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Evaluating Media Reports

Evaluating Media Reports


Often shades of language can imply causality without actually claiming it. It is important for students to actively listen for and consider these shades of meaning. By sensitizing students to how frequently this happens in the popular media, we can help students transfer what they learn in the classroom into new contexts outside the classroom.

The activity

This can be a very brief activity in which you simply provide the class with headline or story and ask them to evaluate where causality is implied and whether or not that implication is warranted. Combined with a Think-Pair-Share, this can make a nice warm-up activity you do at the beginning of a class session.

Alternatively, this can be a playful, ongoing assignment in which it is the students' job to bring in examples of media stories implying causality and share their evaluation of that implication with the class.

Example: Two Headlines, Same Study

For each of the "headlines" below, ask students to determine whether the language is causal or non-causal. Remind them that causal language should indicate one variable is affecting the other and indicate the direction of that causality, while non-causal, correlational language notes and describes a relationship, without suggesting that one variable affects the other.

Listed below are sets of two "headlines" for the same study. For each set, circle the one that sounds more causal.

  1. Sexual lyrics prompt teens to have sex
  2. Listening to sexual lyrics associated with teen sex
  1. Memory retention enhanced by sleep
  2. People who sleep more, remember more
  1. Kids who take music lessons have bigger brains
  2. Music lessons improve kids' brain development

Example: One Headline Per Study

Below are individual headlines for different studies. Determine whether each is causal or non-causal.

Daytime TV tied to poorer mental scores in elderly

Church attendance boosts immunity

Child anxiety linked to drug use

Political bias affects brain activity

Breakfast helps girls stay slim

Low self-esteem shrinks brain

Eat sweets, live longer

Sex cues influence men's decisiveness

Disciplinarian parents have fat kids


From Heather Croon, Retrieved February 2009 from )

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.