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Build Critical-Thinking Skills by Examining Popular Health Claims

To help her biology students separate fact from fiction, Brigitte Morin, MS, has them compare notes from popular media versus evidence-based research.

Educator

Brigitte Morin, MS

Senior Lecturer of Biology, Michigan Technological University in Houghton

MS in Biology, BS in Medical Laboratory Science, Certificate in Secondary Education, minors in General Science and Spanish

In our media-saturated world, it can be hard to ignore the flood of health claims. Could practicing yoga help cure cancer? Do organic foods hold more nutritional value? Will a magical elixir cure a hangover?

That is why Brigitte Morin, MS, a senior lecturer at Michigan Tech, addresses such claims in Biology of Movement and Meditation—a course designed to help explore the science of biology and yoga and alleviate student stress. “There really is an exploding field in what movement and meditation can bring in terms of stress relief,” she says.

Still, she does her best to stand behind the science that underpins yoga and other health practices. “If I just say, ‘Hey, why don’t you meditate for 15 minutes a day,’ my students might just say, ‘OK, whatever,’” Morin explains. “But if I say, ‘Look at the overwhelming evidence that we have that it can help reduce stress, increase attention, and increase focus’—that’s different.”

On the other hand, Morin also wants to show students that some health claims might turn out, upon careful examination, to be pure bunk—and provide them with the wisdom to tell the difference.

Challenge

Many people are quick to believe health claims

It can be easy for the average consumer to fall for quick fixes that may have no scientific basis. But as a lecturer at a university that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math, Morin knows her students can appreciate a clear-eyed, evidence-based approach to reviewing popular health claims and assumptions. “I want students to understand that you have to question everything, regardless of who is saying it,” she says.

Innovation

Being critical thinkers makes students smarter consumers

Morin puts a fair measure of faith in the promise of newly discovered therapies—as well as age-old practices such as yoga—to create a healthier society. But it is because she recognizes the wellness industry’s boundless, breathless, and sometimes unsupported enthusiasm that Morin assigns the class her Investigating Claims project. This semester-long deep dive into popular claims and peer-reviewed studies is designed to help students think more critically about health promises they hear and read every day.

Context

“I want my students to be critical thinkers. It’s so easy for them to absorb [health claims] and not question them, so this is a chance for them to say, ‘That seems like a really big claim. How is that true?’ But also to be able to say, ‘Let me see what else I can find here.”

— Brigitte Morin, MS

Course: BL 2000 Biology of Movement and Meditation

Course description: Students will explore the science behind the practice of yoga, including poses, meditation, anatomy & physiology. Will read peer-reviewed literature excerpts regarding yoga research. Physical practice, no prior experience necessary. Yoga supplies required.

See resources shared by Brigitte Morin, MS

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Lesson: The Investigating Claims project

To start students thinking more critically, Morin first asks her class to find—and possibly debunk—claims associated with health conditions. She then launches a fact-finding exercise designed to help them question and more readily spot fiction. Here, she shares more details about each step:

Engage the class in discussion

Morin begins the project by having her students talk in class and make a roster of all the unfounded health claims they can think of. “On the first day of class, they’ll know that I want them to question everything—myself included,” Morin says. “I encourage them to be critical of their sources and ask questions in their heads like, ‘Does this make sense?’”

Reflect on how health myths emerge

Once students have shared their thoughts, Morin asks them to read a chapter from Altered Traits. This book by best-selling authors Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson takes a critical look at how health claims for meditation and mindfulness have multiplied over the years because of relaxed standards for data and reporting.

Explore what makes a good study

Next, Morin’s students look more keenly at the elements that comprise reliable studies. They learn about large population size, repeatability, and measurability by reviewing a rigorous study in order to get the feel for proper research depth and breadth. One of Morin’s favorite examples is a meta-analysis study about meditation published in Nature. “I encourage my students to find this type of article because they’ve done all the work for you. They choose and exclude studies based on rigorous criteria, and that makes our jobs easy,” she explains. “Plus, reviews oftentimes discuss what makes studies reliable or not in their introductions. This gives my students another opportunity to learn how to best critique the reliability of a study from a source other than myself.

“The idea is to have the students start to recognize that there are going to be results that are well supported, and we want to be able to pick those out from the out-of-nowhere claims,” Morin says. “Even for articles in peer-reviewed journals, it’s important to look at their message and ask things such as, ‘Is it true of the whole population, or is it just true for a tiny subset?’”

Have students do research of their own

Morin has her students decide individually on the health claims they would like to investigate. Then they work independently to find references through popular media reports and scientific studies. Each student produces written comparisons between the popular reporting of the claim and the original in-depth scientific research. “This allows me to see if the students have developed the skills to dig into databases, and if they can go from popular media to peer-reviewed sources,” Morin says. “I want to know, ‘Can they look at the two articles side by side and see if they are translatable or not?’”

Require an annotated bibliography

To complete their exercise in determining the legitimacy of a health claim, Morin’s students create an APA-formatted bibliography of all the related sources they have found. In addition to accurately citing all reference information, they must provide Morin with a written summary for each source. “They have to tell me why they think this a specific article is important in their discussion of the claim, then show whether or not it supports or disproves what was reported in the popular media,” says Morin.

Have them present both sides of the story

Students cap the project with individual, in-class presentations that detail how the claims originally came to light in the popular media, and what evidence supports or discounts them. Morin sees the larger lesson of the project as a better grounding in critical thinking as a life skill.

“I want students to answer in their final presentations, ‘What impact has doing this research had on you?’” Morin says. “‘Has it made you question what you originally thought?’”

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