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Promoting Critical Thinking Skills

Many professors give up on the idea of teaching critical thinking skills in large classes. Some have too much content to cover. Others are overwhelmed be the task given the number of students that sit before them. The professors who do choose to take on this daunting task often resort to modeling critical thinking for their student during lectures in the hopes that a form of cognitive osmosis will occur.

Teaching critical thinking skills is hard enough, assessing these skills is equally difficult. Professors who teach large classes are often forced to rely on multiple choice tests for evaluating their students learning. When critical thinking is an instructional goal, professors are faced with writing test questions that require the students to take what they have learned and apply it to a novel situation. If students are able to do this, it is probably due more to the fact that these students already had critical thinking skills. The one’s that are unable to get these questions right will often resort to accusing the professor of writing “tricky” or unfair questions. What I have just described is an instruction-centered approach to teaching critical thinking skills.

In the next few pages, I hope to convince you that you can teach critical thinking skills in your large enrollment courses and that you can effectively assess your students’ progress. But first, let’s dismiss the idea that you can actually teach critical thinking skills. In a learning-centered classroom, professors create the conditions and opportunities for students to learn how to think critically—conditions and opportunities that allow students to self-assess and self adjust their own cognitive development.

The Perry Scheme

One scheme that I have found particularly useful is called the Perry Scheme (Perry, 1968). In its most simplistic form, William Perry ‘s model has four levels of cognitive ability—dualism, multiplicity, relativism and commitment to relativism.

Dualists think in terms of black and white, right and wrong—an objective truth. These are people who believe that there is only one right answer and they don’t want to be confused by the facts! Students, many of whom are freshman, often come to our classes wanting to know the answers so they can memorize them for the test. They don’t like group discussions because they find them to be a waste of time. After all, the professor is the expert.

Multiplists are just the opposite—they believe that truth is completely subjective. Everyone’s opinion or experience is just as legitimate as anyone else’s. these students will often take issue with grades, “my paper (or answer) is just as good as yours!”

Relativists believe that truth is contextual. What is right or wrong is relative to a particular context or frame of reference. These students are able to evaluate the merits of a particular position based on available data. However, because the circumstances can change at any given moment, this level of thinking is very fluid.

Commitment to relativism is the final stage where individuals are very self-aware and view knowledge as progressive and ever-evolving. Old ways of thinking are replaced by new ones as new information is constantly being compiled, evaluated, and synthesized. I liken this stage to the idea of scientific inquiry and as such, it is very susceptible to the typical critiques by post-modernists, feminists, conflict theorist, etc. The following website summarizes the Perry Scheme and its primary critics http://www.indiana.edu/~l506/theoryframe/506Model.htm

The Perry scheme is particularly useful because it applies to everyone. We are all potentially dualists given the right circumstances. An individual could easily be ‘committed to relativism” in their own discipline but is a dualist when it comes to computers, or cooking. Furthermore, although on the surface, the Perry scheme appears to be hierarchical—especially in the hard sciences, in other disciplines such as math or engineering where there is only one right answer, dualism may be the preferred cognitive style. In other disciplines such as the arts, or the humanities, multiplicity could easily be the preferred cognitive style.

Making Use of the Perry Scheme in the Classroom

  1. Define what critical thinking means in your discipline. What would it look like? What would a student need to be able to do in order to demonstrate that they were thinking critically?
  2. Take a baseline measure at the beginning of the course. This will serve the point to which the final assessment can be compared
  3. Provide students with plenty of classroom activities that will serve as opportunities to both confront poor thinking and practice thinking critically.
  4. Develop an assessment plan that mirrors the classroom activities

I. First and foremost, critical thinking means different things to different people. In workshops I have asked faculty to “free associate” words or phrases that come to mind when they think of critical thinking. Depending on the number of faculty who are present, the list can get rather large and comprehensive. I then ask them to disaggregate those terms or phrases that are particularly relevant to their discipline. For some it is problem-solving. For others, it requires reflecting on one’s assumptions and biases and how these may influence our thinking. For other faculty members, critical thinking requires logic and reasoning. Before we can create activities that promote critical thinking and assessment techniques that will measure it, we must first define it for both ourselves and our students.

II. Much of what I will draw upon in this section comes from an online article by Robert J. Kloss, A Nudge Is Best Helping Students through the Perry Scheme of Intellectual Development.

Once you have determined what critical thinking means in your discipline, conduct a pre-assessment at the beginning of the course to see where your students are in terms of their cognitive abilities. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways:

  • A Minute Paper. Ask your students to write finish the following statement(s): ‘the best class I ever had was…” or, “I learn best when….”. Their answers will often reveal where they are in Perry’s Scheme.
  • Ask you students to create a concept map illustrating what they know about how learning occurs, or under what circumstances they learn best.
  • Project a question for your students to respond to that is designed to expose a misconception about a core principle in your field. Force students to choose from a narrow choice set based on limited information. Students will have to rely on their own cognitive style to answer the question. I have used an audience response technology to facilitate this technique

In large enrollment courses, you will likely find a large number of dualists and multiplists. According to Kloss, small group activities are the best means for “nudging” these two cognitive styles out of their comfort zones. In addition to Kloss’ advice, I would also suggest taking advantage of the following roles: the “benign disruptor” and the “practical skeptic.” Ask at least one student in each small group to play the role of the benign disruptor in order to compel the “dualist” to consider and respect alternative perspectives. In addition, assigning other students the role of the “practical skeptic” will force multiplists to support or refine their arguments.

III. Make sure that you give students plenty of opportunities to self-assess and self-adjust. These small group activities are ideal because they provide students with a “safe” place to practice, receive feedback, and modify their thinking. By conducting these activities during class time, you will also have plenty of opportunities to eavesdrop and monitor your students progress.

IV. Lastly, make sure that your evaluation of critical thinking skills mirrors the activities that you gave them to practice.

The following website has a wealth of resources that can help you explore how you might integrate critical thinking into your course(s):

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Last updated: 11/20/2013
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