Assignments That Promote Critical Thinking

Teaching students to think critically has long been a goal of education. Some, like the authors of the article highlighted here, think it’s a goal whose importance has increased. When today’s students graduate, they “must fend for themselves in an information environment characterized by a fragmented media establishment, blurb-driven news coverage, and an increasingly polarized political system. Given the normative bias, questionable logic, and contorted facts that people face these days, it is essential that students learn to discern and evaluate different types of information.” (p. 619)

The authors follow with another important point. Advice on assignments that promote critical thinking is pretty generic. “Most suggestions … offer vague advice: allow students to discuss matters, tell students they need to think critically, ask them to rewrite.” (p. 624) Concrete examples that have been used in the classroom and assessed for their effectiveness are not commonly available. And one goal of this article is to remedy that deficiency.

The article, written for political science teachers, is a bit more discipline-specific than those customarily highlighted in this newsletter, but the assignment suggestions would work in other fields and the article has great value as a model. All disciplines would benefit from pedagogical scholarship like this. All disciplines are pretty nonspecific on the details of assignments and activities that promote and develop these all-important critical-thinking skills.

If one aspect of critical thinking is questioning the evidence presented in support of a claim, these authors maintain that students need to be able to differentiate between factual statements (those that make concrete assertions that can be verified), normative statements (which use value-based ideas, either good or bad), interpretive statements (which use textual materials to establish what an author means), and causal statements (which make cause-effect arguments).

After presenting material on evidence, offering examples, and giving students a chance to practice recognizing different statements, these authors give their students a quiz that contains samples of each of these statements. They usually devote an entire period to going over the quiz, as it generates much discussion. If students effectively argue that a particular statement might belong to another category, they are given some extra credit.

To learn the difference between relevant and irrelevant facts, students come to class with two double-spaced copies of a paper due that day. Before submitting the paper, they are instructed to go through it and identify each statement as one of the four described in the paragraph above. “If the paper assignment is to make and support a causal claim, student submissions should propose causal arguments and use relevant facts and logic to provide supporting evidence.” (p. 621) Frequently students find they have made errors. If they identify them, they can earn back some of the points they have lost for making them. The authors note that after this activity, student performance on subsequent papers improves significantly.

To help students understand how interpretive arguments work, teachers have them complete an assigned reading and then “write two logically distinct but plausible interpretations of a particular quotation that they select from the text.” (p. 621) In class they spend time in groups discussing their interpretations, offering each other feedback. Each group then presents the best pair of competing interpretations to the rest of the class for more discussion and feedback.

Other assignments are presented in the article, along with specific recommendations as to the political science content used in them. They are not relevant to those outside the discipline, but the authors make one final point that is extremely relevant. Faculty do not share assignment designs all that frequently, and that is our loss. The various electronic media options expedite this kind of exchange. Assignments carefully designed to accomplish specific goals, like the development of critical-thinking abilities, take time and effort to create. We should be sharing the results with each other. This article illustrates the valuable contribution made by this kind of scholarship.

Reference: Fitzgerald, J. and Baird, V. A. (2011). Taking a step back: Teaching critical thinking by distinguishing appropriate type of evidence. PS, Political Science and Politics, (July), 619-624.

Reprinted from Assignments That Promote Critical Thinking, The Teaching Professor, 25.10 (2011): 4.