Top Google Results

Here’s a simple activity you can try in your class: Have students execute a Google search that is a question. Then have the students look at the top five results, and using lateral reading pick the source that is most likely to be authoritative and the source they think is least authoritative. Have them talk through their reasoning.

For example, take this set of results to “Can magnets cure cancer?”:


We might note the first page comes from a fringe site that sells “therapeutic” magnets, and is quoting from an out-of-print magazine from the 1980s called “Magnets in Your Future” (that’s the name of the magazine, not the article). A similar critique could be made of the MagnetiCare product site.

On the other hand the two results on the bottom make a good pair. The scientific paper is cited by 25 papers, and shows in some lab conditions magnetic therapy (somewhat different than magnets) slowed progression of a specific cancer in mice. The Sloan Kettering article, however, says there is no evidence that supports the use of magnets to treat cancer. How do we weight these against one another?

It’s weird, because you would think what is reliable here would be obvious, but if you hear students talk through their thought process I guarantee you will hear things that surprise you. It may be obvious to you, for example, that a natural remedies website is less reliable than a research hospital at summarizing treatment efficacy, but to some students these may just be two different sites pitching different things — one magnets, another traditional care.

Likewise, a person with some health research literacy will know that the single study should not outweigh more general surveys of treatment efficacy, but many students will conceptualize this wrongly, not understanding that (in general) new studies serve to qualify old studies, not replace them.

You might also show the students how you think about choosing a search result yourself (assuming you’re doing it effectively!). Walk through what you do with “Does fracking cause earthquakes?”, and explain why you jump to the USGS link instead of the Forbes one, as well as why you might not see the USGS as the final word.

Need some questions to ask Google? I’ve written up over 300 for you to choose from, from ones about obvious hoaxes to ones that require a deep dive into areas where even experts conflict.

They are here.

I find pumping a wide variety of questions like this into Google helps me think about what students need when flipping through search results. Let me know if they help you do the same. Many are chosen from trending stories and a lot were generated by playing around with Google auto-suggest. I’d love at some point to rate the questions for difficulty, but right now they are just alphabetical.



7 thoughts on “Activity: Choose the Best Source of the Top Google Results

  1. I do this but coming at it from a different angle. I teach language (EFL) a bit of the time and train others to teach language (the Cambridge esol Delta) quite a lot of the time and lately spend more and more time trying to write, build and structure courses to enable others to train in a similar way.
    So part of one of the Delta Modules is that the teachers should be aware of what elements of language systems they are focusing on or what sub skills and strategies they are helping the learners develop in a lesson and be able to articulate that. Each time they do an assignment they have to research a 2500 word essay exploring their focus that supports the lesson they go on to teach (and which is observed). One activity I came up with for the ‘EAP’ session for the teachers (it revisits one or two skills and one or two systems areas including reading) is to put ‘Delta reading skills assignment’ through Google and print off the page with the top ten snippets you get back (printing so they can’t click through) and get them to decide individually which three they would click on and why, then agree in groups, talking rationales through, then whole class briefly for them to see there are some common threads, then mix groups and get them to create a ‘check list’ for how to choose to get usable (academically credible) sources. I love it very much, because it loops: (a) you are completely right, some of them have no search ‘sense’ and use all sorts of things in their own assignments that they really shouldn’t, but often are the same ones who haven’t had the time to go through the advice that is provided and (b) a good number of them are teaching in university language prep programmes and doing things like this for a ‘reading skills’ lesson is much more use to their students (once they are intermediate or above) than a lesson where vocabulary is pre taught and one article is read, dissected for language and then discussed (which only really makes them better at understanding that one article).
    Really enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Hey Mike,
    I really loved reading Sallyhirst’s response to your short assignment, and it’s always awesome to see folks responding with what they do with their students. I don’t always comment on your blog, but when I do, I ask for help (imagine that sentence spoken with my “Interesting Man in the World” Dos Equis voice here).

    May I make a special request of your readers and responders? I’d love to see more examples of multi-modality approaches to your assignments and activities. As you know, I talk to a lot of teachers these days in different time zones and states in the US, and they are all looking for ways to adapt the same assignments for hybrid, OL, and F2F. Here’s where I think you and your readers have the expertise that teachers who are new to OER crave. “Digital Literacy” and “Fake News” are making their way into thematically organized courses in the humanities.

    Imagine teachers who do not have the luxury of consulting with Instructional Designers, and they are looking to adopt and adapt what others have already done. They simply do not have to build, but they might a year from now. They are super-excited about the possibilities of OER, yet they feel like a lot of the assignments are targeted towards OL teaching.

    For example, Sallyhirst has a wonderful in-class activity that involves print. What would this activity look like OL? What tools might you use? Do you have a rubric that you can share? Do you hate rubrics and give feedback another way to your students? How could this assignment work for a “flipped classroom” etc? What if you choose annotation tools rather than print? What if you didn’t have a computer lab for a F2F class? What if your students didn’t have reliable internet access for their HY course?

    I’m getting bloggy on your blog, so I’ll take this idea up on my own at another time. I just wanted to throw the idea/request out there because your readers are typically further along in the conversation about using interwebs in their teaching and I’d like to encourage them to share more about what they’re doing with your book and Tiny Letters. My questions in the previous paragraph seem really basic, I know, but these concerns are very real for a great many teachers who already have a lot on their plates in this political moment.


  3. Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    An exercise in learning about and for teaching digital literacy because (irony alert) just hanging out on Facebook won’t do it. If you are not already following this blog, add it to your list.

    Among other things, Michael Caulfield run the Digital Polarization Initiative, an cross-institutional initiative to improve civic discourse by developing web literacy skills in college undergraduates. Have a class that wants to join? Contact michael.caulfield at

  4. I too enjoy all your posts, bookmark many. In addition to sharing with teaching colleagues, I want to share this with my local senior community page to encourage non-academic internet users to think about searches and sources — still teaching but informally. I’d like to hear thoughts and suggestion on adaptating for this audience.

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