Research Efficiency and Reliability: An Exercise for Public Speaking

An old television game show from the 1950s, Name that Tune, pitted 2 contestants against each other. The objective was for one contestant to name the tune the orchestra would play in fewer notes than could the other contestant. In this exercise, the objective is similar; it’s to find reliable information most efficiently, in as few mouse clicks or in as short a time as possible. For example, you might count the number of mouse clicks (or touches of a touch screen) as one point each. [Typing words into a search engine would be free and wouldn’t cost any points.] The more clicks you use, the less efficient your search. Another measure of research efficiency and one that would be easier to use in the classroom would be the time it takes to find the answer. 

The learning objective here is for students to acquire efficient research strategies to find reliable information in an interesting and active way, in a way that will engage them rather than put them to sleep—as most discussions of research do. The exercise objectives are (1) to find a reliable answer to the question in as few clicks or in as short a time as possible and (2) to evaluate the source of the information.

In a classroom, this can be set up in a number of different ways. For example, small groups can each be assigned one, two, or three questions and compete with one another in answering the question most efficiently, rather like Name that Tune.  Or questions can be assigned to the class as a whole and students would compete against each other to try to find the answer first.

After all the answers are found, discussion can easily center on what strategies are efficient and what strategies are inefficient. Those with greater research competencies will be teaching those with less competence. It’s the ideal learning classroom.

The second objective is to evaluate the sources and the reliability of the answer found. Since most research will be done online and since anyone can “publish” on the Internet, it’s especially important that the information not only be found efficiently but that the information should come from a reliable source. The accompanying table presents five criteria to use in evaluating research—built around the acronym FACQS to help you remember (fairness, accuracy, currency, qualifications, and sufficiency) the questions you’d want to ask about these criteria, and the precautions to take. These criteria and questions, of course, are relevant for evaluating research of all kinds (including information you receive from print media, from interpersonal interaction, from social media, or from film and television). 

Questions to Ask
Precautions to Take
Does the author of the material present the information fairly and objectively, or is there a bias favoring one position? Some websites, although objective on the surface, are actually arms of some political, religious, or social organization.
It’s often useful to go to the home page and look for information on the nature of the organization sponsoring the website. Reviewing a range of research on the subject will help you see how other experts view the issue.
Is the information presented accurate? [Although not always easy to determine, the more you learn about your topic, the more able you’ll be to judge accuracy.] Is the information primary or secondary? If it’s secondary information, you may be able to locate the primary source material (often a hot link in the Internet article or a reference at the end).
Check to see whether the information is consistent with information found in other sources and whether the recognized authorities in the field accept this information.
When was the information published? When were the sources that are cited in the article written?
To ensure currency check important figures in a recent almanac, in a newspaper, or at a frequently updated source such as provides at the Federal Statistics website.
Does the author have the necessary credentials? For example, does the author have enough of a background in science or medicine to write authoritatively on health issues?
Do an Internet search to check on the writer’s expertise and credentials.
Is the information presented sufficient to establish the claim or conclusion? The opinion of one dietitian is insufficient to support the usefulness of a particular diet; statistics on tuition increases at five elite private colleges are insufficient to illustrate national trends in tuition costs.
The broader your conclusion, the more information you’ll need to meet the requirements for sufficiency. If you claim the usefulness of a diet for all people, then you’re going to need a great deal of information from different populations—men and women, old and young, healthy and sickly, and so on.


            The third part of this exercise is public speaking. If the class worked in groups, one member of the winning group would explain—in a brief informative speech (2 or 3 minutes should be sufficient)—the strategies used to find the answer and how the reliability of the source was judged according to these five criteria. If the class worked individually, the winning student would give the brief speech of explanation. Groups or individuals that used a totally different research strategy might then compare their experiences with those of the winners. Or a symposium on efficient research strategies could be set up where a member from each group would explain in a brief speech the strategies used to find the answer and his or her group’s evaluation of the reliability of the source.


Since students vary widely in their research competencies, the following questions vary in difficulty. Some are extremely easy and the answers are likely to be found in under a minute. Some are extremely difficult and the answers are likely to take a great deal longer.

1.      What is the ethnic population of Missouri?

2.      Who is the current president of the National Communication Association or the American Psychological Association?

3.      What film grossed the most money (adjusted for inflation)?

4.      What actor won the most academy awards?

5.      What is one speech by a politician in support of same-sex marriage was given prior to 2005?

6.      What is the literacy rate for Cuba versus the United States?

7.      What has the last Van Gogh painting sold for at auction?

8.      How much does it cost for a full page advertisement in Sunday’s Washington Post?

9.      How many times did a current senator from your state miss a vote?

10.  What are the five largest college libraries in the United States and how many volumes do they each hold?

11.  What is the student-faculty ratio for your college?

12.  What profit did J.P. Morgan Chase or McDonalds or Apple make in the previous year?

13.  What is the maximum amount of social security a person may receive—as of today’s date?

14.  How do you make a Mississippi Mud Pie?

15.  What is the salary of your college’s president?

16.  What does it mean to say, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” Who said it and in what context?

17.  What researchers developed the concept and measurement of argumentativeness?

18.   How many single-parents with children under 18 years of age are there in the United States?

19.  Who are three or four or five billionaire women?

20.  What is the graduate program in Communication at the University of Illinois like?

21.  How much US debt does China hold?

22.  What is the president’s approval rating among those in their 20s or 30s versus those in their 60’s or older?

23.  What are the major religions of Africa, Asia, or South America?

24.  What are the lowest and highest points on earth?

25.  How did the amount of rain for your state vary over the last 10 years?

26.  How many men and how many women are currently in the US Senate?

27.  What did the flag of the United States look like in 1840?

28.  What is the sodium content of a pound of cheese cake?

29.  How much money does the United States give to its five largest beneficiaries (countries)?

30.  Who is the most popular superhero of all time?

31.  What was the world’s tallest building in 1880?

32.  What are the three major causes of skin rash?

33.  How many US troops were killed in Afghanistan?

34.  Who is the highest paid college president, CEO, or military officer and what is the annual salary?

35.  What three books sold the most copies?


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