Skills Every Student Needs: Critical Thinking

Mon, 05/05/2014 - 16:22 -- Hillary Procknow

Today we begin a three-post series on a few important skills that every student needs to be successful. We will describe these skills and illustrate how CRAs can be used to further develop them. Today, we begin with critical thinking.

When I meet my first-year students at The University of Texas at Austin on the first day of class, I like to set the tone for the semester by talking to them about the importance of wonder – many professors call it intellectual curiosity or critical thinking – in creating a successful experience at college.  Then I show them a picture of an iceberg like this one:

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Then I ask if they have ever wondered what is beneath the surface.  Most students have not, so I show them an image like this:

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Because of the density of ice, only one seventh to one tenth of an iceberg is visible; the rest is underwater. This means that if you tried to understand an iceberg by only observing what can be seen easily above the water, you would miss 85-90% of the full picture.  To wonder what you don’t see, don’t know, or haven’t heard is the hallmark of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. 

I tell my students that what we will have time to cover in class, through lecture and discussion, is only the “tip of the iceberg.”  I tell them that as part of their responsibility for their own educations, they must practice wonder and ask questions about the content they encounter in their classes. Critical thinking can be fostered by imagining that what happens in the classroom or textbook is the “tip of the iceberg” and realizing that it is up to the student to think about what is below the water.

This isn’t as easy as it might seem; in fact, many students struggle with this when they arrive at college or begin their careers.  This kind of thinking hasn’t always been rewarded in their pasts.  It may surprise you to know, however, that when faculty on UT’s campus were surveyed regarding what they expected entering freshmen to be able to do, none emphasized the importance of factual, “tip of the iceberg” knowledge.  The most frequently sited desired ability for students to possess was critical thinking or intellectual curiosity.


Using College Readiness Assignments (CRAs) to Promote Critical Thinking

Students may be accustomed to tackling “tip of the iceberg” problems such as:

Ø  When an event occurred

Ø  Major figures involved in an event, or

Ø  Solve for x1+n

However, CRAs are meant to get students to think beneath the surface, to think about why things happen, how processes occur, and to develop sound opinions based on evidence.  Below, we look at how two CRAs promote critical thinking.

1.  The Social Studies CRA “Music: A Sign of the Times” asks students to compare Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” to Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”  In the Student Notes pages, the students are not asked to provide the names of the singers or the dates of the songs. Rather, students are asked to do research, develop opinions, and offer evidence of their opinions.  Students are presented with questions like:

Ø  What is the purpose of the one-word statements or phrases in stanzas 2 and 4?

Ø  What is the future paradise?

Ø  What messages, both stated and unstated, does this song convey?

Ø  State the overall purpose of this song. What clues from the text support your conclusion?

These questions can be answered in many different ways.  There are not hard and fast “correct” answers.  Much of a student’s answers will depend on how he or she interprets the words, which will also depend on what was found in the research portion of the project.  What is important is that the student be able to support his or her answers with evidence (more on this in our next blog post!).

As students begin to understand how to look for information and ask questions about a subject, they are really honing their critical thinking skills.  They are encountering more ways to wonder, different perspectives of looking below the water to see the rest of the iceberg.

2.  Students might ask how critical thinking works in math or science, where they might be accustomed to memorizing.  As mathematicians and scientists are all too happy to tell you, of course, most of their jobs involve asking questions rather than reproducing equations or formulae they have memorized.  Although it’s important to have things memorized (check out this article about how it can save lives!), memorization alone is not what makes a critical thinker.

Take for instance, the math CRA, “Secret Identities.”  In this CRA, students are not asked to simply solve a group of problems for which they have memorized a strategy.  Rather, students are presented with sets of equations and asked to figure out the pattern that is common between them.  It begins by providing students these equations:

and asking them to look for a pattern that is true for all three equations.

Unlike traditional learning objectives one might find in a math classroom, the learning objectives for “Secret Identities” are:

  • Determine the strategies needed to solve the problems by interpreting the given information.
  • Solve problems whose solutions involve creating, transforming, and analyzing algebraic expressions and equations.

By focusing more on the process and discovery of pattern recognition, students develop not only the ability to manipulate numbers, but also the skills that will help them recognize and understand other patterns and processes in their environments.


A Word on Scoring Guides

When the CRAfT team sat down to design an assessment method for CRAs, we wanted to make sure that the scoring guide did not just value “tip of the iceberg” knowledge, that students were assessed on more than their ability to memorize content.  After all, we have been trying to stress that content knowledge alone is unlikely to lead to success in college and career (see our blog post about that).

Because there is so much value in the ability to think critically, to wonder about the world, each CRA has its own scoring guide, mapped to the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS).  Included among those standards are these qualities that are assessed in the CRAs:

Ø  Intellectual Curiosity (engages in scholarly inquiry and dialogue)

Ø  Reasoning (considers arguments and conclusions of self and others; supports or modifies claims based on the results of an inquiry)

Ø  Problem Solving and Reasoning (analyzes given information, formulates a plan or strategy, determines a solution, and justifies the solution)

Offering opportunities for assessment of these skills is just as important as offering opportunities to develop them. Without this step of assessment, students will have difficulty understanding the role these skills play in their success.


What Else Can Educators Do to Encourage Critical Thinking?

In addition to using CRAs in your classroom, educators can encourage students to take risks in their thinking by giving students the room to be wrong and to try out new ideas without being punished by grades.  If you’d like to learn more about encouraging critical thinking in your classroom, consider these sites dedicated to critical thinking:

Ø  The University of Texas at Austin: Critical Thinking in the College Classroom

Ø  Brown University: Questions Provoking Critical Thinking

Ø  Critical Thinking Web


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