What Do You Know?: Assessing Critical Thinking

Here’s what I know for sure about assessing critical thinking: There are several ways to go about it. It sure is tricky though, mostly because critical thinking is not a skill that builds the same way we acquire vocabulary or learn to vault a high bar. It’s a protracted, nonlinear process that takes months, maybe even years, before significant progress can be measured.

I learned that the hard way. When I wrote my dissertation about critical thinking and persuasive writing, I hypothesized that persuasive writing would increase 4th graders’ ability to think critically. Among the data I collected were the results of a pre and post test on the Cornell Critical Thinking Test X that bookended a three-week unit on how to write persuasive essays. My results showed no significance. Duh! Critical thinking needs to be practiced–and practiced a lot over time and across domains–for it to become a habit of mind, a recurring method of inquiry, and a way of calibrating one’s ideas. So, no, three weeks in terms of learning to think critically is not enough time. Ah, live and learn.

So if it takes a long time to acquire those skills, when and how can we reliably measure them? To complicate things, critical thinking skills can differ from field to field. For instance, I may be a very good critical thinker when it comes to linguistic theory but a total bust when it comes to aviation or sociology. Some disagree, saying there are elements of critical thinking that carry over from one task to the next. (See Ennis, 1989, and Halpern, 1998, for thorough discussions about this still unsettled matter.) So should I just test their skill to think critically in math, or can I give them a generalized test that examines if they use those same skills in, say, English literature?

In the end, the question ends up being this: exactly how do we appraise students’ critical thinking and audit their progress? My next few postings will take up those issues with an annotated bibliography of several articles on the topic. (Hint: none of these methods includes multiple choice tests.) Feel free to suggest other articles for analysis.

Ennis, R. (1989). Critical thinking and subject specificity: clarification and needed research. Educational Researcher, 18(3), 4-10.

Halpern, D. (1998). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains. American Psychologist, 53(4), 449-455.


Reflecting on Reflections

If you think about it—and you should—you will agree that reflections are a mighty and indispensible component of critical thinking. That’s because humans don’t learn, or I should say don’t grow our understanding, in a linear manner. Unless we reflect on information presented to us, it becomes like the computer acronym GIGO—Garbage In Garbage Out, which is pretty accurate if you think educating someone is like shoveling coal into a furnace. Information needs to be processed, mulled over, considered, questioned. So reflections, written or oral, offer the brain the breathing space do those complicated maneuvers. Otherwise, listeners are just sophisticated transcribers of information. We’re back to the knowledge-banking concept that Freire talked about.

One useful feature of reflections is that the teacher can build them into any part of the class period. One instructor I observed had students take 5 minutes at the beginning of the class to reflect on what they remembered from the previous class or any questions they had about the material, class, field of study—anything. It serves to engage and focus their attention on that class and shove aside Facebook, arguments with parents, their date last night. Volunteers can share their musings, which offer a good springboard for discussion. Responses can be an ungraded and unobtrusive way to gauge students’ understanding and thinking. It’s also a good idea to just let the students have their own thoughts without voicing them. The same process can be repeated at the end of the class. You could even have them pose their own question that they try to find the answer to on their own. Great fodder for class the next day too.

Recently I had a stimulating discussion with a man who had seen my letter to the editor in the New York Times in response to Harvard’s plans to begin MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, which I believe to be bunk. (See Critical Thinking and MOOCs – A Marriage Made in Hell, posted on June 5, 2014.) We discussed lectures, a fact of life in many university classes. When I said that lectures could also be places for critical thinking, he asked how that could be. After all with a room of 300 people, he reasoned, you can’t just stop and ask students to reflect. Wrong! I said he was thinking of lectures solely as info-dumps, which I roundly condemn in any learning situation. Why couldn’t a lecturer stop, say, every 15 or 20 minutes, whatever seems to be a natural break, and ask audience members to turn to a neighbor and ask a question or request clarification of a hazy or troubling aspect of the lecture so far, or perhaps mention something that is at odds with their beliefs. Giving them guided questions is always good, such as, “What do you think is the strongest argument for immigration I’ve mentioned so far? Turn to your neighbor and see what s/he thinks.”

Reflections are the pause button allowing students to chew, swallow, and digest information instead of merely inhaling an invisible gas. Plus, learning how to think reflectively is a skill they can use for the rest of their lives. Now that’s what I call education.