Fostering Critical Thinking Skills

There is very broad support in the literature for the need to promote and support critical thinking skills (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005; Green, 2005; Kanuka, 2005; Lunney et al., 2008). This section assesses evidence from research literature to support the ideas that taking deeper approaches to learning tends to lead to the development of critical thinking skills, and that deep approaches to learning should be a specific design goal of learning environments.

Approaches to learning.

According to Biggs et al. (2001), two categories of factors precede learning tasks. First, students will approach learning tasks according to their preferences, abilities, and prior knowledge. Second, teachers will design the learning task in alignment with, for example, the course objectives, style of assessment and/or institutional priorities. These two sets of factors have a role in influencing how a particular student will approach a particular task. Both of these categories of factors influence the students’ actions in relation to the learning task, and it is these actions, or approaches to learning, that determine how well the students attain the learning objectives.

Biggs et al. (2001) refer to this phenomenon as the 3P model of teaching and learning (Figure 5) where student factors and the teaching context influence the process in which students engage during the learning activity and the products of their efforts. The two-headed arrows between each of the elements of the model indicate that each element influences and is influenced by each of the other elements.

Despite the mutual influence among the elements of the model, the most important element in an educational context is the processes in which students engage and the approach that they take to the learning task.

Figure 5. The 3P Model of Teaching and Learning (Biggs et al., 2001, p. 21)

Biggs quotes Shuell (1986, p. 429), who states,

If students are to learn desired outcomes in a reasonably effective manner, then the teacher’s fundamental task is to get students to engage in learning activities that are likely to result in their achieving those outcomes. It is important to remember that what the student does is more important than what the teacher does.

It is critical to note that the 3P model is dependent not only on the student’s predispositions and academic abilities, but it depends also upon the design of the learning activity to encourage students to take deeper approaches to their learning. According to Biggs and Tang (2007), students can take either a surface or a deep approach to a learning task. Students relying on low-level cognitive skills for tasks that require high-level cognitive skills demonstrate a surface approach. Students using a surface approach are more concerned with getting the learning task out of the way quickly to meet the requirements with minimum effort. They memorize isolated facts when an understanding of how ideas are connected is necessary (Ramsden, 1992).

Deep approaches to learning, according to Biggs and Tang (2007), are characterized by the appropriate use of high-level cognitive skills for tasks that require them. Students taking a deep approach seek to understand ideas in context and apply their learning to other concepts. They actively consider their own questions and seek answers related to the idea. In short, students taking a deep approach to their learning are doing the things required of critical thinkers.

To illustrate the differences between the two approaches, imagine that Student A is relatively uninterested in the topic of study and only needs a minimum score to obtain credit for the course, he or she may be more likely to approach a multiple choice assessment very superficially by memorizing facts from the textbook. Conversely, if Student B is highly self-motivated, interested in the topic, and has broad prior knowledge of related topics, he or she may be more likely to take a deep approach to a competency-based portfolio assessment. Interestingly, Biggs et al. (2001) would predict that Student B may also take a surface approach to a learning task if the teacher indicates that the task is relatively unimportant, or if the teacher only uses multiple choice assessments to assess factual knowledge. Biggs et al. are explicit in their belief that student approaches to learning are not fixed or pan-contextual.

Grounded in the idea that the activities in which students engage, or their approach to learning, have the most significant effect on how much they learn (Biggs & Tang, 2007; Marton & Säljö, 1976), Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005) provide a strong rationale for the argument that instructors who want their students to think critically in their discipline of inquiry must be intentional in how they design the interactions in their courses. Using Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s (2000) Community of Inquiry model as their foundation, Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005) used the Study Process Questionnaire (Biggs et al., 2001) to measure how students in four graduate-level courses approached their learning over the duration of the course. They found that course design and teacher presence were critical to encouraging the online learners to take a deep, meaningful approach to learning. There was a profound shift from surface towards deep levels of learning only in the course that was specifically designed to engage students in critical thought. They concluded that in order for deep, meaningful learning to take place, attention must be paid to structuring quality interactions in the design and facilitation of online distance learning environments, rather than simply increasing the quantity of interactions.

Green (2005) examined the factors influencing critical thinking in computer conferencing with a specific focus on health professionals. Her case study focused on the experiences of 10 rehabilitation health professionals who had completed a graduate-level course on reasoning and decision-making. Analyzing data from computer transcripts, interviews, and learner journals, Green concluded that computer conferencing provided students with the opportunities to reflect and increase their understanding, verbalize tacit beliefs, and explore ideas more deeply. She also found that instructors could influence critical thinking through facilitation techniques and purposeful instructional design. Green’s study provides support for the use of computer conferencing through discussion forums as long as the discussion activities are well designed and appropriately facilitated. However, Green’s study did not explore alternative activities, such as study buddies, which can be implemented in contexts that do not support discussion forums. Another limitation of Green’s study is that the course content itself addressed critical thinking, a confounding factor that may have influenced the findings. It is possible that recall of the course subject matter, rather than actual learner skills, provided evidence of critical thought.

Kanuka (2005) investigated the role of various instructional strategies in facilitating higher levels of learning in an online environment involving 19 adult learners enrolled in an online degree program. Five different instructional strategies, (nominal group technique, debate, invited guest, brainstorming and WebQuest) were transferred from face-to-face environments and hosted in the discussion forums of a selected course in the program. All five strategies were specifically designed to facilitate higher levels of learning.

Kanuka used the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982), which classifies student responses into five categories reflecting the complexity of the response. Prestructural responses are simplistic and indicate that the student does not understand the concepts; unistructural responses include one or two relevant facts or ideas about the concept; multi-structural responses include several relevant facts of ideas, but they are not related to each other; relational responses integrate several facts or ideas into a coherent whole; and extended abstract responses are relational responses generalized to other contexts or metacognitively applied back to the original context.
Kanuka found that the five instructional strategies were successful in promoting higher levels of learning but that not all strategies worked equally well. For example, the nominal group technique generated five prestructural or unistructural responses and only seven relational or extended abstract responses, whereas the WebQuest activity generated no prestructural or unistructural responses and 17 relational or extended abstract responses. Kanuka suggested that the nominal group strategy was less successful because it was a more individualistic activity and that it was implemented too early in the course. The WebQuest was successful because it required students to consider multiple views on complex topics. Kanuka did not mention the idea of positive interdependence in her comments, but it seems clear from comments like the following from one of the participants that the activity promoted positive interdependence:

this activity provided the opportunity for collaborative learning contrary to typical online collaborative group work, where one person usually ends up doing all the work. The WebQuest allowed each member to do their part by playing a specific role. (Kanuka, 2005, “Webquest” para. 3).

Limitations of Kanuka’s investigation include acknowledged issues with validity and generalizability and calls for further exploration of different collaborative instructional strategies.

In an article addressing an activity similar to the study buddy activity investigated in this thesis research, Morss and Murray (2001) explored the use of study buddies in the development of academic writing skills, particularly related to output and confidence. They encouraged participants in their writing program to meet with a study buddy every two or three weeks to support each other in writing by discussing their progress, sharing strategies, and giving each other feedback. Participants indicated that the study buddy activity was an important learning experience because it provided a sense of motivation and urgency with respect to deadlines and it also provided an avenue to discuss their work with someone else which improved their revision process. It is also important to note that participants reported that the study buddy should be well structured to prevent off-topic or counterproductive meetings. Morss and Murray concluded that the activity was effective in increasing writing output and also increasing students’ confidence in their writing abilities.

As numerous theorists have pointed out (Brookfield, 1987; Dewey, 1910; Halpern, 1989; Johnson & Johnson, 1999a; Lipman, 1988), the process of getting feedback, considering alternative viewpoints, questioning assumptions, and peer teaching are important critical thinking skills, and those are the skills which are required during activities such as the study buddy.