Analyzing Sources in Science

Analyzing Sources in Science: Using Facts, Reasoned Judgment, and Speculation to Determine Reliability

By Christine Schepeler

Determining the reliability of a source is important throughout all disciplines. I often ask students if something is a reliable source, but I don’t always feel like students have a basic understanding of WHY something is reliable. For example, while we were working on a persuasive project where students needed to research a landform created by plate tectonics, I asked my students what they thought reliable sources in science were; one student raised his or her hand and told me anything with a .org! Another said, while others said for science, reliable sources are the Discovery channel or National Geographic. What I realized was that students could list sources, but not explain why or what could make a source reliable. We talked about how being an expert on something made a person reliable, and how people who study and earn a degree (or degrees) in a subject are likely a reliable source on that area. Through these classroom interactions and quick conversations,  I knew that students couldn’t really assess a source and determine its reliability. The shift to content literacy in the Common Core emphasizes that students need to be able to determine if a source is reliable or not:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.8 Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.

I saw this as a disciplinary need and a chance for an intervention for student misconceptions. I wanted to give students the skills to be able to determine reliability on their own,  and I saw RST.8 as an opportunity to demonstrate and build those skills for my students.

Grand Canyon Mini-Project 

In the middle of our rocks unit, we took a pause to do a mini-unit on the Grand Canyon. I start the unit with students inferring what caused the Grand Canyon to form (a majority say plate tectonics since that was the previous unit). As we move into the three different types of rocks and the processes that form them, many students have that “a-ha!” moment in the middle of the lesson where they exclaim, “I figured out how the Grand Canyon formed!” After we have covered the three types of rocks and their textures and the processes that create them, we return to the same prompt: ‘How did the Grand Canyon form?’, and students can use their newly-found knowledge to correctly discuss the processes of water erosion (and wind erosion) over time, as well as produce an argument for how it was not formed by plate tectonics.

This is where I segue into our mini-project on the age (and determining the age) of the Grand Canyon. We read and analyze two articles (one from the New York Times and one from the Washington Post), and listened to an NPR Science Friday broadcast, as well as a recording of the 7th grade teachers discussing the age of the Grand Canyon. This project had a heavy focus on students identifying and distinguishing between the facts, speculations, and reasoned judgment in all four of the sources that we analyzed. Click here for the files for this project.

Reading Closely

Before being able to analyze, we had to norm our understanding and definition of the key terms: facts, reasoned judgement, and speculation.  I used a word bank to help students identify and distinguish between facts, reasoned judgment and speculation, which I put up on the board. We discussed perspective and how some of these quotes could fit under more than one category—and that these words are helpful, but they are not the only indicators to help us determine what is true, what is reasoned based on evidence, and what is unclear. Students were excited to add to the list as they found different indicating words.

Schepeler Facts Speculation Reasoned Judgement


During the listening portion of this project, the Science Friday NPR broadcast, I had students listen once and fill out a set of guiding questions so that they were only focusing on the content. Then we listened a second time (to a shorter segment of the clip) so students could focus on picking out the facts, reasoned judgment and speculation. The other source we listened to was a discussion among the 7th grade teachers on the same topic as the other three sources: How Old is the Grand Canyon? I decided to include this as a counter-example so students would be able to compare three reliable sources to one that had little to no reliability.  You can listen to the 7th grade discussion here: Teacher Discussion of Age of Grand Canyon.

Analyzing Sources

After we read or listened to each source , students worked in groups to pick out either facts, reasoned judgments, or speculation from these sources. There were three groups for each class, and each group focused on one of the categories and they switched after each source (i.e. group 1 worked on facts for “New York Times” on day 1, worked on reasoned judgments for “Washington Post” on day 2, and worked on speculations for “Science Friday” and the 7th grade teachers clip on day 3).

All students had a chance to practice determining each category. In their groups, they worked through the sources and decided what quotes were appropriate for their assigned category. Then we did a jigsaw so students could see what other groups picked out, and could bring up questions (Is that really a fact, or more of a reasoned judgment? Can you justify why that is a fact? etc.). When students had discussed and agreed where the information belonged in their smaller jigsaw groups, they put their quotes up on their class posters so that students could see the distribution (how many facts vs. reasoned judgments vs. speculation) for each source. This is what the posters looked like after we had covered all four sources:

Determining Reliability

Schepeler Conclusion on ReliabilityFinally, students worked in groups to determine what source they believed was the most reliable, and what they thought the age of the Grand Canyon actually is. What students determined was that the three renowned and reliable sources (“The New York Times,” “Washington Post,” and NPR’s “Science Friday”) had a fairly even distribution of facts, reasoned judgment and speculations. But the unreliable source included almost all speculation.

Students presented their conclusions in groups, and we determined that sources are reliable when they present truths (facts), include evidence to back up their claims (reasoned judgment), and explain when there is information that they don’t know and are further researching, or what the other side of the argument is saying (speculation). Students all agreed that they found sources more reliable when both sides of the issue (or argument) were presented to the reader, and when both sides of the argument had evidence to back up their claim (in this case the “Washington Post” article and the “Science Friday” broadcast).

Intentionally connecting and incorporating these disciplinary literacy skills gave my students the tools to both understand what a reliable source is in science, and to listen and read critically when engaging scientific topics.  Addressing this particular literacy standard actually deepened their understanding of science, and eventually led students to start make larger and long-lasting connections to the discipline—why is it a good thing for scientists to argue with one another? Why does information in science often change (i.e. why has the age of the Grand Canyon appeared to have changed, why do we no longer believe the sun revolves around the earth, etc.)? Why are these types of discoveries and research important to us?  

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