March 11th, 2010

Improve Thinking and Learning


Here’s a list of some practical suggestions taken from a, “miniature guide for those who teach on how to improve student learning.” (Web address below) The guide was prepared by Richard Paul and Linda Elder, both well-known experts on critical thinking.

  • “Focus on fundamental and powerful concepts with high generalizability. Don’t cover more than 50 basic concepts in any one course.” Instead of presenting more new material, spend the time thoroughly analyzing these fundamental concepts.
  • Keep these basic concepts in the “foreground.” When a new concept is presented, weave it into those that students already understand. Show how the whole relates to this new part and how the part relates to the whole.
  • “Speak less so that they [students] think more.”
  • “Don’t be a mother robin—chewing up the text for the students and putting it into their beaks through lecture.” Rather the goal should be teaching students how to read the text for themselves.
  • Model good critical thinking for students. Think out loud for students; puzzle your way through problems. “Try to think aloud at the level of a good student, not as a speedy professional.” Students won’t be able to emulate the thought process if you think it through at too advanced levels or work too quickly.

This miniature guide is part of a “Thinker’s Guide” series that includes short books on a range of topics relevant to college teaching. Find them and a number of other excellent sources on critical thinking at this website:

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  • Excellent thoughts and reminders. I love the point about not being a mother robin chewing up the food and placing it in the baby bird's beak. Better to teach students how to receive the info for themselves.
    I try to do that even with my early childhood students. It is amazing what they discover when I give them the "outline" of a theme and allow them to explore the classroom learning centers.

  • Larry Spence

    I have found that you really have to limit basic concepts to around five in a semester. Fifty seems way too many. For students to learn a concept they have to practice using it, at least. If they can apply it to make predictions, to do an evaluation, or as part of a defensible decisions then they are on their way to understanding. When I have tried to cover a lot of concepts I've found the students just ended up with definitions memorized at best. When I gave them tasks or problems that required them to use the concepts they could rarely do it.
    While I agree that thinking is a key to learning I beleive it takes more time and practice then most course designs allow. Of course, the key to any good course design is to focus on a few big and basic ideas. That is also the most difficult part of the process.

  • Using relatively recent movies and television shows to illustrate various aspects of communication is a very effective means to teach students what they need to learn about interpersonal communication. For example, using the movie "Hitch" to teach about perception, nonverbal communication, and listening. I give students plenty of opportunities to discuss how the different perceptions we have of the four main characters and how they change throughout the course of the movie; this fits into the concepts we have been discussing (and on which I have been lecturing. It is my goal that no student will look at his or her favorite movies or tv shows without thinking about how effectively (or ineffectively) characters communicate with one another. Camera angles, lighting, and music along with actions taken by the characters also influence their nonverbal communication abilities. We also delve into listening displayed in the film; this fits nicely into my lectures on the types of listening and leads to greater understanding and information retention by students. Likewise, the television show "House" clearly illustrates how poor communication can affect those around us. "House" also works very well with courses on Groups, Teams, and Leadership, since Dr. Gregory House is one of the worst examples of how to work with subordinates. By making effective use of movies and tv shows that the students like, I find that learning is enhanced on the community college level.