Helping Students Think Critically (Part Two)

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BruceBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

In the first entry for this series, the following question was considered: why should an instructor care what their students are thinking? The answer to this question was explored from the perspective of cognitive development and the use of critical thinking to enhance the process of learning, which involves an internalized process of self-reflection and self-examination. As students learn to think critically their cognitive ability increases, as they move from lower-order to higher-order thinking. As Dr. Aranoff stated in his comments “more people need to be concerned about critical thinking and rational thought.” In this blog a new question will be asked: how do you help students engage in the process of self-reflection? There will be suggestions provided for encouraging students to develop and utilize critical thinking skills, and potential challenges for facilitation of this process will also be addressed.

Adult learning is enhanced when instructors help students develop critical thinking and critical reflection skills. Critical thinking involves the use of logic and reasoning, while separating facts from opinions. Carol MacNight describes the process as the students’ ability “to examine logical relationships among statements of data, construct arguments, respect diverse perspectives, view phenomena from different points of view, and have the flexibility to recast their thinking when reason leads them to do so.” Critical thinking and reflection are concepts that adults must learn about and then implement through continued practice. The Online Teaching Center indicates that “teaching critical thinking is about helping students discover the answers.” Students can examine beliefs, problems, and issues through class discussions, role playing, real-world examples, and written assignments.

A challenge for instructors facilitating the development of critical thinking skills is that it does not always occur naturally. Students will process information daily based upon their unique perspective, which includes their experience, skills, intelligence, and existing knowledge.  They may experience something that prompts reflective thinking and that could include a job loss, a marriage or divorce, a new career, or anything else that causes examination of their life or recent life events. While these incidents can trigger reflection and introspection it is the ability to think in a critically reflective manner that many students will not be familiar with unless they have been prompted to do so. Instructors that want to encourage the use of critical reflection should understand what the process involves, what tools will be needed, and how to guide the process.

The ability to move from lower-level cognitive thinking to higher-level cognitive thinking requires time, experience, and practice. The process of cognitive development can begin by adding current events, issues, and challenges into the learning activities. The addition of real-life examples may enhance the development of critical thinking skills because students can relate to that information in a meaningful way, which in turn can lead to improved performance. As noted by The Critical Thinking Company staff “deeper analysis produces deeper understanding, resulting in better grades and higher test scores,” and that “critical thinking empowers students to be independent, innovative, and helps them succeed in school and in life.” Students benefit from the process of critical thinking by learning to make informed decisions and develop ideas that are supported with research. Students can utilize logic and reasoning to evaluate assigned problems, search for answers to real-world issues, assess potential solutions, and weigh the credibility of their sources.

Another method of encouraging the development of critical thinking skills is through the use of class discussions. When students are actively participating they have an opportunity to explore their views, beliefs, and knowledge, along with the views and beliefs of others. They can ask questions, receive guidance, and be encouraged to reflect upon the nature of what they believe, as a means of developing higher-order thinking skills. Stephen Brookfield has found that it is important for adults to validate their assumptions and “to do this we also need to consult a wide range of sources – talking to people with experience in the situations in which we find ourselves, reading relevant literature, searching trusted web sites, consulting experts and so on.” Class discussions provide an opportunity for students to talk through their ideas, knowledge, and experiences, while examining their internalized beliefs and opinions.

When adults are encouraged to utilize critical thinking they can become active participants in the learning process because they are interacting with their environment, they are analyzing information and knowledge acquired, and they are developing higher-order cognitive skills. Why should instructors care what their students are thinking? Students that have developed higher-order thinking skills will learn to provide responses that are based upon more than their initial beliefs and opinions. They will learn to approach learning activities from a logical perspective. In addition, students that have developed critical reflection skills are more likely to consider the beliefs, opinions, and views of other students, because they have learned to examine their own belief systems in a rational manner.

Overall, critical thinking and critical reflection are of benefit to students as these methods promote involvement and engagement in all learning activities, from discussions to written assignments. How do you help students engage in the process of self reflection? While critical thinking does not occur naturally at first for many students, instructors can encourage the development of these skills by utilizing activities that require them to examine why they believe what they believe. Then students can be asked to analyze real-world situations, develop new ideas, consider solutions, and search for credible sources. As students reach for higher cognitive levels the ability to think critically becomes easier to use and their overall performance is likely to improve because they are actively engaged in the process of learning.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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