When you are choosing a restaurant, movie, or shopping online, how often do you check out the reviews? Are you more likely to purchase a product with 5 stars or 1 star? Are you more likely to eat at or order from the restaurant with two stars or five stars? While most of us are familiar with the five-star rating system, you likely don't realize that information can be rated and reviewed too! An article getting published in a scholarly publication is comparable to getting a five-star rating, whereas a conspiracy theory website about the flat earth is likely to get 0 stars.
There are five factors you can take into account when evaluating whether or not a source is appropriate.
Works written directly by scholars in a field of study are more reliable sources of information than those written by professional journalists. You should evaluate the level of expertise the person writing the article has. If an individual author is unavailable, you can think about the organization represented by the writer and whether or not they are to be trusted.
When writing, the author has a specific audience in mind and will use words, phrases, and examples that are appropriate for that audience. It is important to recognize that as a college student you should be finding sources that are aimed toward a more scholarly audience than a general audience.
There is always a reason for something to be published, so as a student you should be thinking about why something is being shared. Is the reason to persuade you to believe one side of an argument, or are they publishing the results of a study they conducted?
The amount of information (or lack of information) can tell a lot about a source's quality. You should search for sources that have references to other sources or with information that can be verified in other places as well.
Where, when, and how something is published can provide significant insight into a source's quality. Is it published in a peer-reviewed journal or a blog? Is this information too old to be of significance or is it from the same time that a significant event took place?
Professors use a lot of different phrases to describe a specific set of publications. Whether they call it Academic or Scholarly, what they frequently mean is that they want you to find articles by researchers that have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. These articles are mainly written by people who work or teach (and thus are considered "scholars") in their respective fields and contain original research on very specific topics within their field.
In addition to the research-based articles published in peer-reviewed journals, there is a lot of work that is published by scholars in other types of publications. Professionals might present at a conference and have their presentation written up in conference proceedings, write a chapter in a book on a topic that is edited and collected by other scholars, or even write an editorial for the publication they edit. While these are not always based on original research or peer-reviewed they are typically outstanding sources.