DEVELOPING CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS FOR STUDENTS

SUMMARIZED FROM AMBROSE, ET AL. HOW LEARNING WORKS: SEVEN RESEARCH-BASED PRINCIPLES FOR SMART TEACHING. JOHN WILEY & SONS, 2010

Specific definitions of critical thinking vary, but broad characteristics may include aspects of questioning, analysis, consideration of context, and weighing options. General strategies can help make thinking and processes more visible, and offer students opportunities to develop, apply, and receive feedback on disciplinary thinking and problem solving.

HELP STUDENTS BECOME MORE AWARE OF THEIR THINKING

The term metacognition generally refers to thinking about thinking, and applies to one’s own management of one’s learning. As applied to learning and developing critical thinking skills, students benefit from becoming more aware of their thinking, writing, and studying processes. They can learn to assess tasks and their ability to perform them, develop an approach, monitor progress and effectiveness, and change their approach as needed. Learning to be aware of thinking processes and strategies might not be formal objectives within a single course, but developing these skills can be helpful to students beyond a single course, and across multiple disciplines.

Ambrose, et al. (2010) list the following steps in a cycle of metacognitive processes. is cycle engages students in monitoring and controlling their learning, helping them become more and more self directed.

  • Assess the task at hand, taking into consideration the task’s goals and constraints.
  • Evaluate their own knowledge and skills, identifying strengths and weaknesses.
  • Plan their approach in a way that accounts for the current situation.
  • Apply various strategies to enact their plan, monitoring their progress along the way.
  • Reflect on the degree to which their current approach is working so that they can adjust and restart the cycle as needed.In addition, students’ beliefs about about intelligence and learning, such as the malleability of intelligence and the ease or difficulty of learning, can influence their process in the cycle. For example, students who believe that intelligence can be developed with practice and hard work may be more willing to put time and effort into learning, and are more likely to have the resilience to adjust to difficulties.

Specific strategies exist to guide students through each step in the cycle, including:

Provide clear communication about the assigned task and performance expectations  Help students develop awareness of their strengths and weaknesses
In describing the task, be explicit about your expectations for the end product (what you do and do not expect), the performance criteria, and potentially about the expected processes and timeframes for students’ approach to the assignment. You can also check for students’ understanding of your expectations by asking them for a description of their anticipated work ow, strategies, and end product. Assessments can include diagnostic elements that help provide feedback to students regarding their strengths and weaknesses in course content and skill application. In particular, assessments early in the course can be explicit in what content knowledge and skill development they target, and can provide feedback regarding students’ gaps as well as potential steps to strengthen weak areas.
Assign students to overtly approach task planning processes Teach students application and monitoring strategies
With novice students, or a complex task, you can encourage students’ structured approach though the use of milestone due dates connected to the project planning processes. Feedback associated with these explicit stages of the process can help students keep on track and also emphasize the value of the planning process. Some students naturally monitor their learning processes, such as stopping and asking themselves whether they understand a reading or whether their problem-solving approach is working. Self-monitoring strategies can be taught, such as having students work in pairs to explain concepts or processes in their own words, or to ask each other comprehension-monitoring questions. Awareness of comprehension and methods may not be enough to automatically lead students to change their strategies, however. Ideally, a new learning or thinking strategy offers benefits that students perceive as being worth the effort to develop and apply.

MODEL YOUR PROCESSES

Show students how you would approach a problem. How would you approach how to complete a complex task, breaking it down into subtasks? One example is to use a problem similar to an assignment, and talk through what you would think about and how you would choose what information to act on through the steps of the process. In addition, model for students how you would evaluate the resulting product. A variation or second stage could be to provide students with questions they could ask themselves at various stages throughout the assignment.

SCAFFOLD STUDENTS IN THEIR PROCESSES

Scaffolding refers to the process of instructors providing, and slowly removing, cognitive supports to students as they are learning. For example, rather than assigning a complex, multiphase problem to novice students, instructors can break down problems into steps so students work on discrete phases in isolation. Domain experts have learned content and developed efficiencies in thinking processes that they would apply to an assignment task. These same experts, however, may have a blind spot when it comes to envisioning the understanding and workflows of students. If you find it challenging to break down a task into steps, some ideas include:

  • Talking through decomposing the task. What are the steps, and what content and application skills would a person need in order to do each step?
  • Discussing the task with others outside of your discipline, or who are less familiar with your course. How would they envision proceeding, what would they need and why?
  • Considering searching for general descriptions of thinking skills or analysis processes related to your domain.Breaking down a problem allows students to pay attention to each step in the process, and provides opportunities for practice and feedback on each skill before combining them into a complete process. If diagnostic assessments indicate specific areas of weakness, assign problems isolating the gaps. After working on skills in isolation, it is equally important to give students practice and feedback in combining and synthesizing skills.

Another example of scaffolding involves progressively increasing students’ level of autonomy in working through tasks. Instructors may provide novice students with a high level of structure and direction in their working process. As students advance, they take on more responsibility for directing and monitoring their own working processes.

In addition to supporting students in developing skills by breaking down the steps of a complex task, other strategies are suggested to help students integrate individual skills into a process, and to apply processes to new problems. These strategies include:

  • Be explicit about skill integration, expectations, and performance criteria.
  • Discuss applicability of skills to new problems and different contexts.
  • Give students opportunities to apply skills in multiple contexts.
  • Help students identify general principles related to specific skills.

PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR PRACTICE AND FEEDBACK

Goal-directed practice and feedback can work together to help students progress in their skill development. Ideally, practice allows students to engage their skills while working toward specific goals at an appropriate level of challenge. Practice is most effective when coordinated with feedback that evaluates performance on targeted criteria related to the goals and provides guidance in how students can improve. Ideally, students have a chance to improve their performance on the criteria through multiple opportunities to practice and incorporate the feedback received.

Selected strategies

  • If you can predict common mistakes or areas where students are weaker, consider developing optional remediation materials and direct students to review them as needed.
  • Set expectations of student performance through use of a rubric, or by showing examples of student work that meet the expectations (or both). Showing a model example can be more powerful when it is accompanied by an explanation of the features that lead it to be an exemplar.
  • Provide students with multiple opportunities to practice, and receive feedback, at tasks of short length or small scope.
  • Consider group-level feedback or peer feedback to help manage your workload.
SUMMARIZED FROM AMBROSE, ET AL. HOW LEARNING WORKS: SEVEN RESEARCH-BASED PRINCIPLES FOR SMART TEACHING. JOHN WILEY & SONS, 2010