Developing critical thinking skills for students

Methods for 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.

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

Strategies for critical thinking
Provide clear communication about the assigned task and performance expectations Help students develop an 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 through 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 process

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, a model for students on 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 process

Scaffolding refers to the process of instructors providing, and slowly removing, cognitive support 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 assigned 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:

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 apply processes to new problems. These strategies include:

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 on 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

Summarized from Ambrose, et al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.