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Addressing Misinformation in the Classroom

A few weeks ago, we posted about how to proactively foster information literacy in your classes. Even if you’ve taken many of the precautions we suggested, there will still inevitably come a time when misinformation arises in the classroom. Whether it is in the context of a Canvas discussion board or during an in-person discussion, an obviously false claim from a student can leave you feeling blindsided if you’re not prepared. With a little work, though, you can often turn these interactions into constructive learning opportunities. This post explores steps you can take to intervene when a student shares misinformation in one of your courses.

Ask Clarifying Questions

When a student shares something incorrect, your first instinct may be to shut them down. In order to turn this into a potential learning opportunity, however, it can be useful to allow the student space to work through what they’ve just shared. Consider asking follow-up questions to clarify what the student is saying and to probe their rationale (a method known as Socratic questioning). Without accusing or assuming, you could pose open-ended questions about where they learned this information and what they know about the source or author in terms of expertise or potential biases. These types of reflective questions help students analyze their misconceptions and may lead them to see the flaws in their own claim.

Be Cognizant of Tone and Body Language

As you engage with a student, be aware of your tone and body language (or written tone, in the case of asynchronous communications like discussion boards). Keep calm and take a moment to collect your thoughts, if needed. Once you are ready to address their remark, keep the tone conversational instead of accusatory. It is important that students don’t misconstrue your response as adversarial.

Try to gauge the student’s nonverbal cues during your dialog as well. If they seem hesitant to share once you begin asking them to clarify their claim, it might help to reassure them that complex topics often lead to misconceptions, and that they might not have had a prior chance to learn about this topic in depth. This helps emphasize that it is not a moral failing on the part of the student for believing misinformation. Instead, remind them inquiry and analysis are a natural part of the learning process (as well as a part of our institutional learning outcomes).

Offer an Invitation to Learn More

Depending on your course and the nature of the student’s misconception, your dialog might naturally segue into a side lesson to discuss the topic at hand. For example, if the claim the student made is a common misconception related to your discipline, you could use this as an opportunity to teach why the misconception exists, where it comes from, and how it might be harmful. If you have sources on hand that help illustrate your point, you might highlight how you determined your sources’ credibility and what measures the sources used to reduce potential bias in their findings, such as using a double-blind setup for a scientific study. You could also use this as an opportunity to teach about how to identify potential bias in a source. Often these situations can be a gateway for a healthy discussion about common misconceptions and real-world applications of the course’s content.

Still, it may not always be appropriate to turn a student’s remark into a teachable moment for the whole class. If a student seems particularly defensive or uncomfortable, or the topic seems emotionally charged for them, you can offer to continue the conversation with the student one-on-one after class. This allows you to shift the class’s attention back to the lesson and off of the student and prevent a situation from escalating.

Address Sensitive Issues with Extra Caution

It is worth mentioning that misconceptions can be extremely damaging when they double as microaggressions. A microaggression — or a subtle display of bias or prejudice — perpetuates harmful stereotypes or misconceptions about a group of people. The Eberly Center from Carnegie Mellon University has a quick guide on addressing microaggressions that outlines additional steps you may wish to take to mitigate the situation in addition to the ones outlined above. Another great resource is this guide on identifying and responding to microaggressions, authored by Dr. Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology and a leading researcher on microaggressions. Responding to microaggressions in the classroom is crucial for maintaining a safe and supportive learning environment, so they should be handled with extra care.

Do You Have Other Ideas?

Handling misinformation can be tricky, but we hope that these suggestions can help you feel a bit more prepared the next time you encounter it in the classroom. How do you address students’ misconceptions in your own classes? Have any tips for turning these opportunities into teachable moments? We invite you to engage in thoughtful dialog on this topic — post a comment below or email CATL@uwgb.edu to continue the conversation!


Our special thanks go out to Preston Cherry, Christin DePouw, Lisa Lamson, J P Leary, Brian Merkel, Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier, and Jessica Warwick for their contributions to the 2021 Common CAHSS panel and follow-up 2022 IDI session that served as the inspiration for this article!

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