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Sam Wineburg: How to improve American students’ fact-checking skills

A cognitive psychologist explains why, with so much information at their disposal, American students struggle to tell fact from fiction … and how he thinks we might fix it.

A young woman surrounded by smartphones and social media symbols and domain suffixes

What is your source of information? | Stocksy/The Laundry Room

Sam Wineburg, a research psychologist at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, recently conducted a nationwide study of the fact-checking skills of thousands of American high school students.

He didn’t go about it with a survey asking the kids to self-report their own behaviors. Instead, he devised a live experiment that charged the 3,000 students in the study to determine the veracity of a now-famous bit of fake news from the 2016 election. Wineburg and team were then able to follow along as students tried to find the true source of the video, which had been produced in Russia as part of a disinformation campaign.

In the end, just three students – one-tenth of one percent – arrived at the right answer. Rather than blame the kids, however, Wineburg says fault lies with the tools they are using, which have changed so dramatically in speed and scope that their fact-checking skills have had trouble keeping up.

All is not lost, he promises, but fixing the problem will require changing not just what information students consume, but the way they think about it, as Wineburg tells host Russ Altman in this episode of Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast. Listen and subscribe here.