January 6th, 2012

Think Alouds Shed Light on How Students Grapple with Content


One of the enduring legacies of the classroom assessment movement (thank you Pat Cross and Tom Angelo) is that most faculty now realize that if they want to know how well something worked to promote learning in the classroom, they can’t just rely on what they think. They need to support what they think with feedback from students and, if that feedback doesn’t agree with what they think, they need to listen carefully to what the students said.

Building on that foundation, the scholarship of teaching movement has shown faculty that they can “study,” as in systematically inquire about, what’s happening in their classrooms. Increasingly, instructors’ examinations of their teaching and their students’ learning are finding their way into the pedagogical literature. One of the side benefits of these scholarly endeavors is the importing of a number of interesting assessment techniques mostly developed in psychology, cognitive psychology and educational psychology. Think alouds is one such technique and Lendol Calder describes how he used this approach in an introductory history course.

Think alouds were originally developed by cognitive psychologists as a research tool to study how people solved problems. Calder used them in his course “to measure changes in thinking patterns over time for selected individual enrolled in my survey [course].” (p. 1367) At the very beginning of the course he gave students a number of historical documents (somewhere between seven and ten) pertaining to the battle of the Little Big Horn. Students were supposed to try and figure out what the documents meant. They did so by talking out loud to themselves. “Their verbalized comments were recorded and transcribed for later analysis to determine patterns of cognition used to make sense of the documents.” (p. 1367) Students participated in the same exercise at the end of the course only with a different set of historical documents.

You could do the same with papers written before and after a course, but Calder thinks that the think alouds have distinct advantages. “The advantage of think alouds over graded student work is that they allow one to observe the process of thinking in a raw, unvarnished state. Think alouds reveal not only what a student thinks but also how she came to think it. Think alouds expose the stumbling, the hesitations, the blind alleys, the good ideas entertained and abandoned, the inner workings of a mind trying to make sense of the past.” (p. 1368)

But Calder identifies another advantage that’s even more compelling: “Listening to my students think out loud as they tried to make sense of documents is the single most eye-opening experience I have had in my years as a teacher.” (p. 1368)

Could changes in student thinking be detected in the before and after of these think alouds? “What my studies revealed is that even in a short, ten-week course students on average make modest to occasionally dramatic gains in all six aspects of historical thinking taught in the course.” (p. 1368) I should note that Calder’s course is your not typical history survey course—his article describes a course design that deviates significantly from how history courses are usually designed and taught.

It’s such an interesting assessment strategy. Even if you didn’t want to use it in a rigorous study design, the idea of listening to students as they try to deal with content has got to be revealing. In the cognitive psychology research, think alouds have been used to differentiate expert and novice knowledge and thinking processes. As I have pointed out in previous posts, it is so easy for faculty experts to forget how novices think about the content. Yes, it can be depressing, even frightening, since most students do not think all that deeply about our content. But knowing where they start allows for a more efficient journey to where they need to be. As Calder’s experience shows, you can then design a course, in his case one where he used the content to explicitly teach six cognitive habits: questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives and recognizing limits to one’s knowledge. (p. 1364).

Reference: Calder, L. (2006). Uncoverage: Toward a signature pedagogy for the history pedagogy. The Journal of American History, March, 1358-1370.