Facilitating Critical Thinking

A crucial part of any education.  

What is It?

Deconstructing our own understandings of the subjects we teach can help us to recognize what upholds them — the pathways of thinking that we’d like to see replicated in our students. Learning taxonomies such as the 6 Facets of Understanding from Understanding By Design  are lenses which, like a prism separating the colors that make up white light, help us to separate out and conceptualize the dynamic portions of the more complete understanding which we find so difficult to measure. Some facets of understanding lend themselves to certain assignment/tool combinations better than others.

Understanding what it is you want to foster in your students’ understanding is a first step to defining what assignments and assessments, and balance thereof, you wish to design into the course.

Rodin's sculpture, The Thinker

How Can I Encourage Critical Thinking  in My Course?

Go Beyond Reportage: Quizzes and tests where students are asked to merely regurgitate what you’ve told them may be effective ways to test whether students have consumed domain knowledge, but they are ineffective at telling us whether they’ve digested the material, as in whether they’ve thought critically about the domain knowledge, taken in multiple perspectives, and developed understanding  of their own. When building your course, think hard about assignments that ask students to  create  artifacts of understanding.

Ask open-ended questions: In your face-to-face classrooms and in online discussion boards, be sure to ask broad, open-ended questions that allow for divergent thinking, evaluation of multiple perspectives, and “thinking out loud.” Make sure that your feedback includes an evaluation of their process  and not merely the  product. Above all, stay away from questions that have simple yes or no answers or basic factual answers.

Two of the three sides of information fluency, domain knowledge and presentation & participation - which overlap to create "reportage"

Questions and  Considerations

If you’re teaching an online course, make sure some of your assignments or activities are centered on the process of critical evaluation. A few examples:

Google Drive Folders to Collect Research:  If research is part of your discipline and if students will be working on a research project, make sure that they’re collecting research in a place where you can evaluate the quality and quantity of the research and where you can see what the student is thinking about the various things collected. Much like the note cards you may have turned into your teachers back in the day, we need to give students feedback on their process.

Mind Mapping for Mental Models:  One intent of asking open-ended questions is to reveal the mental models that students may be using to construct their understanding of the domain knowledge. Create assignments that ask students to model how various concepts might be connected. The non-linearity of these maps is often more illuminating about where students’ understandings and misunderstandings are located.

In Practice

In practice, facilitating critical thinking means having students create artifacts of understanding. The artifacts should ultimately reveal whether students have evaluated multiple perspectives and applied new domain knowledge.

Honors Physics: https://sites.google.com/a/parishepiscopal.org/gende/dynamics
Students are asked to create a project that is an application of Dynamics. The instructor gives examples including ‘Planetary motion’ and ‘Friction and Car Tires.’ Students are asked to write a question related to the application and then clearly answer the question using a digital tool. They are required to document their sources. See the resulting blogs.

Note that the following are included:

Dartmouth Video Projects: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~videoprojects/prepare.html
Student video projects including specific digital storytelling. This site contains a full explanation of the project, handouts, and suggestions for preparing the assignment. Share these examples: [video from German 3] and [video from Arabic 3]On this site, the faculty member receives instructions to:

  • Define the assignment,
  • Plan ahead
  • Front-load due dates
  • Be clear about workload
  • Be realistic about training

Sociology Race Stories: https://socioked.blogspot.com/
Sine Anahita, a past iTeach participant, created a blog and taught others how to blog. She also decided to record and produce a documentary on race which she titled, “Race Stories”. In 2008 she asked the students in her sociology class  to help create the video by sharing their own personal encounters with racism. The individual student reflections are shared on her website.  Sine shared with us the chain of events that resulted in “Race Stories”.

“…iTeach gave me the confidence I needed to actually start work on the documentary video I have been hoping to do for years. The film is called Race Stories, and features my students analyzing their own personal stories about race. The connection with iTeach is complex The workshops gave me the confidence I needed to actually DO the filming and the editing (using Final Cut Pro). But iTeach gave me something else, and this is what is complicated. I was frustrated several times during the iTeach seminar, frustrated that we were spending our time evaluating student learning without talking about how students actually GET course content. For example, how do they learn how to analyze race sociologically? I shared a participants frustration when she said something like, students dont just discover the Pythogorean Theorem on their own. Exactly. But what tools can we use to help students learn that parallel the good things about F2F teaching? My experiences at iTeach spurred many conversations about this. Some of these conversations occurred on sociology blogs, by the way. And ultimately, what happened for me is that I woke up at 4:00 AM one morning, unable to sleep. And I realized that iTeach had given me the confidence to believe that I had enough technological expertise to do the documentary film, and that I would learn what I needed to know as I went along. And that experts or at least online how-to guides and how-to books would appear when I needed them to. This is a huge paradigm shift for me.”

“That day, I went into my class, and I suggested that we do the film together, and the students were stoked. Student participation in the class is very high; student attendance is consistent; and over half of our film is on tape. Editing the film is still a few weeks away, and I will let yall know in January how this part of my project goes. Before iTeach, I knew I had the sociological expertise to do the film. But iTeach gave me the confidence I need to just shoot it and work out the technological details as I go. In a sense, iTeach dared me to step outside the box. And I did.”

Prompt 1: Ask participants to discuss online tools they have used with a neighbor.
Prompt 2: Ask participants to fill out a short form.

Critical Thinking Strategies

Rob King, Co-Author of  Inquire, a Student Handbook for 21st Century Learning

Research Foundations

Athanassiou, N., McNett, J. M., & Harvey, C. (2003). Critical thinking in the management classroom: Bloom’s taxonomy as a learning tool (PDF). Journal of Management Education, 27(5), 533-555.

Bissell, A. N., & Lemons, P. P. (2006). A new method for assessing critical thinking in the classroom. BioScience, 56(1), 66-72.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of distance education, 15(1), 7-23.