Finding and Evaluating Sources (Lesson B)

The first stage in the development of a research project is defining the research question and focusing on specific search terms and strategies. This helps to ensure an efficient and effective approach to finding information. The next stage is to go ahead and find quality information. The challenge here is in learning to use the search tools and knowing a good source when you see one!


This lesson draws on knowledge of two articles. If you haven’t already, you will want to read them now.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5). Retrieved 5 October 2001, from,%20Digital%20 Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Wohlsen, M. (2016). Digital literacy is the key to the future, but we still don’t know what it meansWIRED. Retrieved 14 April 2016, from’t-know-means/

The lessons in Study Room 2 provide some summary and comparison work on these articles. You do not need to have completed Study Room 2 to enjoy this lesson. If you haven’t completed it, you can use the following resources to help you in this lesson:

In Step 1, we will consider the kinds of sources available and tips for selecting the most relevant information. Step 2 directs you to explore the resources available through a typical university library, and highlights search strategies for both a library and Google on-line portals. Step 3 provides an opportunity to practice finding and evaluating sources for a sample research question.

Understanding the Types of Research Material

Searching online or in print, we can come across a variety of research material, and not all of it will be of equal value to us. The trick is to identify what kind of material you have found and evaluate not only if it will be useful to you, but also how it will be useful. The following table summarizes different types of material and their typical value in an academic context.

The Prensky and Wohlsen articles would fit in the middle column of Investigative and Researched Media.

Types of Source Material (Reference)
These different types of source material can often be found online and in print.
Reporting Media Investigative and Researched Media Academic and Scholarly journals
Frequency Updated frequently Published


Published 3-4 times a year
Types of sources Blogs



Popular Magazines

Trade/Professional magazines

Articles published for specific fields of research.
Authors Journalists

Citizen journalists


Journalists with specific knowledge of a field or topic

Experts working in industry

Academics working in a field of knowledge
Type of Information Summary of and response to immediate news events

Amateur commentary on issues and topics

Promotion and marketing

In-depth investigation or information about a topic

Relies on by expert opinion/knowledge

Presented for a general audience

Usually lacks details of the research background

In-depth investigation or information about a topic

Produced by expert in field

Presented for academic audience with previous knowledge in field

All research is substantiated

When to use in academic writing If you want to draw attention to a recent event or concern with an issue in the media. If you want expert-level knowledge of an issue, but presented at the level of a general audience for widespread interest; use as quality research when the author’s authority is proven If you require academic level sources, meaning information that is presented for experts in that field of study; use if you are learning the terms and debates in that field and particularly need the expertise/voice of academics in that field
Example News release about new virtual reality video game device.

Promotional material available on company websites.

Investigative piece on the new virtual reality device; might ask questions like: How does it work? Comparison to previous technologies? What are the industry applications for virtual reality? How will it affect children’s thinking? Could it be used in schools? Academic article about the social implications of virtual reality, examining how it affects our communication and interaction.

Article may involve primary research in the form of a survey or experiment.

When we start looking for sources for our project, we will refer back to this information.

Learning About the Search Tools

We have really two choices when it comes to conducting academic research. We can head straight to the internet through a general search engine, such as Google. Or, we can make use of the library search portal provided by our college or university.

Google seems easy to us as we have come to rely on it in our day to day life. But, while much can be done in academic research using direct internet access, libraries offer some unique supports and access. So, it is well worth the effort to get familiar with and learn to use these advanced tools if you have access to them.

Library Search Tools

Take a few minutes now to watch this video tour of a university’s online library site. The interface and organization of resources may be different than those at your own library, but the general strategies for using it are the same.

View Media

Welcome to our tour of the university library online portal. Today, we’ll be using the TRU Library as our example, but remember that most college and university libraries will have similar resources. You might just have to explore a little to find them!

In this short video, we will review the general resources available on the Library page and we will practice conducting a search for information. Then look at some of the ways you can access information once you’ve found it.

Let’s begin by exploring the library home page. You’ll find a lot of information here to help you conduct research and to use that research effectively in your studies.

We can access this information by clicking on the Research Guides tab. Several options are available here. If you want to find more information on a particular subject that you are studying, you can select it and this will lead you to a bunch of resources and guides you might find useful. Likewise, under Other Guides and How To Writing Support, you can find a range of information to help you with your studies. You can for example find information on doing an annotated bibliography, or presentation skills. Every library will have a different selection of these kinds of resources, so you will have to explore a bit and find things you will find useful. Let’s look now at the citation guide section. If we click here, we can see information on the different types of citation guides available for study, but right down here on the bottom we can also see this information about plagiarism. Take special note of this information. For some students, the conventions around documenting sources can be quite different than what they are used to. Take some time to review University policy and your instructor’s expectations around this.

Alright, we are going to have a look at APA citation because it is one of the most common. Make sure you understand which citation guide your instructor expects you to use. On this page we get a whole range of information about the APA Style. Down here on the bottom there is a paper template, there is a sample APA paper so you can copy the format, and over here on the left-hand side you can find information on how to do your APA referencing. Let’s go back to the homepage and actually try to find a source.

Now we are back at the TRU Library Homepage, and we can see about searching for some information. Here you have your basic search portal for the library.

While Google searches the entire internet, the library portal search dozens of databases and library holdings that have been filtered for university use; this means you are more likely to get relevant and quality information.

Let’s go straight to advanced search. Today we are going to search for information related to digital technology and literacy. So, let’s just type those terms in. You can see now that the terms are in that we have several choices here. There are several search boxes, so we can split our terms up across those boxes and we can choose the relationship between those search terms, so we choose “And” not “or”.

We can also select which field we would like to search. In this case, we are interested in the Subject Terms or the All Fields terms and just leave it like that. Finally, down here, we can narrow our searches by selecting the type of discipline that we want. This just helps to limit the returns. So, we might select for example, Communications and Education. But be really careful when limiting your searches, because you might lose out on some really great information. All right, let’s see what we can get.

So here is the list for our search results. Before we look at specific results, we can see here on the left-hand side, more options for limiting our searches. We can go down here and search only things that are available in full text, so if you want them right away, you can click them. You can select only scholarly articles, sometimes instructors require you to use only scholarly information. Down here you can refine that even more, academic journals, magazines, or if you only want books. So again, lots of options here but be really careful not to limit too much. You can see though that we have 40,000 results, better than google but not particularly useful, so you would want to play around with the limiters a little bit. Let’s have a look at our actual search results now and see what kind of information we can find out about them. So, one of the first things we want to do is click on the title. So, once we get to the full information about this particular result we can see a few things. We can see that it is a book, it was published in 2015, nice and recent. These search terms down here these are really useful because those are terms you can use to find more information on the same topic.

Over here on the right-hand side is information to help you get access to this material, so while you are doing your search you can email this result to yourself. But the key thing is this cite option. This button will provide for you the reference for the source that you found. This is really useful information, both for helping you find the source again later, and but also for putting in your references for your research papers. So, here’s our APA citation and it’s all generated for you, so you can copy and paste that for future reference. Let’s go back to our results list and look at the different kinds of sources that we have. This first source we looked at is clearly a book and you can see it gives you the physical location of the book in the library, but in this case, there’s also an e-book available. So, if we were to click here we would get direct online access to it. Sometimes the sources are provided in a full PDF text as this one down here is again simply click and the document will open for you and you can save it. Again, you might want to in this case click on the title use the cite feature and get that APA reference so that you’ll have it. Most often articles are available from the online database and you’ll have to click through the instructions to get access to them so we can click on the where can I get this button and we follow these instructions until we get access to the article.

We’ve covered the basics of what you can find and do on a university library portal one last reminder, librarians are always there to support students get in touch if you need some help with your research.

If you have access to a university library online, take some time now to explore it. While the interface of any one library may be different, they all provide a similar slate of resources and tools.

Using the Library Resources Checklist, tour your library online and make sure you can find and practice using its key features.

Library Resources Checklist (Reference)
Learning Tools – such as information on documenting source material and avoiding plagiarism.‎ ✓ ‎
General Library Holding Search Portal – use this to search the material that is available at your specific library, including print books, journals, and other media.
Research Databases – search these subject-specific databases for a wide collection of journal articles in any field of study, and make sure you understand how to get the articles that you find.
Finding a specific article – find an article that you consider interesting and make sure you can figure out how to get the full text of that article. Sometimes full text pdfs are easily available, and sometimes you will need to follow a link, or even order it from interlibrary loans.

Library vs. Google

Searching through a library portal has many advantages; unlike on the internet, information here has already been filtered and what you find will more likely be suitable for the needs of your academic project.

Also, a lot of information is copyrighted and so can be expensive to access online. Often, we can find excellent resources online, but they are behind a paywall.

Let’s look at two examples to compare the limits of each search portal.

  1. Let’s say for our research project we wanted to use the 2015 article by Thomas Roberts and Pamela Chapman entitled “Express yourself: Using Digital Technology to Meaningfully Communicate,” published in the journal Children’s Technology and Engineering.
    We can easily access this article through a library database because the library has paid for access to the journal. However, if we try to access it directly through the open internet, we run into a paywall. View it here.
    If you have access to a post-secondary library, you will be able to gain free access to this material. It’s part of the privilege of being a student.
  2. On the other hand, an increasing number of excellent resources are available directly online. The website MediaSmarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy contains up-to-date, innovate, and authoritative material for students, teachers and the general public that does not always show up in a library search.
    Using internet search engines specifically for academic research can be challenging. Take a few minutes to go online and search for “Tips for searching with Google.” Read through some resources to help refine your own Google techniques. Here are a couple of links to get you started:
    Google Tips and Tricks Every Student Should Know
    Infographic: How to Use Google More Effectively

Conducting a Search

Now that we are familiar with the search tools, we can begin to search for information for our research question. We have two key goals: first, to find the information that we need and second, to keep track of–or document–that information so that we can evaluate it and use it in our project.

The following table lists the information we need to document for each source we find. We are recording details so we can attribute the information to the source accurately in our essay. As well, we are evaluating the source to make sure it is suitable for our project.

Documenting Research Information Template (Reference)
Information you need for the annotated bibliography Tips
Identify the Source
Source Title As we search for sources, we quickly forget what we’ve looked at. Keep note of every source that looks promising so that you don’t lose track of it!
Citation Information:

  • Author, Title, Year, Publication?
Collect either the full APA citation or the specific details so that you can write the citation later.
Access to Article:

  • Where did you find the source? Online Link? Library search?
  • Did you download a pdf?
Keep track of where or how you found the source so that you can find it again if necessary.

If you save pdf documents, think about how you will name them and what folders you can keep them in to stay organized.

Evaluate the Source
What type of source material is this?

Where was it published?

  • Media report
  • Trades/Popular article
  • Academic journal
  • Other?
Identify the kind of source you have found, considering where it was published and what kind of information it will provide.
Is the source authoritative enough and of good enough quality for an academic project? Once you know what kind of source it is, decide if the quality will be appropriate for your project. You may have to do a little exploring to find out the background of the writer, journal or website you are considering.
Determine the relevance of the source
Why do you think this source might help with the research project?

How do you think you will be able to use this source to answer the research question?

What might it contribute to your research project?

What is the main focus of the source? How and why do you think this source will be helpful in answering your research question?

Now, let’s dig in and do some research. First, you will do a scavenger hunt to practice using the search tools to find specific items.

Next, for one of the sources that you find, you will complete the documentation template.

Part 1

Remember, if you can, aim to use a university or college library site for this work as it’s important practice. If you don’t have access to this, you can use a general internet search engine like Google.

Scavenger Hunt (Practice)
  1. On the library home page, find the search bar.
  1. Find the following source:
    Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
  1. Find where to access the full text version of Jenkin’s report.
  1. Do a new search – Find other sources by Henry Jenkins that discuss the idea of participatory culture.
  1. Select 2 of those sources and copy and paste the APA citations for them. Hint, use the CITE tool on the library webpage or an online citation tool.
  1. Using the TRU Libraries website, find the article called: “Why We Need to Teach 21st Century Skills–And How to Do It.”
  1. Complete the Documentation Template below for this article.

Part 2. Collecting Key Documentation Information

Documenting Research Information Template (Sample Answers)

Activity – complete this template for the article “Why We Need to Teach 21st Century Skills–And How to Do It.”

Identify the Source

Source Title

“Why We Need to Teach 21st Century Skills–And How to Do It.”

Citation Information

Regan, B. (2008). Why we need to teach 21st century skills–And how to do it. Multimedia & Internet@Schools, 15(4), 10-13.

Access to Article

Using library search engine.

Search terms were: 21st century skills AND digital literacy

Available as HTML Full text. Emailed to myself.

Source is also available free online at

Evaluate the Source

What type of source material is this?

Where was it published?

  • Media report
  • Trades/Popular article
  • Academic journal
  • Other?

This article is published in an online journal called Internet@schools: An Educator’s Guide to Technology and the Web. You can visit the home page for the journal online to learn more about it:

The journal provides authoritative and practical research, guidelines, and editorial pieces aimed at a general knowledge, but focused specifically for practical use by educators.

Is the source authoritative enough and of good enough quality for an academic project?

This is a perfect example of the quality and complexity of source that would be suitable for this course. The information is researched, based on practitioner and expert knowledge but presented in an accessible form for undergraduate research. It makes reference to previous research and is engaged in debate relevant to the fields of teaching and technology.

Determine the Relevance of the Source

Why do you think this source might help with the research project?

A quick skim over this article for key words and ideas reveals its relevance. The article summarizes and justifies an emphasis on 21st century skills as a focus for approaches to teaching, with attention to the value of media literacy, problem-solving, and collaborative skills.

How do you think you will be able to use this source to answer the research question?

Here’s a quote that might be useful:

“To succeed in school and on the job today—where a visual cacophony and information overload are the norm—students need to learn how to assemble data in a meaningful way that expresses the possibilities, interpretations, and implications that arise from the facts.”

What might it contribute to your research project?

These 21st century skills identified in this article overlap with the information from the Henry Jenkins article “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture.” This provides us with at least two articles that are engaged in conversation about the same issues and questions. A good goal for the research project. Both articles provide examples of the skills we need in the 21st century to be good communicators.

Download Sample Answers

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