Evaluating Authority of Source Types

Brief Description:

Students often evaluate online information using surface-level, binary criteria, such as “popular” vs. “scholarly” or “.com” vs “.edu”, without looking more deeply at how that information is constructed, or why something might be considered authoritative. This activity gets students thinking about how sources contribute different kinds of authority in different ways to a piece of news writing, and challenges them to consider multiple types of authority as they search for their own source material.

Primary Learning Outcome:

  • Evaluate why information creators have authority to speak on a subject, recognizing that authority is earned in a variety of ways. (3.1)

Additional Learning Outcomes:

  • Select a variety of traditional and emerging research tools based on type of inquiry. (2.3)
  • Identify a range of possible authorities, whether groups or individuals, that would likely have created or collected useful information on a topic. (1.3)

Time Needed:

50 minutes



  1. Group analysis of sources in a news article (10 minutes)
    • Groups of students read a brief news journal article on the opioid crisis in Delaware (or more current example of local concern) and examine the sources used in the article. Students identify why the author chose to include that person as a source. What kind of authority do they have to speak to the topic? Students also are asked to identify what other information (beyond these voices) might have been helpful to include in the article? Are other source types missing that could have helped strengthen the article?
    • Groups complete group worksheet (online if possible)
    • Class discussion
  2. Using Part 1 of the Individual Worksheet, students are asked to brainstorm what sources would likely be creating authoritative content related to their own topics. Students are encouraged to Google a bit while they are thinking if they find that helpful. (5 minutes)
  3. Discussion: Instructor uses some example sources students have listed on their worksheets to discuss how one might go about finding information produced by these sources. Tools discussed might include some of the following: (3 minutes)
    • Books and encyclopedias: Overview information, context, history
    • Research articles: Specific studies in-depth on an aspect of the topic based on an established research methodology
    • Websites: Government information and reports, community information
    • Interviews: Personal stories
    • News sources
    • Social media/Twitter: Current voices, “chatter”
  4. Students search the catalog for information on their topics.  Instructor or librarian provides a brief demo, circulates and coaches while students search.  (10 minutes)
    • Comprehension check: Did anyone find a source that seems relevant to their topic?  What kind of source was it (film, article, book, ebook)? How do you imagine using this source?
  5. Instructor provides students with a list of suggested databases for Engl110 students to select from. Instructor demonstrates a search. (2 minutes)
  6. Students search for their own topics in a database of their choosing. Note that they may need to choose a few different search tools along the way, depending on the voices they want to engage as sources (e.g. different disciplines, scholarly and non-scholarly, etc.) Instructor circulates and coaches.
    • Students are asked to keep track of their search progress using part 2 of the Individual Worksheet
  7. Students are asked to record at least 2 items that they have found that they think would be useful in their papers as sources. Using Part 3 of the Individual Worksheet, students are asked to comment upon the kinds of authority their chosen sources bring to their paper. (Steps 6&7 = about 15 minutes)
  8. As a wrap up, a few of the students who have made good progress are asked to share what they have found, and share how they think those sources will contribute.  
  9. Students are asked to articulate what additional voices or sources they think they will need to pursue in addition to what they have found during the lesson today.  (5 minutes)

Instructor’s Notes

Google Docs are a great platform to support the opening group activity. Rather than having reticent groups report out, students can discuss as small groups but essentially fill out the sheet in real time, as a class.  Discussion can get at some of the nuance of those responses, rather than just re-hashing what earlier groups had reported. I also use google docs for the individual worksheets, but a paper worksheet would likely be just as good here.

Multimedia Connections

A clip from a documentary could easily be substituted in the group activity to look at how sources are used in that medium.  Having students discuss visual cues and consider the judgments we make when we “see” a source vs. just read a source’s statement could also be applied.

Questions about this activity? Contact Meg Grotti.

Creative Commons BY-NC-SAEvaluating Authority of Source Types by Meg Grotti is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.