August 5, 2008

Learning Styles are Important to Teaching Critical Thinking

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Online courses offer several advantages over face-to-face courses when it comes to teaching critical thinking (analysis, evaluation, and deduction), according to according to Linda Armstrong, science professor at Sullivan County Community College in New York. The challenge is to engage students by addressing various learning styles and to find ways to build in critical thinking throughout the course.

“I think it’s far easier to teach critical thinking online than in a face-to-face class,” Armstrong says. “You don’t have the time constraints of a fifty-minute class in which students are forced to think critically maybe when they’re hungry or tired or worried about a test in another class that day. Since students can pick their own time to do an online course, I think they find times that are better suited for them to concentrate.”

In addition, students can go over the lecture notes and any supporting materials multiple times to reinforce the learning and promote evaluation. (The ability to review online materials multiple times is one more reason to make them as engaging as possible. The more varied the formats, the more likely students will go back to review the materials.)

The online format also facilitates student collaboration because students aren’t limited to working together during a specific (and limited) class period and because it is less awkward for students to be critical of each other’s work online than it is face to face, Armstrong says.

The first step in developing students’ critical thinking skills is to get them engaged in the course because, Armstrong says, “If you have students engaged in the course material, you’ve got a prayer towards getting critical thinking to start because they’re actually paying attention to what they’re doing.”

Part of getting students engaged is finding engaging ways to present the course materials. In addition to engaging students, offering course materials in multiple formats gets at different learning styles. For each module, Armstrong tries to include text, visual, and auditory elements. Each element of the modules contains some unique material, and Armstrong encourages students to use them all to enhance their understanding of the content.

“If you address enough learning styles and you’ve got students engaged and able to learn according to how their brains work, then critical thinking is easy to approach. You can ask them to analyze what you’ve taught in that unit because they’ve actually paid attention and thought about it,” Armstrong says.

The key to teaching critical thinking is to walk students through the process. Armstrong uses incremental assignments that lead to students being able to write a thematic critical essay.

“Writing a thematic critical essay is a tremendous way to teach critical thinking because any time a student has to write an introductory paragraph for a theme and analyze how the data is presented and substantiate that theme and make a concluding paragraph, you have a tremendous amount of critical thinking going on. But you just can’t expect students to be able to do that right away,” Armstrong says.

In the first module, Armstrong provides an outline that student fill in, which teaches them how to find the unit’s theme rather than just the specific details or facts. “To me, that’s the start of writing a critical-thinking essay-realizing that you’re not just looking at individual facts; you’re looking at an overall theme,” Armstrong says.

In the second module, the students create their own outlines and bring in supporting facts from what Armstrong has taught in that module. In the third module, the students post their assignments online and provide feedback to each other.

“By the third module, I expect them to have some skills for looking at a theme and analyzing how the facts support that theme. And at that point, I have students critically, constructively look at each other’s work,” Armstrong says.

Reviewing each other’s work helps students see examples of critical thinking and find flaws in each other’s thinking.

Armstrong also responds to students’ work both in an open forum and individually.

Armstrong also encourages students to think critically even when they don’t know it. For example, she has students rate various course elements according to a five-star restaurant rating system and explain why they gave the sites the ratings they did. “By asking why, they have to substantiate their answers, and any time they do that, they’re thinking critically,” Armstrong says.

This exercise also highlighted students’ different perspectives on the materials. For example, an art major might analyze a video using a different set of criteria than a science major.

In addition to encouraging students to thinking critically, this exercise provides Armstrong with valuable feedback about the course that can alter how she teaches the course. For example, Armstrong once included a website in a course that she thought provided valuable information in an interesting format, but the students did not like the site. So Armstrong asked each student to find a website that accomplished what she had originally intended. This activity simultaneously engaged students, helped them develop their critical thinking skills, and improved the course.

Contact Linda Armstrong at larmstro@sullivan.suny.edu.

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