Instructors Must Bring Critical Thinking to the Classroom
In a post last week, I explored how students can train themselves to become critical thinkers to supercharge their learning. In that piece, there was a silent partner, the course instructor. Teachers – at every level – can help students to acquire a thoughtful mindset that can pay dividends in student motivation, class participation, and, ultimately, successful student performance.
Critical thinking involves focused cognition or advanced forms of information and thought processing. If you – the professor — do not incorporate it into the learning activities or state it as part of the learning objectives, students may not consciously attempt to perform higher cognitive functioning. If you want students to excel, a direct instructional approach is needed.
Why Is Critical Thinking So Important?
In my post, Thinking Critically: The Most Important Skill for Student Success, I shared definitions and strategies for students to utilize. One of the definitions provided related the process of critical thinking to Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive functions and characterized it as the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation (Angelo, 1995). The basic premise of cognition involves the way that the mind processes information. Students can learn to utilize advanced cognitive skills when they have a technique that helps focus their thinking.
The challenge is telling students to use critical thinking during discussions or demonstrating it through their written work. Will they understand what that means? Students often accept what they believe as factual, especially if those are long term beliefs, which becomes their basis of reality. If they believe what they presently know as the truth, why would they want to consider any other alternatives? The process of critical thinking requires more than asking students to consider what they think and instead it challenges them to consider why they believe what they believe.
Nate Kornell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College, summed it up this way: “Students often find it hard to see the larger picture if teachers don't make it explicit. The teachers don't make it explicit, often, because from their perspective it's so obvious. But it's not obvious to the students. Making the process of critical thinking explicit is a perfect example of this problem.” Instructors can encourage the use of critical thinking when they make it part of the learning objectives and explain how it works. What you’ll find is that when students intentionally focus on their thought process they will then move through higher levels of cognitive development.
What are Thought Processes?
One of the most effective methods for learning about the process of critical thinking is to understand the basics of intentional thought processes. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has developed a model called Elements of Thought, which defines eight components that make up rational thinking:
#1. Thinking generates a purpose. We think for a specific goal or have an objective in mind.
#2. Thinking generates questions. Is there a problem or issue to solve?
#3. Thinking requires the use of information. We have to obtain data or evidence to support our views, beliefs, or opinions. It does not imply that this information is accurate as we filter the information received.
#4. Thinking utilizes concepts. We look for theories, definitions, principles, etc. to make sense of the information.
#5. Thinking leads to inferences. We make interpretations and reach conclusions as we rationalize our thoughts.
#6. Thinking makes assumptions. We hold beliefs that we take for granted and we do not consciously examine or question those beliefs.
#7. Thinking generates implications. When we think purposefully, we then consider the possible outcome or consequences of our actions.
#8. Thinking generates a point of view. This becomes our personal frame of reference and guides our interactions with others and our environment.
When you examine the process of thinking from this perspective, it becomes obvious that many students (especially those with limited academic experience) may not be used to following such a logical or rational approach.
The Students’ Perspective
When students are presented with information in class they are first passive participants in the learning process. They learn about various topics and subjects throughout the course and acquire knowledge through the materials and information provided. Learning objectives are designed to guide the activities and assessments implemented by their instructors. Course outcomes are established as a means of projecting a desired result for students by the end of the class, which includes demonstrating the use of academic skills, making developmental progress, and knowledge acquisition.
The most common forms of assessment used to measure students' progress and learning includes written assignments and exams. Often a written paper will consist of fact gathering, developing an essay, or stating beliefs and opinions. An exam typically assesses information that students can recall based upon what they have learned and what they have memorized. If the learning activities do not require students to actively work with information their cognitive abilities will remain at a lower functioning level.
Students can be encouraged to become active participants in the learning process when they think in a critically reflective manner, which develops higher-order cognitive skills. Educator Carol MacNight describes the process as the students’ ability “to examine logical relationships among statements of data, construct arguments, respect diverse perspectives, view phenomena from different points of view, and have the flexibility to recast their thinking when reason leads them to do so.” When students develop new ideas, solve problems, or reach conclusions, they have utilized advanced cognitive skills.
What you’ll find is that critical thinking and reflection are concepts that students must learn about and then implement through ongoing practice. There are instructional strategies that can be implemented immediately into any class as a means of prompting the development of this important skill.
Take a Direct Approach
An effective method of encouraging the development of critical thinking skills is through the use of class discussions. Educator Robert H. Ennis utilizes a strategy called Reflection, Reasons, Alternatives (RRA), which can be applied as follows:
Reflection: Often students participate in a discussion by stating the first thing they think of without considering its validity or accuracy. When you ask students to reflect, you are prompting them to consider why they believe what they believe, and you can ask them to seek out other perspectives and information. I prompt students to find credible academic sources to support the development of their responses.
Reasons: This is the point where an instructor’s active involvement is required for the critical thinking process as you can engage students through the use of follow up questions. I utilize Socratic questioning as a means of encouraging students to consider the reasons for their beliefs, opinions, and views. This can be best accomplished by acknowledging something they have written and then asking a question that prompts further analysis.
Alternatives: By interacting with students through the use of questioning techniques, you can encourage them to consider alternative views, perspectives, and possible outcomes. This helps to continue the discussion as many students offer an initial reaction and believe their involvement is complete. Your direct input provides an opportunity for students to talk through their ideas, knowledge, and experiences, while examining internalized beliefs and opinions. They can ask questions, receive guidance, and be prompted to develop higher-order thinking skills.
Critical Thinking is Critical to Learning
Critical thinking becomes critical to learning because students are actively engaged in the process of learning. As you teach them how to approach discussions and assignments with a willingness to explore new information and perspectives, they become transformed. Of course this is not always easy for students as it challenges them at times to examine (and question) long held beliefs, which means your input and questions must be perceived as supportive and helpful, rather than threatening or intimidating. You may also find it necessary to explain the process of focused thinking to them as their awareness of it will prompt them to practice using higher forms of cognition. What you will likely find is that this skill can be learned by all of your students and it will help to improve every aspect of their performance.
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