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Critical thinking and the art of asking a good question
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. This week I want to dive into a topic that we can all relate to, regardless of the discipline we work in, both in our roles as teachers and learners, in our professional and personal lives. As we navigate through a huge amount of information on a daily basis, it is very important to apply a critical thinking filter in order to find and process data and make decisions. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to effectively embed critical thinking elements in our courses, both in terms of learning activities and in the context of assessment. I wrote down some ideas and, as usual, curated a set of resources that provide inspiration for designing inquiry-based activities that train students’ critical thinking skills. I hope you find them useful, and I am looking forward to hearing about your experiences. Enjoy the rest of the week!
Critical thinking is a very useful skill in everyday life. For students it is a crucial element of their personal and professional development path. If you give a quick thought to your courses, chances are that critical thinking does feature, either explicitly stated among the learning objectives or as a criterion in your assessments. And like with every skill, the more students practice it, the better they get at it.
Embedding critical thinking in course design
In order to be able to better integrate the practice of critical thinking, think of the following 5 elements which can be used as guidance both in designing activities and in setting up and evaluating assignments:
Identifying/ defining the problem or the issue: this is the starting point for the majority of learning activities, be it individual or group-based, oral or written; a clear and concise “diagnosis” is the first prerequisite to any task, be it the research question of an essay or the problem definition in a Problem-Based Learning exercise;
Proposing own hypothesis/ perspective: based on the problem definition, this is the activity where students formulate the framework for their work; in the case of an essay it could be stating the hypothesis, while in project-based learning this is when students sketch out the overall framework for their project;
Finding and analysing data/ resources: this is essentially a research task: students build up the evidence in support of their hypothesis; as straightforward as it sounds, this stage brings about a few challenges: the students need to be discerning as regards their choice of resources, what they evaluate as relevant and trustworthy; moreover, they need to develop a method to process all the information in an efficient manner and integrate what is relevant in their above mentioned framework;
Integrating other perspectives: a very important aspect of critical thinking is the awareness regarding various existing points of view on any given topic or situation; while having formulated and substantiated 2 their perspective with evidence, the students also need to place it into the “bigger picture” and argue on how it relates with other approaches; here we can talk about other actors in the same process but also, why not, perspectives belonging to other disciplines; making sense of these various connections which are not always obvious is a very good test for a critical mind;
Formulating conclusions and reflecting on implications: last but not least, consolidating on all the above-mentioned points, students should, at this point, be able to eloquently come to a conclusion based on the evidence gathered and analysed, that either confirms or contradicts their initial hypothesis.
In the '“Resources” section you will find a variety of ideas for activities that train and assess students’ critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking and knowledge management in the “post truth” era
With the proliferation of online information sources and bearing in mind the “fake news” and “post truth” debates, the importance of training critical thinking among students becomes more and more apparent. However, this exercise becomes also more challenging, as students are nowadays naturally immersed in a virtual environment that is by definition rich in information and messy and of which they need to learn to make sense in order to operate efficiently.
We often assume our students are proficient in evaluating and managing online information. And more often than not, we are wrong. That is why we need to put online media literacy and knowledge management skills at the heart of the learning process. Here is some food for thought on the topic, including examples of learning activities and resources for developing online media literacy.
How to Train Your Mind to Think Critically and Form Your Own Opinions: a set of useful tips to train yourself on how to think critically and ask the right questions;
5 tips to improve your critical thinking (video): a short (5 min) and concise overview of the main “pillars” of critical thinking; could be very useful to share with students;
10 Great Critical Thinking Activities That Engage Your Students: some useful learning activity ideas to train critical thinking;
The Critical Thinking Workbook. Games and Activities for Developing Critical Thinking Skills: a practical workbook of games and activities helpful in developing critical thinking skills; you can either print off the pages and use them as activity sheets, or you can edit them directly right in the document on your computer;
50 Activities for Developing Critical Thinking Skills: some more activity ideas for quick thinking, creative thinking and analytical thinking;
Helping Students Develop Critical Information Processing Skills: useful tips for encouraging students to work on their information processing skills, especially relevant in the online environment;
How To Ease Students Into Independent Inquiry Projects: some ideas and tips about using inquiry-based learning;
An Updated Guide to Questioning in the Classroom: this is all about why questions are more important than answers and how to train students to ask good questions;
Using Student-Generated Questions to Promote Deeper Thinking: interesting article about how coming up with good questions makes a huge contribution to the learning process;
Comparing the effects of generating questions, testing, and restudying on students' long-term recall in university learning: journal article on role of generating question in the overall learning process in Higher education.
There are many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on this topic; they might serve as a useful complementary sources of information and ideas for your courses. Here are just two examples: