HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
The Winter/Spring 2016 issue of Peer Review highlights the powerful impact ‘transparency’ can have on learning for all students. One aspect of transparency is making obvious the intellectual practices involved in completing and evaluating a learning task. But making these processes visible for students is more easily said than done; we are experts in our fields for the very reasons that our thinking and evaluating are automatic and subconscious. It’s hard to describe exactly what we do intellectually when we synthesize or integrate, critique, or create. Similarly, it’s difficult to articulate the differences between an assignment we score as an A and one to which we give a B. Thus, a challenge in achieving transparency is developing a deep awareness of our own processes. Only then can we explicitly teach those thinking processes.
We all endorse it and we all want our students to do it. We also claim to teach it. “It” is critical thinking, and very few of us actually teach it or even understand what it is (Paul & Elder, 2013). Research tells us that our students learn critical thinking only after we receive training in how to teach it and design our courses explicitly and intentionally to foster critical thinking skills (Abrami, Bernard, Borokhovski, Wade, Surkes, Tamim, & Zhang, 2008). We have to start by formulating assessable critical thinking learning outcomes and building our courses around them.
The wealth of digital information has shifted our focus in higher education from developing critical thinking skills to developing critical information processing skills. Today’s students are digital natives, and many assume these students possess basic research skills because of their natural ease with technology. However, many college students lack important information processing skills to understand electronic material. Grafstein (2002) noted that “Given the seductively easy accessibility of masses of unregulated information, it is imperative that students, from the very beginning of their academic careers, adopt a critical approach to information and develop the ability to evaluate the information they encounter for authenticity, accuracy, credibility, authority, relevance, concealed bias, logical inconsistency, and so on” (p. 199).
Many students struggle with college-level reading and writing assignments. Part of it is simply not knowing how to get the essentials from a text. I have been experimenting with a simple method I call GSSW: Gather, Sort, Shrink, and Wrap.
The goal of using this method is that students learn to write an essay, based on the readings, that is exemplary of organized, clear, accurate, and critical thinking.
A central goal of education is teaching critical-thinking skills. Inquiry-based teaching is an excellent path to this goal. Based partly on the philosophy that “humans are born inquirers,” the method focuses on student discovery over pushing information from the instructor. Along the way, the students explore multiple sources and contexts, ask questions and pursue hypotheses, and work to apply their theories to new and diverse situations. In doing this, they actively discover the interrelatedness among concepts, topics, and theories.
we want students to be critical thinkers, we must routinely and explicitly give them structured practice opportunities to critically examine their own thinking. Squeezing two or three metacognitive activities into a hectic semester teaches students that such reflection is only for special occasions. Rather, student self-evaluation should be a daily course routine.
Scenario-based learning can be an effective way for students to apply what they have learned to realistic situations. There are many different ways to design scenarios for online delivery, from text-based case studies to interactive, immersive simulations. Regardless of the resources that you have available, there are effective ways to put students in scenarios that contribute to their learning.
Threaded discussions can provide excellent opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking. But critical thinking isn’t an automatic feature of these discussions. It needs to be nurtured through clear expectations, carefully crafted questions, timely and useful feedback, and creative facilitation.
Could your students identify the most important concepts in your discipline? Do they leave your class understanding these most fundamental concepts, including the ability to reason using these concepts to answer essential questions? Do your students become critical thinkers who connect concepts and practices in your course with other courses? With their future professional lives?