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Developing Critical Thinking in Higher Education

By McGraw-Hill Education 2 years agoNo Comments
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As institutions of higher education develop their goals and learning outcomes for students, one of the objectives is often that students will develop critical thinking skills. With this purpose, there are a variety of questions. First, what do we mean by critical thinking? And second, how do we teach it?

Researchers at Utah Valley University explain that we generally define critical thinking in two ways. The first definition is very broad and encompasses a number of skills, including inference, establishing a basis for inference, and decision-making. The second definition is that critical thinking requires using higher-order cognitive skills. A higher-order cognitive skill would be analyzing, in contrast to a lower-order cognitive skill like recalling.

Examining how we teach critical thinking is the more important question for most of us. Emily A. Holt, Craig Young, Jared Keetch, Skylar Larsen, and Brayden Mollner examine the effectiveness of three different strategies for teaching critical thinking skills in their study, “The Greatest Learning Return on Your Pedagogical Investment: Alignment, Assessment or In-Class Instruction?

Below, you will find details of each teaching strategy, their benefits and short-comings as well as how the results of this research can be incorporated into your course design and teaching.


Three Strategies for Teaching Critical Thinking

The first strategy for teaching critical thinking in higher education is in-class instruction. Holt and her colleagues describe modeling critical thinking skills by either the instructor or by peers, and using critical thinking activities for students to practice engaging with those skills. Improvement in critical thinking skills happens most effectively in learning-centered classrooms where the professor uses active learning to engage students.

The second strategy is to teach critical thinking skills through assessment. Formative assessments can provide practice in critical thinking and provide feedback from the instructor. Using that feedback engages a student’s metacognitive skills as they seek to understand how to improve. With assessments, Bloom’s taxonomy has been a tool to help us understand what level of cognitive skill we are requiring with our test questions. When we define critical thinking skills as higher-order cognitive skills, those higher-order skills are level 3, application, and above.

The final strategy is to teach critical thinking skills through course alignment. For their study, Holt and her colleagues focused on alignment in an individual classroom between the learning outcomes and the assessments. They examined whether the assessments were truly testing students on the outcomes the instructor determined as goals for the course. Holt et al kept their focus on alignment narrow, but acknowledge that in an individual classroom there is also alignment needed between the learning outcomes, the in-class instruction, and the assessments.


The Study

Holt and her colleagues devised their study to determine which of the three strategies had the most impact on student gains in critical thinking skills. They developed a study of a general introductory Biology course for non-majors during the Fall 2013 and Spring 2014 semesters. They assessed 15 sections of the Biology course through student pre- and post-quizzes, and through an evaluation of the instructor’s teaching, learning outcomes, their course assessments, and an alignment score.

The student quizzes had two parts. The first part collected demographic information, and the second part assessed the student’s Biology-content cognitive skills. The researchers administered one quiz during the first week of the semester, and one during the last. They used the quizzes to determine whether students’ cognitive skills had improved over the course of the semester.

Their evaluation of the individual classes and instructors allowed Holt and her colleagues to determine whether improvement in cognitive skills was based on in-class instruction, assessments, or alignment.

How to Encourage Critical Thinking in the Classroom

Results of the Critical Thinking Research

Holt and her colleagues began their discussion with the results of the pre- and post-quizzes. On the pre-quiz, students scored 1.7 out of 9. On the post-quiz the score improved to 2.6. The researchers acknowledge the scores are very low and can be discouraging, but they are not interested only in the raw accuracy scores. They are interested in how much students improved (52%) and how they developed critical thinking skills.

The evaluation of individual classes and instructors also lead to a variety of scores. The researchers calculated a mean learning objective Bloom score of 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 6. The mean assessment Bloom score was 2.0, also on the 1 to 6 scale. With these scores, Holt and her colleagues calculated the alignment of individual classrooms. Ten of the classrooms in the study were aligned, and five were misaligned.

Finally, Holt and her colleagues calculated the student-centeredness of the course using the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) scale. Mean scores ranged between 30.2 and 54.4, and the average mean was 38.2, which is a category II. There are five categories in the RTOP scale. Category V is fully learner-centered and Category I is fully teacher-centered. Category II, where most of the classrooms in the study fell, is described as “teacher-centered lecture shifting toward learner-centered classroom with student involvement.”


Conclusions on Teaching Critical Thinking in the Classroom

Holt and her colleagues reached four conclusions from their analysis of the data.

Conclusion 1: Skills improve after instruction. They found this was true across all the course sections, so the type of instruction does not determine improvement. Instruction itself is enough to result in improvement.

Conclusion 2: Assessments are not a clear answer for improving students’ critical thinking skills. Holt and her colleagues found that assessments in the classes did not have the positive impact that they hypothesized. They speculate that this could be because in large introductory science classes, the assessment methods are multiple choice tests. These tests are summative, rather than formative. They naturally lend themselves to lower-order cognitive skills, like recalling, and they do not require or allow for detailed feedback.

In their study, assessment didn’t show a large impact on improving students’ critical thinking skills. But Holt and her colleagues suggest that with improved assessments, there could be more of an impact.

Conclusion 3: Alignment may not matter. Remember that Holt and her colleagues were defining alignment as matching learning outcomes and assessments. The results of the study show that a stronger alignment may not have much impact on students’ critical thinking skills. This may be because the student is not aware of the learning outcomes.

Conclusion 4: Student-centered teaching is the most important strategy. Holt and her colleagues found that the most improvement in critical thinking skills could be attributed to instruction that focused on the student, modeled critical thinking, and used critical thinking activities to build skills. They report that student-centered teaching is crucial for developing critical thinking skills.


Recommendations for Instructors

Holt and her colleagues finish their discussion of their study with several recommendations for instructors. They recommend faculty focus first on in-class student-centered instruction. That is the strategy that showed the most gains in developing critical thinking skills. In order to improve student-centered instruction, Holt et al recommend that faculty development sessions focus on training in how to modify a classroom to be student-centered.

Although they acknowledge that assessment and alignment did not lead to the strongest improvement in student skills, they still encourage instructors to use those tools as a method for developing critical thinking skills.

With assessment, Holt and her colleagues encourage instructors to incorporate high Bloom’s taxonomy levels as well as low Bloom’s taxonomy levels. This will also require faculty development and training, especially when designing a test for a large course section.

In addition to the level of cognitive skills required by the questions on the assessment, Holt and her colleagues recommend that instructors provide more feedback to students. This allows students to think about their thinking and learning, and encourages them to move to higher-order cognitive skills.

Finally, Holt and her colleagues recommend that faculty have training and assistance to plan and write curricula. This will improve the alignment within individual courses as instructors plan their learning outcomes and arrange their in-class activities and assessments to complement each other.

  Course Design, Critical Thinking, Higher Education
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