Use of effective research strategies increased sixfold following CTRL-F verification skills program piloted in 79 schools

Canadian students fare poorly when it comes to discerning the credibility of online information, but can be taught simple skills to do far better.

This is the good news/bad news conclusion of a national study of 2,324 middle- and high-school students, the first of its kind to look at what Canadian students actually do when asked to evaluate the trustworthiness of online sources and claims.

Findings are detailed in “The Digital Media Literacy Gap,” released this week by CIVIX, a Canadian civic education charity that takes political events and turns them into teachable moments that bring democracy alive in the classroom.

“When it comes to understanding the information that reaches us online, the stakes are high,” says CIVIX president Taylor Gunn. “We can see it with the pandemic, and with political polarization. False and misleading information is everywhere, and people lack the skills and motivation to determine what to trust. But for students, CIVIX has a key part of the solution.”

The study was conducted to measure the impact CIVIX’s CTRL-F program, a verification skills curriculum born of a need for effective, contemporary tools for teaching digital literacy.

A big reason students fare so poorly is that they are applying the types of close-reading skills commonly taught in school. Popular tools give students checklists of superficial signals to seek out to assess credibility, but looking for the number of ads on the page, the presence of contact information, or hunting for typos won’t tell us what we need to know.

CTRL-F, in contrast, is based on simple research skills that can be used to locate key context. The “lateral reading” techniques at the heart of the program include targeted keyword searching and looking up a source’s reputation on Wikipedia. These are the skills professional fact-checkers use to quickly reach accurate conclusions about online information.

During the 2020/21 school year, students were given tests of their ability to evaluate online sources and claims, before and after going through CTRL-F.

Key findings from “The Digital Media Literacy Gap:”

  • Overwhelmingly, students use outdated strategies: on pre-test, more than three-quarters (79%) analyzed the story or site itself to reach a conclusion.
  • Close-reading strategies failed students: for example, only 6% were able to identify the agenda behind a website belonging to an advocacy group on the pretest.
  • After going through the CTRL-F program, students’ use of lateral reading increased sixfold: improving from 11% to 59%.
  • Lateral reading helped students get the right answers for the right reasons. On pretest, only 9% of correct student responses referenced meaningful context. On posttest, this number jumped to 50%.
  • The skills stick — a second, delayed posttest delivered an average of six weeks after the end of the curriculum showed no erosion in the use of lateral reading skills.

The CTRL-F study was carried out with external evaluators at City University of New York (CUNY), with consultation from the Stanford History Education Group, whose foundational research provided the study’s rationale.

“Students made remarkable gains in their use of effective strategies to vet online information,” says Dr. Patricia Brooks, an educational psychologist at CUNY, who led the research, “One of the largest gains was in their use of Wikipedia. Teachers often tell students not to use Wikipedia, but it is actually a great way for students to take bearings on any unfamiliar topic.”

Participating teachers agreed to teach the full seven-hour CTRL-F program, and to attend a two-hour virtual training session before beginning instruction.

Mike Caulfield, digital literacy expert with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, co-designed the CTRL-F materials and trained teachers in their use. “Educators using older methods to teach media literacy often know something isn’t working,” he says. “They just can’t figure out what. With the right training and materials the changes can be quite dramatic.”

CIVIX plans to scale the CTRL-F program to promote system-wide adoption of lateral reading across grades and subjects. The goal is to transform the way digital media literacy is taught.

“Students are learning skills that make failure inevitable. We can’t afford to keep the status quo,” says Gunn. “We’ve seen extraordinary results from equipping teachers with a user-friendly curriculum and a single training session. Imagine the impact on informed citizenship if everyone had access to this education.”


For more information about CTRL-F, and to download the report, visit