Saturday, December 5, 2015

So here's an IDEA

IDEA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving learning in higher education. On their website, you will find a myriad of “peer-reviewed articles pertaining to the general areas of teaching and learning, faculty evaluation, curriculum design, assessment, and administration in higher education as well as shorter POD/IDEA notes on instruction and notes on learning.”  If you haven’t yet discovered this rich resource, check it out.

The following list, for instance, comes from POD-IDEA Center Notes on Learning Item #11. It suggests a series of critical thinking tasks that give students practice analyzing and critically evaluating ideas, arguments, and points of view, as well as getting feedback on their efforts.
  • In humanities and social science courses, keep the reading load manageable and model for students how to read critically and to evaluate arguments in your field.
  • In math, sciences, and engineering courses, encourage students participating in study groups not only to share ideas for solving problems but also to provide reasons for the problem solving ideas they advance.
  • Have students respond to an editorial in a newspaper or to a review essay in a scholarly journal. For that response, ask students to identify unstated assumptions, biases, and points of views and show how they undermine the argument the author is making. 
  • Teach students to use a pro and con grid to analyze ideas and points of view.
  • Take time in science and engineering classes to explore the ethical considerations of research questions and experimental design.
  • In organized class debates, ask students to argue for a point of view counter to their own.
  • Give students “ill-structured problems” in class to work through. Such problems have no known answer or solution and cannot be solved with formal rules of logic or mathematical formulas. Ask students to come up with multiple solutions for each problem and rank the viability of each solution.
  • Teach students Peter Elbow’s “believing and doubting game” which asks them to be both sympathetic and skeptical readers.
  • Help students develop strategies for systematically gathering data according to methodologies in your discipline, assessing the quality and relevance of the data, evaluating sources, and interpreting the data.
  • Encourage students to enter into dialogue with the sources they read; encourage them to ask questions, give assent, or protest in the margins of what they read.
  • Train students to identify the author’s audience and purpose when they read.
  • Encourage students to engage their critical reasoning skills outside of the classroom.
In my basic writing classes, for instance, I have students turn in a cover page with each essay that asks them to specify, among other things, the essay’s audience, purpose, topic and thesis.  I hadn’t thought of this as a way to encourage critical thinking until I read the next-to-last bullet point above, but perhaps it is a way for them to internalize those categories and look for them when they are reading, not just when they are writing.  

Which of these have worked in your classroom?  What others might you add?


  1. These are all nice and interesting ideas and assignments. However, none of them gives the student or even faculty a clear idea of what critical thinking is; which, in my opinion, is a big problem and significant failing. Let us, first, agree on what critical thinking is or is not; and, then, design the assignments on the basis of that definition and give students a clear idea of what critical thinking is and why they are doing those assignments. That, in my opinion, is a better approach; don't you think so?

    Safro Kwame

  2. I had posted a "sure, you first," comment but was just reading a book on the science of learning and came across this sentence:

    Pascarella and Terrizini (2005) described [intellectual skills] as those that help students “process and utilize new information, communicate effectively, reason objectively and draw objective conclusions from various types of data, evaluate new ideas and techniques efficiently, become more objective about beliefs, attitudes and values; evaluate arguments and claims critically; and make reasonable decisions in the face of imperfect information (p. 155).

    To me, what they call "intellectual skills" are what I think of in general as critical thinking, or at least what I want to help students be able to do intelletually. What parts would you disagree with or add more to?

  3. I agree.

    Here are a few of the definitions of critical thinking in use:

    1. Critical thinking is the careful and deliberate determination of whether to accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim. (Moore, B. N. a Parker, Richard: Critical Thinking: Evaluating Claims and Arguments in Everyday Life 2nd ed., Mountain Views CA, Mayfield Publishing Company)

    2. When we think critically, we judge the accuracy of statements and the soundness of the reasoning that leads to conclusions. (Ruggiero, Vincent: Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking 3rd ed., Mountain View, CA, Mayfield Publishing Company)

    3. Critical thinking is a process that emphasizes a rational basis for beliefs and provides a set of standards and procedures for analyzing, testing, and evaluating them. (Barry, Vincent & Rudinow, Joel: Invitation to Critical Thinking 2nd ed. Fort Worth, TX, Holt Rinehart and Winston, Inc.)

    4.Critical thinking is consciously observing, analyzing, and evaluating according to a standard....Standards for critical thinking measure what is true and what is not, what is reliable information and what is not; standards show us how we know that something is true or if this information is dependable. (Mayfield, Marlys: Thinking for Yourself: Developing Critical Thinking Skills Through Writing, Belmont, CA, Wadsworth Publishing Company)

    5. We think of critical thinking as a set of skills and strategies for making reasonable decisions about what to do or believe. (Rudinow, Joel & Barry, Vincent: Invitation to Critical Thinking 4th ed., Orlando, FL, Harcourt Brace & Company).

    6. Critical Thinking is evaluating whether we should be convinced that some claim is true or some argument is good, as well as formulating good arguments. (Epstein, Richard: The Pocket Guide to Critical Thinking, Belmont, CA, Wadsworth Publishing Company.)

    Safro Kwame